There's a weird void in the public imagination when it comes to the literary tradition of Midwest. While you might be familiar with a New York novel, a Southern Gothic story, and Westerns, the most interesting fiction that has emerged from the expansive center of the nation is somehow displaced. This weekend, the Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library celebrated its grand opening in Indianapolis--prompting me, in a new article for The Daily Beast, to look at thirteen classic and contemporary books that offer a landscape (so to speak) of the extraordinary stories that have come out of the mythic Midwest. Here is the opening of my article:
Last week was a good one for Kurt Vonnegut. A posthumous collection of stories came out—While Mortals Sleep, which includes 16 previously unpublished tales and a foreword by Dave Eggers that describes Vonnegut as the “hippie Mark Twain.” As well, the Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library in downtown Indianapolis celebrated its grand opening in the author’s hometown this past Saturday. Vonnegut’s drawings will be on display, as well as his typewriter, his rejection letters, his Purple Heart medal, and an evocative unopened letter from his father. The library will make its case to the world that the Midwest is an essential part of the legendary writer’s story. Vonnegut (who died in 2007) said as much himself in a 1986 speech: “All my jokes are Indianapolis. All my attitudes are Indianapolis. My adenoids are Indianapolis. If I ever severed myself from Indianapolis, I would be out of business. What people like about me is Indianapolis.”
If you didn’t know that Vonnegut had so much as sneezed in Indiana, let alone was raised there, it’s not surprising. Just as cultural discourse has a tendency to eviscerate the Midwesternness of literary legends of the past, so it does with today’s leading authors. Jonathan Franzen's Freedom is still a top seller and Franzen himself is a perennial contender for “Best American Novelist.” Freedom is set in St. Paul, Minnesota, and Franzen is a native of a St. Louis suburb. But as talked-about, reviewed, and described as Franzen is, his connection to the canon of Midwestern literature remains subdued. The fact is, while writers from other areas of the U.S. are typically discussed in context of their native landscape, writers from the Midwest, strangely, are not—even when their fiction spotlights the region.