When Robert James Russell, a Michigander, went to England to study American Modernism, he found that in the curriculum “there was kind of a big hole in American literature when it came to the Midwest.”

Gatsby’s extravaganzas took place in New York, George and Lennie worked on a California ranch in “Of Mice and Men,” and Atticus Finch tackled injustices in Maycomb, AL in the American classic “To Kill A Mockingbird.” And while there are certainly monumental works of literature set in the Midwest — Willa Cather’s “My Antonia” comes to mind, for one — Russell “noticed [that] there wasn’t a big Midwest push for regionalist literature in the mid-20th century the way there was for Southern literature and West Coast lit,” and thus much of it has been overlooked.

In 2010, he and his college friend Jeff Pfaller came up with the idea to launch a literary magazine that would “capture the comprehensive voice of the Midwest” for contemporary writers and readers. Russell wanted to dispel the sentiment that the Midwest is nothing but flyover country, and highlight the vast identities and diversity throughout the communities across the region. They named the magazine “Midwestern Gothic” and launched their first issue in the winter of 2011. They sought both new and established writers, creating a space in the publishing world for a variety of underrepresented authors. 

“I’m very proud of how many new writers we published,” Russell said. “That was also a really big point of ours — that we wanted to make sure that we were publishing just as many first-timers as old pros.” 

The literary magazine soon garnered an excess of submissions, and “Midwestern Gothic” became an online harbor for the voices and stories of a diverse community of authors. The founders expanded their company into an independent book publisher known as MG Press and took on a few titles a year. 

“Midwestern Gothic” closed its presses in 2021, but Russell and Pfaller’s publishing endeavors weren’t the only ones in recent years looking to fortify a Midwestern-centric literary scene. In fact, their efforts foreshadowed a number of Midwest-centric or Midwest-based presses, publications and journals that would pop up in the 2010s until today.

Organizations like Belt Publishing, an independent press founded in 2013 in Cleveland, Cleveland Review of Books, a literary review that began publication in 2018, and Of Rust and Glass, an online multimedia publication started in 2020 in Toledo, all intend to fill a gap in the literary world. 

As publishing companies across the region work to publish more contemporary Midwestern literature and criticism, they are defining what “authentic Midwestern literature” means for a new generation.

“There’s a lot of connecting factors in the Midwest: this sort of humbleness in writing, not necessarily making ourselves the star, quiet, contemplative,” Russell said. “We find that Midwestern literature is often less about plot and more about the characterization in these quiet moments. There’s a lot of tenacity in Midwestern literature.”

He also noted the brutal winters and extreme weather conditions of places like Minnesota or Wisconsin often evoke a deep physical and emotional connection to nature. And while it may be a cliché to characterize the Midwest by its cornfields, Russell believes that there is inspiration to be found in long stretches of land and unending fields of crops.

Russell has seen misconceptions about his beloved region in literature, especially in the broad, sweeping brush strokes some works use to paint the Midwest when, in reality, there are a multitude of socially and culturally diverse communities there. He finds that the other regions of the nation underestimate the level of awareness Midwesterners have of the world around them, and often write characters that rely on stereotypes. 

In his time editing and publishing his magazine’s submissions, Russell encountered writers that grew up in the metropolis of Chicago, as well as people who grew up on farms in the middle of nowhere. Though unified by regional identities, the authors highlighted in the magazine came to represent the many cultures and communities included in the wide-ranging Midwestern territory. 

“Seeing that incredible spectrum of human existence, I think, really shook a lot of people who were not familiar with what actually happens here,” he said. “It’s not just a ‘one-size-fits-all’ Midwestern experience. It’s a large, large, large section of the country with a lot of diversity and depth.”

For Russell, authenticity can be measured by real-life experience in the Midwest, something he encourages authors to cultivate. He believes that road trips across the different states in the region are the best way to experience the different environments and be able to represent them with accuracy. 

“There is so much to see here. You inevitably will eat at diners, you will inevitably see these vast tracts of land covered in farms or grazing cattle,” he said. Russell also encourages exploring roadside attractions and local Midwestern bookstores, or “beacons of local knowledge” as he calls them, in order to get a true sense of the literary scene.

While it may no longer be through their own publication or press — and while other organizations continue the efforts —  Russell and Pfaller hope to continue to inspire those in the literary field to see that the Midwest is anything but “flyover” material for their creative endeavors. Their greatest goal, Russell said, was to “tell a story about this place that we both grew up [in] and loved very very much.”

Julia Conti contributed to this article.


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