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Restoration of the Village

by James Matthew Wilson

From Warm Center to Ragged Edge: The Erosion of Midwestern Literary and Historical Regionalism, 1920–1965, by Jon K. Lauck (Iowa, 266 pp., $27.50)

When Sherwood Anderson published Winesburg, Ohio in 1919, critics recognized it as one of the first great works of modern fiction but above all as a rejection and “debunking” of the “smug provincialism,” the complacent Christianity, and the pinched morality of the American Midwest. That region’s appearance of quaint virtue, Anderson was said to have shown, masked lives of secret infidelity and quiet desperation. Along with works by Sinclair Lewis, Edgar Lee Masters, and F. Scott Fitzgerald, Anderson exemplified what the New York literary critic Carl Van Doren would call “the revolt from the village.” Genuine cultural achievement remained a monopoly of the East: If Pulitzer prizes consistently went to midwestern authors (nine of eleven between 1918 and 1929), well, the writers found their material only in attacking the region.

Scorn for the Midwest was not what I found in Anderson. As a college student and apprentice story writer in southern Michigan in the late ’90s, I spent long hours in an empty hotel kitchen, where I worked nights, reading Anderson’s vignettes. Between preparing meals for room service, I peered into his book and found the very expression of the part of the world I loved and a model for how I could chronicle its life nearly a century later.

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