What the Midwest Might Yet Be: A Review of Midwest Futures

The questions of what the Midwest is and who Midwesterners are have long been a subject of great debate with unsatisfactory answers. Now, in his new book Midwest Futures, Phil Christman offers his own answer—not by describing or defining, but by identifying the forces that have long shaped America’s heartland. Cover graphic by Whitney Baxter for Midstory.

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Middle America. The Rust Belt. The Corn Belt. Flyover Country. The Heartland. It goes by many names, but“[t]his is the way the Midwest exists in the American mind: massively there, constantly eluding our grasp,” writes Phil Christman in his new book, Midwest Futures (2020, Belt Publishing).

This undeniable presence holds particularly true as the Midwest has made the news for pretty much every major crisis in 2020: Black Lives Matter protests broke out from the Minnesota killing of George Floyd, anti-mask and anti-lockdown protests (armed, no less) swarmed the Michigan statehouse and the post-mortem from the 2016 presidential election (and its lasting effects for the 2020 race) left national media glued to the Midwest’s politics. 

While Christman probably couldn’t have predicted the landslide of crises that would turn out to be 2020, he does an almost-presciently good job of explaining how and why we see the modern “Midwest.” As elusive as the region’s identity remains, Christman manages to grasp and explore some of these fundamental forces that have shaped the Midwest we know today. Rather than some geographic or demographic answer to what constitutes the American Midwest, Christman’s ideas of the region as a source of economic value, as a beacon of normalcy and as a past and future frontier manage to capture a more nuanced portrayal of the Midwest. 

Image courtesy of Belt Publishing.

In fact, the identity-shaping forces he wrote about before the book’s April release have only become easier to see in the time since then. As the country stumbles through ever-growing crises, Christman’s book taps into a broader conversation about the future of the country—of how it’s shaped and who is shaping it—and in doing so, offers an extraordinarily insightful, potential path forward for the Midwest.

If you’re from the Midwest, you’ll find that the book’s cover displays a very familiar, orderly scene—one setting the structure of the book itself. Organized into “six rows containing six prose ‘plats,’ each approximately 1,000 words long,” the book follows the “six-by-six square-mile grids” that were first used to survey Ohio and later much of the American interior. Christman devotes some of the first “plats” to the question of how people define the Midwest, but he doesn’t offer an answer so much as point out that there really aren’t many clear answers to the question at all.

Christman points out that the land itself doesn’t help answer the question since the Midwest “is a conceptual magpie’s nest, made from scraps of everything” instead of being identified with any singular geographic feature. He also highlights the trouble Midwesterners have in describing their home, often resorting to contradictory expressions of the place—the Midwest simultaneously being nowhere and like anywhere else. And it’s from this absence of answers that Christman begins to draw his conclusions about the region.

One of the very first ideas Christman introduces is of the Midwest as a literal fund, starting with its land being sold by a young United States to settle its large debt following the Revolutionary War. In fact, Christman demonstrates how, since then, the Midwest has only ever been treated as a fund from which to extract value by outsiders instead of a place for living or meaningful investment.

For example, turning to the region’s cultural offerings, Christman describes how reporters are often surprised by “the cheapness—and, it seems, the mere presence—of good orchestras and museums in interior cities.” He then adds, “[T]his lingering sense of hidden riches, of a cultural vitality not yet fully exploited or appreciated, brings to mind again that feeling that the Midwest is a thing appraised from elsewhere, a fund externally managed.” 

Later in the book, Christman writes about this attitude towards the Midwest within the context of the region’s industrial decline. In a brief story of the negative effects of businesses treating the Midwest simply as a resource to be used for only as long as it’s lucrative, Christman recounts how the refinery in his hometown of Alma, Mich. closed as a result of some spreadsheet’s economic analysis. In the process, the company abdicated any role in the region’s future but “left the town groundwater pollution that will take decades to fix.”

The Midwest’s economic decline after the loss of manufacturing and other industries is often portrayed within a somewhat narrow context of recent globalization and anti-union animus. But Christman contextualizes this recent economic downturn within a broader history of treating the Midwest as a resource to be exploited, emphasizing that any new and sustainable growth will require more than changes to trade agreements or re-unionization. Rather, the critical shift the Midwest must undergo is from a fund for outsiders to a place to live.

The idea of the fund is one way Christman defines the Midwest, but an equally important way is through the region’s relationship with normalcy. Christman writes, “Midwestern literature—and literature written by non-Midwesterners about the region—has long played with tropes of normality, averageness, unpretentiousness.” At first glance, these tropes make the Midwest seem inconsequential—a home to the insignificant. Christman argues, however, that Midwestern normalcy is actually a powerful force that distinguishes the region.

“Midwestern averageness, whatever form it may take, has consequences for the entire world; what we make here sets the world’s template. And to innovate is to standardize; the new becomes the new normal and then just normal,” writes Christman. He draws this conclusion by joining the ideas of the Midwest’s long-standing characterization as “the most American part of America” and of  “the United States [having] always understood itself, however self-flatteringly, as an experiment on behalf of humanity.”

This view of Midwestern normalcy is a striking inversion of how it tends to be portrayed. Instead of normalcy as a reason for irrelevance, Christman makes the case that it’s a formidable charge for the region. To set standards is an incredible power, and to have this power within a country that has long set standards for the world—whether good or bad—places a great faith in and responsibility on the Midwest. 

It’s this powerful normalcy that gives the Midwest its outsized presence in the American consciousness. But when something is so powerful and influential, it can also easily turn ugly; as Christman writes, “A too-strong belief in one’s own normalcy becomes precisely a belief in one’s superiority. Normalness becomes a fetish, a performance, or a product.” This is an exclusionary use of normalcy that has recently been pervasive throughout politics, particularly in what Christman describes as Donald Trump’s exploitation of the notion “of ‘a ‘real’ America menaced by ethnic minorities and elite enemies.’”

