Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Reading the Mid-West

Reading early twentieth century American literature--Sinclair Lewis for example, or Theodore Dreiser, or F. Scott Fitzgerald, or any number of others--I find myself struck by just how large the Mid-West loomed in the country's imagination in tht period, much more than today.

Of course, those who pay any attention to current events hear about the economic and demographic decline of the Mid-West all the time, but their fiction drives the changed picture home in a way that the general declarations don't.

So do the statistics showing how certain cities became less populous and prominent--and others, more so. A comparison of the U.S. Census Bureau's lists of the biggest cities over time--or even just the top fifteen positions on those lists--tell much of the story.

Chicago, which was the second-biggest city in the U.S. in 1950, fell to the number three spot some time in the '80s, while its population actually shrank by a quarter by 2013. And in that same time frame, Detroit, Cleveland, St. Louis, Pittsburgh and Milwaukee (ranked #5, #7, #8, #12 and #13 in 1950) all got knocked out of the top fifteen entirely. The same happened with the former #15, Buffalo, New York, which, as part of the "Great Lakes Megalopolis," might be regarded as at least marginally associated with them.

By and large, their places on the more recent lists have been filled by the metropolises of the Sun Belt (and in particular, California and Texas). Los Angeles moved up from the #4 spot to #2 (edging Chicago out) in this same period. Houston leaped ten places from #14 to #4. Phoenix, San Antonio, San Diego, Dallas, San Jose, Austin (Texas) and Jacksonville, not one of which made the top fifteen in the 1950 list, occupied the #6, #7, #8, #9, #10, #11 and #13 spots respectively in 2013.

Of course, fiction does reflect the fact. There is no question that Los Angeles came to loom larger and larger in our imaginations as the twentieth century progressed and gave way to the twenty-first (helped by the fact that it is the center of American movie and TV production). Still, to say that someone looking back from the future at the fiction of our time will be as impressed with the presence of the region as a whole in it seems to me something else. (And it seems still less likely that they will get much sense of the deep changes in the Mid-West itself.)

That seems to me less a matter of the changes in life than the changes in what the reputable consider to be "serious" fiction. The social novel, the political novel, the sorts of fiction that a Lewis or Dreiser or Fitzgerald wrote and which provided that sense of a world, have long since been marginalized. A generation ago E.L. Doctorow remarked in a fascinating 1988 exchange with Bill Moyers, "we tend today to be more Miniaturists than we used to be," and a generation on one would be hard-pressed to show this has changed.

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