My two stints totaling four years as a Hoosier no doubt heightened my awareness to the way the Indiana has become in an iconic symbol. Of what I’ll leave to conjecture. But it is similar to the way Vermont has become synonymous with maple syrup (never mind neighboring New York or New Hampshire and their sweet-sap production) or Maine, with lobster (ignoring the number I’ve devoured from Massachusetts or, for that matter, the tidal waters of my own city).
We could start with Kurt Vonnegut and the way each of his novels somehow slams his native state. Or the Saturday morning TV cartoon, George of the Jungle. Or the poet Clayton Eshelman, and his central collection, Indiana. Or the humorist Jean Shepherd. Or the painter Robert Indiana.
Several factors are at play here. First is location itself. It’s Midwest without being West (Nebraska and Kansas roll off into cattle country) or too far east, unlike Ohio, which is far more industrial. Iowa, meanwhile, is too undefined – too far west for New Yorkers or even Pacific rimmers to understand. Or with Illinois, there’s always the question: do you mean Chicago or downstate? The two halves of Illinois, in fact, are too different. But Indianapolis, somehow, appears as a concentrate of the state
The name itself is a hybrid – artificial. While ostensibly paying homage to the Indians, it is not in any way a real Indian name (consider “Indian” as a bastardization of “Hindu”!) On the other hand, other Midwestern states all carry Native names: Ohio (“Beautiful Land”), Kentucky (“Bloody Land”), Illinois, Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Iowa, Kansas, Nebraska, the Dakotas, Missouri. etc.
While surrounded by industrial cities – Chicago, Detroit/Toledo, Cincinnati, Louisville – the only major city in the state is Indianapolis, which long remained an overgrown cow town. Meaning the capital, yet the first association is the 500 (which occurs in the town of Speedway, not Indianapolis) – what could be more American than the Memorial Day auto race? Its remaining cities – except for “the Region,” which is an industrial extension of Chicago – are smaller, essentially agricultural centers despite the manufacturing.
And then there’s the question, WHICH Indiana? The hilly, wooded south, with all of its pockets and hollows. Or the northern flat glacial planes? Thus: modern farming and farm machinery versus history.
Its history is almost as old as the nation itself – it even had a Revolutionary War battle, followed by Lincoln’s childhood. The state was settled from the Ohio River up. The Wabash, its western border, rises in the state to the east (Ohio) and whips across the plains. Its small towns have Greek Revival masterpieces, while the National Road cut across the state’s midsection. It had a large number of Pennsylvania Dutch farmers (large Amish/Mennonite/Brethren populations), as well as the later, urban Germans. Curiously, the 1850 Census shows a third of the population had born in North Carolina, reflecting the migration of Quaker stock from slaveholding lands. No wonder the state had an active Underground Railroad in the years before the Civil War.
We could even point to literary tradition: Theodore Drieser heading one side. Kenneth Rexroth, relocated west. James Whitcomb Riley. Vonnegut. Ezra Pound taught at Wabash College. Many, many more.
With all of its corn, wheat, soybeans, cattle, dairy cows, chickens – it’s a place of many contradictions, paradoxes – part of the wealth of the symbol.
From John Knoepfle’s “Crossing the Midwest” in Regional Perspectives: An Examination of America’s Literary Heritage, John Gordon Burke (editor), American Library Association, Chicago, 1973:
“The Midwest, fourteen hundred miles between the Alleghenies and the Rockies, nine hundred miles from the Canadian border … to the Oklahoma line … Statements about the Midwest as a region have to be made with caution. Preconceptions about the frontier have to be abandoned. The mind wants to entertain the notion that the farther west the frontier the more primitive the life. But this is not so, and this is why the Midwest is so puzzling. The imagination sees the logging industry as an important element of frontier enterprise, and yet, early as logging was in Minnesota, there were German settlements on the frontier three decades before the origin of tales of Paul Bunyon and the great blue ox, and these communities were enjoying their concerts of Mozart and Bach. And great rafts of hardwood timber were being floated down the Ohio to Cincinnati and Louisville as late as the First World War. … Nor was the movement of the frontier a movement of steady expansion westward. Salem, that village where young Lincoln came of age, place of split rail and chinked cabin on the Illinois prairie, existed side by side in time with the urban commercial and educational center St. Louis ninety miles to the south and west of the Sagamon valley.
“Midwestern cities are like hubs in wheels of space. From St. Louis it is 650 miles to Minneapolis, 295 to Chicago, 230 to Indianapolis, 350 to Cincinnati, 270 to Louisville, 280 to Memphis, 350 to Little Rock, 500 to Oklahoma City, 250 to Kansas City, 450 to Omaha. … the interior cities may be more aware of San Francisco and New York than of one another. But their very distances one from another help them to maintain life styles that are distinct.
“Space and distance are obliterated in the rational myth of the outlaw West. Where is Dodge City? …
“There is little popular awareness of the many religious sects that came into the Middle West and how they took root and developed. And yet the art of a Dahlberge, the theology of a Reinhold Niebuhr, the social comments of a Bly or the Berrigan brothers cannot be fully understood or appreciated without this context.
“The nation’s fables about itself tend to polarize what is often linked by multiple secret and fruitful intimacies.”
Curiously, you cannot point to the Midwest and say, “Here’s its center.” Indiana has come to fill that role, while simultaneously yielding to the energies of Cleveland, Cincinnati, Detroit, Chicago, Milwaukee, Minneapolis … or even the progressive college towns, Oberlin, Ann Arbor, Madison, Iowa City …
Welcome, then, to my fictional town of Daffodil, Indiana, in my latest novel, Daffodil Sunrise.