Once Upon a Midwest: Borders

Wednesday, June 19, 2019 - 12:07pm

There are 480 million acres of Midwest, filled with 68 million unique human beings. Hundreds of rivers and lakes amble through plains and forests. No one Midwestern state is quite like the other. For that reason, it can be difficult to understand the Midwest as truly one territory. Were there a library to mythologize the Midwest, the images and ideas of what we are and want to be might astonish you. This series wanders through the stories and imagery, the myths and legends, woven into the fabric of our identities.

My Papaw was the only cowboy I’ve ever known. He may not have herded cattle, but he was more honest and kind than John Wayne could’ve ever attempted to be. His closet was filled with plaid shirts and his voice was deep and warm. He appeared on earth in 1947 in Jellico, Tennessee, and left it three years ago in Detroit. As the youngest of nine, he and his family wandered northward in 1953, but they didn’t manage to leave the South behind. His gravelly drawl, phrases and mannerisms impressed a kind of far away, old-fashioned comfort.

I often wonder how far away that Southern sensation really is. It’s often complained that the Midwest is neither mid nor west. As far as I can discern, it’s mostly north, but not particularly east. Some of its states are landlocked; others are nurtured by freshwater coastlines. There is even uncertainty about where it begins and ends. Sometimes I also wonder how a boy from rural Tennessee would have felt moving into the rusty heart of industrial Michigan.

Since coming to accept Papaw was only a half-tamed country boy — subdued only by societal necessities — I have come to know many people who are from the South, have family in the South or have moved to the South. Suddenly, the Southern United States becomes an idea, a perhaps, a what if. It’s “To Kill a Mockingbird” and “Huckleberry Finn” and “O Brother, Where Art Thou.” The South is encapsulated in its heat and sweat and pleasantries and drawl.

It’s hard to know what you are if you don’t know what you aren’t. It’s hard to know where you begin if you don’t know where you end. Where does the Midwest begin and the South end? Where do our similarities end and our distinctiveness come into clarity? The Southern identity seems to be mixed up in every possible way with General Robert E. Lee’s surrender at Appomattox Courthouse, where familial generations are infused with bitterness at the Confederate surrender, perhaps lending to the development of passive-aggressive hospitality. Maybe you would say Kentucky is the northernmost Southern state. Those in Tennessee would disagree, as Kentucky didn’t fight in the Confederacy, and therefore are not allowed to share in the inherited bitterness of the South. Yet, not but five miles south of Columbus, Ohio, it’s all southern accents from there on. But Ohio’s definitely a Midwestern state.

Indiana is allegedly a Great Lakes state, saved from being landlocked in the middle of nothing by 45 miles of Lake Michigan coastline. But southern Indiana is all South — in geography, dialect and habit. Missouri is another state deemed to be Midwestern, but is perhaps Southern in desire. Officially, they declared themselves neutral in the Civil War, but their governor was very much in favor of seceding from the Union. They are in good company with Kentucky, despite the latter being considered a “Southern” state.

You may think it a breach of trust to speak of the South. We in Michigan, Wisconsin and Minnesota may point to a map and proclaim that we are clearly part of the North, clearly Midwestern. Certainly, the South would not have us. But for other Midwestern states, the divide is not as clear. It’s muddy and uncertain, and it’s hard to know a place if you can’t definitively say where or what it is. If a Great Lakes state also belongs — at least in part — to Dixie, it’s worth questioning what your borders are, where you begin and end, before you can really understand what you are.

On the way down to LaFollette, Tennessee — where Papaw would haul his wife and four kids on weekends — he’d cross U.S. Route 40, which stretches from the east coast to Silver Summit, Utah, across southern Ohio, Indiana and Illinois. Maybe this is the border between the North and South. Maybe this is where we can begin to understand a place whose name does not accurately describe its own geographical location. Sometimes it’s valuable to have a border, to be distinct and purposeful and definite. There is something more to this, more to us, that makes us more than plains or lakes or rusty cities. We are cowboys and wanderers and workers, together.