Christman, however, doesn’t treat this exploitation of Midwestern normalcy as a surprising development. To Christman, this ugly version of the Midwest’s normalcy isn’t an exception. Rather, the region’s racism has long coexisted with its averageness. Christman writes:

“And this is the unbearable truth of the Midwest, of America. The picture-perfect city where neighbors pitch in during a storm and the sundown town are the same place. […] One does not disprove the other. One is not the underbelly of the other. One will not finally triumph over the other. We have to reckon with both simultaneously; or we must admit to being both simultaneously.”

Christman’s integration of Midwestern normalcy and racism is perhaps the most intensely prescient message of the book, as some passages land a lot differently now than how they may have when they were originally written—or even as recently as when the book was released in early April. In fact, reading this collection of essays leaves a chilling effect, a sense that the forces Christman explores have  long and quietly been barreling in tandem towards the many crises that have boiled over this year. 

Describing how, with regard to racism, the Midwest is full of “compromise locations, halfway to acceptable,” Christman writes that “Michigan’s prison system is as racist, Minneapolis’s police department as brutal, as anywhere in the country.” A couple pages later he writes, “The Minneapolis that welcomes immigrants and the Minneapolis that allows its police to beat the poor are the same place.” In the wake of George Floyd’s death at the hands of Minneapolis police, these are passages that express an urgent need to reckon with the coexistence of normalcy and racism in the Midwest. 

Framing Christman’s exploration of both the Midwest as a fund and the region’s normalcy is the idea of the region as a past and future frontier. Of course, in the early years of the United States, the Midwest was the literal edge of the country. Westward expansion, however, soon left the region as “a kind of abandoned frontier.” And from this lost status, the Midwest seems to have become a place where “almost” is a defining characteristic—a place that almost was but never fully came to be; the Midwest was the new thing only to find itself the old-new thing when other, newer territories were acquired. According to Christman, this is what “might help explain the sense of disappointment that grips so many of us here, the nostalgia for a moment that we can’t quite pinpoint.”

In many ways, the persistent ambiguity of the Midwest’s status and identity serves as an open stage for the forces Christman identifies as being at work in the region. With regards to the Midwest as a fund, the region’s status as a frontier offered a vast, untapped resource waiting to be used. This perspective was true for the settlers, at least, whom Christman shows to have had little regard for how the Indigenous peoples lived upon the land. With regards to the Midwest’s normalcy, Christman turns to American historian Frederick Jackson Turner and British journalist David Graham Hutton: 

“For Tuner, the Midwest has served as the place where America’s present met and somewhat civilized its future; for Hutton, the Midwest plays that role not only for a country, but for the entire human species,” writes Christman.

These differing relationships the Midwest has with its status as a frontier set up an intriguing tension. Externally, the Midwest serves as a frontier for the country—possibly even the world—in (re)defining civilization. Internally, however, the Midwest seems to be mired in the sense of a lost future. This conflict is valuable in its demonstration of how dependent the Midwestern identity is on outside actors. In fact, Christman might not explicitly spell it out in any one sentence, but a thought pervasive throughout the book seems to be that the Midwest is not an actual region yet. Few people know how to fully describe it, much less adequately define it; there are few features held in common throughout the Midwest. Rather, the few identifiable and unifying characteristics of this place in the middle of the country seem to be the social and political forces—often external—at work in this part of the country.

This lack of definition might be frustrating if the book and Christman weren’t so future-facing. Returning to the idea of the Midwest as a frontier, the ambiguity then allows Christman to more freely posit some ideas—or at least some values—for the Midwest as it heads further into the twenty-first century. 

“I almost want to propose that we think of [the Midwest] as a moral frontier: that we transfer the energy, the excitement, that has traditionally surrounded the idea of the frontier (at least for white people) to the project of living generously, peaceably, and inclusively with our neighbors, old and new, human, animal, and plant. That we apply the idea of going beyond the limits of our current moral and political maps to the project of living decently within our physical limits—without throwing anyone else away,” Christman writes.

Christman acknowledges that deeming a frontier mindset as morally right is somewhat ironic considering the violence and oppression against Indigenous peoples associated with the historical American frontier. Still, he compares doing so to “a pacifist proposing war upon war” itself. As idealistic such a proposition may be, it remains one worth heavily considering. 

At a time when various societal structures are being called into question by protesters and politicians alike and the future remains uncertain as a pandemic, an economic crisis, social unrest and climate change ravage the country, reading through Christman’s efforts to critically examine the forces that have shaped the Midwest is quite satisfying—at times even meditative. Reading Christman’s Midwest Futures is, at its core, a productive exercise in challenging the world as it has been—and as it is—and imagining the world as it could be. 

With every month since its release, Midwest Futures has only become more relevant. In the midst of so much crisis, Christman’s exploration of forces at work—rather than another tired descriptor or diagnosis—provides a better way of understanding the Midwest, offering perspective on a longer history of influences that persist to this day in lieu of a limited and restrictive definition. This view also allows for agency; Christman ends his book with a call to action because the forces that have long shaped the Midwest aren’t unstoppable or unchangeable. 

If anything, what makes Midwest Futures such a compelling book is that it not only identifies the forces shaping the Midwest, but also begins to show how they can be reinvented to build a better future. The Midwest has been left suffering and unsure of itself in recent decades, but if a stronger Midwest future can indeed be built by identifying and tackling the roots of the struggle, then the Midwest’s potential to reassert itself as the frontier for the country—possibly even the world—seems just that much more realistic, and just that much more exciting, within a nation searching for a path toward a collective future.

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