The American Midwest: An Interpretive Encyclopedia

2008                    2007                    2006

The Columbus Dispatch
Sunday December 10, 2006

Tome takes heart in America’s heartland
      At almost 10 pounds, The American Midwest would be a dangerous book to drop on an unshod foot.
      Six years in the making, and subtitled An Interpretive Encyclopedia, the 1,890-page, $75 volume has about 1.5 million words, more than twice as many as the King James version of the Bible.
      “We wanted the book to be as monumental as the Midwest is important,” said Christian Zacher, who rode herd on the project and its 700 contributors.  “We were told that if we had 10 more pages, it wouldn’t have fit together in one volume.”
      Zacher, professor of English at Ohio State University and director of its Institute for Collaborative Research and Public Humanities, finds analogy for the work in the birthing of elephants, though his praise for its multifaceted presentation suggests it to be more the work of diamond-cutting.
      Eclectic works are akin to a bowl of mixed nuts.  The American Midwest is a 55-gallon drum filled with Planters Deluxe.
      “Go read the entry on African-American summer resorts,” Zacher suggested.  “Or read the essay on Scott Joplin.  Read about Iowa girls’ basketball, or look at a first-time map of all of Frank Lloyd Wright’s buildings throughout the Midwest, including the only gas station he ever designed.”
      The writers of the book’s essays, portraits of the Midwest states, include Kurt Vonnegut Jr., who offers a rambunctious salute to Indiana, and the late R.W. “Johnny” Apple Jr., who wrote an engaging piece on Ohio.
      Zacher and co-editor Richard Sisson seem to agree that the Midwest’s regional identity or sense of place is profoundly different from that of other regions of the U.S.
      New England is solidly identified with the republic’s nativity and the individuality of its residents.  The South takes its identity from the Confederacy, climate and the collision of propriety with decadence.  The hallmark of the American West is a defiant independence.
      “The Midwest’s is a late-19th, 20th century identity,” said Sisson, former OSU provost and professor emeritus.
      Zacher said of the Midwest, “What other regions might see as a kind of blandness is really an absence of exaggerated self-congratulation and smugness.  There is a Midwestern openness and cooperativeness.”
      That cooperativeness, he said, was one of the most important qualities when it came to settling an unbroken land and surviving the withering aprice of subsistence agriculture in the 19th century.
      “We were educated farmers,” Sisson said, addressing both his personal roots in Gallia County and those of Midwesterners in general, “pastoralists with a sense of groundedness in the land.  Things of value are things you create.”
      The American Midwest offers evidence of the remarkable capacity of this region’s people for both critical introspection and reinvention.  Witness the region’s vital role in the labor movement.  Consider Eugene V. Debs’ legacy.
      “It happens first in Kansas,” wrote the Sunflower State’s most famous newspaper editor, William Allen White.  “Abolition, prohibition, populism ... these things came popping out of Kansas like bats out of hell.”
      A month before his death, poet David Citino, perhaps wrestling with who we are to the rest of the nation, observed in the poem that opens The American Midwest: “This country’s middle ear is her balance.”
Mike Harden