There’s something a little bit strange about Midwestern literature — no one seems to have much of a handle on it. Any avid reader can easily rattle off a host of Great Southern Writers, books about New York, and their favorite Westerns, but no one really talks about America’s heartland as having its own literary tradition. However, with Patrick Somerville’s newest novel This Bright River , a gorgeous, stirring novel set in St. Helens, Wisconsin, hitting the shelves this week, we thought we’d take a look into some of the best literature of the flyover states, at least in our own humble opinion. Click through to check out our list, and let us know which Midwestern books you’d add in the comments.
Winesburg, Ohio , Sherwood Anderson
Anderson’s classic story cycle has been cited by pretty much everyone as an influence — Hemingway, Steinbeck, Faulkner, Bradbury, Welty — and for good reason. The stories, set in the fictional small town of Winesburg (based on Anderson’s own hometown of Clyde, Ohio), center around George Willard, who slowly grows from childhood to independence as a cast of wonderful characters swirl around him.
The Jungle , Upton Sinclair
This novel isn’t just an important Midwestern novel, but it’s an Important Novel all-around, seeing as it was one of the catalysts for the overhaul of the American meatpacking industry and its accompanying working conditions — Jack London even called the book “the Uncle Tom’s Cabin of wage slavery.” Indeed, the novel is a terrifying look at Chicago during the turn of the century, incisively and harshly told with Sinclair’s journalist eye.
Other People We Married , Emma Straub
Emma Straub’s recent collection is filled with exactly the sort of stories you expect to be set in the Midwest — graceful, tenderhearted and incredibly insightful, with a razor sharp edge. There’s even one story — one of the best in the collection — called “Fly-Over State.” So, ha!
Middlesex , Jeffrey Eugenides
Everyone knows Middlesex as the story of a hermaphroditic teenager, but to us, it’s just as much about Detroit and the seclusion of the suburbs as it is about Cal. Indeed, at the time of its release, the Detroit Free Press gushed, “at last Detroit has its novel. What Dublin got from James Joyce — a sprawling, ambitious, loving, exasperated and playful chronicle of all its good and bad parts — Detroit has from native son Eugenides in these 500 pages.” We must say that we agree.
The Song of the Lark , Willa Cather
In the 1890s, Thea Kronborg moves from Moonstone, a tiny fictional town located in Colorado, to the big city — Chicago — dreaming of becoming a trained pianist. When she gets there, she finds out that her true gift may be something else entirely. Ah, the American Dream!
The Devil All the Time , Donald Ray Pollock
At times, Pollock’s violent, lucid first novel seems a little bit more like a Western novel, or even a Southern Gothic tale, than a Midwestern one — but no, the bloody drama is smeared through West Virginia and southern Ohio, much of it in the same Ohio town that Pollock grew up in. It’s certainly a dark view of the flyover states — but every regional literature has its dark side. This is it.
Gilead , Marilynne Robinson
Robinson’s 2004 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel is presented as the autobiography of an aging pastor in Gilead, Iowa, writing his life story for a son he knows he will never see grow up. Slow, moving and frankly beautiful, the novel has both feet firmly on the Midwestern soil it was born from, and both eyes keen on the heavens.
Stoner , John Williams
This may be the quintessential Midwestern novel, at least in terms of the American cultural consciousness. The eponymous William Stoner is an unremarkable man, a farm boy who becomes an English professor at a rather undistinguished Midwestern university, unable to reach the academic heights he wishes, unable to connect with his wife, and the novel renders his quiet failure so beautifully that any reader is inevitably moved by its depth. It is a novel that redeems the everyman — that makes even a small, unimportant life seem beautifully poignant.
Freedom , Jonathan Franzen
Love him or hate him, Franzen is a Midwestern boy who turns out family-based tales of life in the middle states — Freedom focuses on Walter and Patty’s life in St. Paul, Minnesota, and their son’s parallel experience at the University of Virginia. And in case you hadn’t heard, people seem to like it.
Love Medicine , Louise Erdrich
The characters in Erdrich’s wonderful first novel may not be the people you first think of when you think of the American Midwest, but they’re Midwesterners all the same: a group of Chippewa Indians living on a reservation in North Dakota. Erdrich follows the clan through 60 years of life in a loose collection of chapters, each narrated by a different person, weaving together a tale tied to a struggling but genuine cultural identity.