The rust belt is getting more attention than it’s had in a long time. Since November an entire subgenre of journalism has been dedicated to understanding the people who elected the new president, many with datelines from Michigan or Ohio or Wisconsin.
On the other hand, as Belt Publishing founder Anne Trubek lamented shortly after the election, writing about the midwest isn’t necessarily writing for midwesterners, much less by them. There’s something anthropological, even “colonial,” as Trubek puts it, in stories that purport to explain former steel towns and lakeside diners. And if you happen to be a schoolteacher or sales rep in a blue midwestern city, or black or Muslim or undocumented, it’s unclear how much of this wave of midwestern journalism sees you as a reader or as a subject.
In this context, a slim pair of new books from Belt Publishing takes on greater heft. The independent Cleveland-based publishing house has made covering the rust belt for a rust-belt audience with rust-belt writers its unsung and noble task since 2013. But these releases are an ambitious attempt to cover an entire region, authored by its natives and for them as well. One, Edward McClelland’s How to Speak Midwestern, rescues our regional dialects, demolishing the myth that midwestern speech is accentless; the second, Mark Athitakis’s The New Midwest: A Guide to Contemporary Fiction of the Great Lakes, Great Plains, and Rust Belt, profiles dozens of contemporary novelists from the middle of the country. (Athitakis and McClelland are onetime Reader staffers, as is Martha Bayne, Belt’s senior editor.)
McClelland’s book, in particular, could’ve been a light romp of references to Bears superfans and Fargo characters. At a glance, that seems to be the approach: the latter half of How to Speak Midwestern is an alphabetical glossary of quirky regionalisms. But that format belies the depth that McClelland brings to his study—between entries for “Flintstone” (a person from Flint, Michigan) and “devil strip” (what Akronites call “the grassy area between the sidewalk and the street”), there’s “ruin porn,” a precis on the debate over turning boarded-up homes and dilapidated factories into art and the ethics of looking at what the midwest has, in places, become.
The first, narrative half of the book is even more direct. “An important part of Midwestern identity is believing you don’t have an accent,” McClelland writes on the first page, that “there’s absolutely nothing exotic about Midwestern speech”—because there’s not supposed to be anything exotic about the midwest at all. How did that happen? McClelland writes that in the years after World War II, mass media executives settled on a particular strain of native-born white midwestern English as an all-American compromise between the elitist trans-Atlantic accent (think Katharine Hepburn), the various urban working-class ethnic accents (think Bernie Sanders), and the still-stigmatized southern drawls.
But McClelland argues that this decision sidelined nearly as many voices from the midwest as from the rest of the country. The next three chapters document the various ways that midwestern speech deviates from “midwestern speech” as defined by broadcast television in the 20th century: the Minnesotan tendency to drop prepositions (a legacy of Finnish immigrants); the distorting influence of Chicago via Route 66, which affected the accents of Saint Louis residents; and the gendered roles of some industrial neighborhoods, with housewives saying “them” but their steelworker husbands saying “dem.”
Yet over and over, McClelland will summarize a subregional accent before declaring that its future is dim. In Pittsburgh, a woman tells him, “We don’t say ‘yinz’; our parents say ‘yinz.’ ” In many places, local dialects are more of an in-joke than an everyday reality. When Michigan ran a “Say Yes to Michigan” tourist campaign, Upper Peninsula residents bought bumper stickers that said, “Say Yah to Da U.P., Eh?”
Perhaps it’s no surprise that linguistic distinctiveness depends on social distinctiveness—each way of speaking belongs to a particular way of life, and when that way of life is threatened, so is its speech. Deindustrialization has scattered millions of people and their blue-collar accents to the Sunbelt or college, where McClelland writes that conformity with a more standard middle-class English is rewarded. The end of mass immigration from Scandinavia means each generation of Minnesotans is a generation further removed from the source of their singsongy accent. New waves of immigrants signal that midwestern children growing up today are more likely to pepper their sentences with phrases in Spanish than German or Irish English.
As the title suggests, much of The New Midwest is also concerned with contrasts, but in sometimes counterintuitive ways. “A few years ago I noticed something about my favorite works of contemporary fiction set in the Midwest,” Athitakis writes. “They were all set in the past.” But these settings are a way of grappling with change, he argues, not avoiding it. In particular, contemporary midwestern literature mines “the tension between the region’s old idealism and its present day reality” not by lamenting a long-gone golden age, but by reappraising that “idyllic” past from a modern perspective.
In other words, the region not only no longer resembles its wholesome heartland mythology—it never did. One of the book’s strongest passages considers the domestic, postwar Iowa-set novels of Marilynne Robinson. Interpreted by coastal reviewers as paeans to “goodness, a property Midwesterners like to think of as a regional birthright,” all-American stories “set in the deepest Midwest . . . driven by hope,” Athitakis scratches their surface and finds “novels [about] the Civil Rights Movement, poverty, violence, prostitution, troubled faith, and failure.” He quotes Robinson herself on her novel Home, whose title is not what it might seem: “If you say about a 45-year-old man that he has gone back home, it tends to mean that the world hasn’t worked out.”
Other novels similarly trouble the midwestern idyll, from Celeste Ng’s Everything I Never Told You, about the intersection of boredom, tragedy, and race in 1970s Ohio, to Joshua Ferris‘s Then We Came to the End, which Athitakis interprets as a bleak, white-collar commentary on the famous midwestern work ethic. At times, though, it can seem as if Athitakis’s “new” midwest consists mainly of knocking down old stereotypes. OK, we’re not all simple Nordic farmers—but then what are we?
You might find some kind of answer in Chicago. Long before Trump made the city a go-to reference for the antiheartland, the midwest’s largest city had an often uneasy relationship with the rest of the region, which in turn was, and is, more than a little wary of Chicago as well. Athitakis highlights how novelists have used that tension as a driving force in their stories, presenting the region’s large cities as a more welcoming, cosmopolitan option for those who don’t find room for themselves in the prairie. In Dinaw Mengestu’s All Our Names, for example, a Ugandan refugee resettled in downstate Illinois is tormented by the area’s thinly veiled racism but finds an escape hatch in Chicago.
At the same time, the divide isn’t as sharp as it might seem, as the people seeking relief in the city are often looking for the same things as the small-town residents they leave behind. In Angela Flournoy’s The Turner House, Detroit is a place where black families struggle against redlining and police violence—but it’s also a place where they can stake a claim to their own version of a homestead.
A reader of McClelland’s and Athitakis’s books who’s searching for a common thread of midwesternness might decide that much of it lives in these tensions themselves. As with midwestern literature, the emergence, standardization, and decline of distinctive midwestern ways of speaking tells stories about the competing identities, livelihoods, and attitudes that have defined belonging in the region. The poles of ethnic cosmopolitanism and homogeneity; the longing for an industrial past even as other opportunities (often far from home) beckon; the basic split between the urban and the rural—there’s something particularly midwestern about these conflicts.
In interviews, Trubek has said that one of her chief difficulties has been tapping into some sense of regional solidarity: getting, say, Clevelanders to care about what happens in Detroit, and vice versa. That means these two books are seeking to create an audience, not just find one. And they’re making an argument many midwestern readers might be skeptical of: that we’re part of a coherent region at all. That our fates are somehow connected, even if our ideals are not. v