Hayseeds and Bumpkins

What makes the Midwest the Midwest? This country is getting so homogenized that it’s difficult to differentiate between Farmington, MO and Framingham, MA. I looked to the animal world, hoping to find some defining creature there. Fireflies maybe, because if you’ve ever driven the Midwest countryside on a June evening you’ll see zillions of them in the fields, blinking in bug Morse Code. But then I learned that fireflies or lightning bugs are not peculiar to the Midwest, though we do have a mess of them.

Well then, maybe the answer lies in geography; the Midwest must have formal boundaries. States my Columbia Encyclopedia, “the Middle West or Midwest is a section about the Great Lakes and the Upper Mississippi Valley. A vague regional term, it has been by some applied to all the northern section of the land between the Alleghenies and the Rockies.” That is far too broad a definition. You can’t call the Dakotas Midwestern, even Kansas is in question. These are the Plains States, but rather than upset some Kansas farmer who may call and chide What the Sam Hill do you mean we’re not in the Midwest, we’ve got more corn than any of ’em! let us say the Midwest is not so much defined by geographic boundaries as it is by a collective state of mind.

If you’re feeling sort of folksy or down-homey you may be in the Midwest. But then again you may’ve just been watching re-runs of The Waltons. If you find yourself fretting over delays in Spring planting or a sudden unexplained downturn in the price of pork bellies, you may be a Midwesterner. Ah, but then you could be a commodities broker on Wall Street. So … we scotch the state of mind theory and go with something like, oh, behavioral traits.

Define a region by the characteristics of its people? Heck, why not? An impromptu poll of female shoppers, 21 to 43 years of age, conducted at the Bunny Bread Bakery Outlet in Festus, MO revealed that Midwesterners prefer eating their fruit in the morning, respect thunderstorms, and have more nostril hair per cubic centimeter than folks from any other region. Respondees further expressed a decided preference for the term “Midwest” over the alternative “Heartland,” the chief explanation being that Heartland was somehow “too poetic” and anyway, Heartland is already a breakfast cereal.

A wholesome, earthy sense of humor also marks the Midwesterner. Colorful phrases like “cowpie,” “double-seater” and “educated fool” always evoke a snicker. Even the names of farm machinery cause jocularity. The signs on the restroom doors in a Millstadt tavern gave a turn not long ago: Allis Chalmers for gals; John Deere for guys. A New Yorker wouldn’t get that. Of course there are two Midwests. There is the urbane Midwest of cities such as St. Louis, Indianapolis and Cincinnati. Humor in these places is similar to that of every other big city in America, a hodgepodge of banter that filters in from everywhere. Then there is the real Midwest of everything in between. The hinterland. A region that looks stunning from the window seat of a jetliner, where a traffic jam is ten cars waiting to pass a tractor, where even though you’re not a celebrity the mayor knows your name. Regarding humor in the hinterland, there’s some crossover but generally you’re not likely to hear the same jokes at the Ritz Carlton in Clayton as you would at the feed store in Booneville.

For instance: What did the pitchfork say to the bale of hay? Hey baby, I’m really stuck on you. Unfortunately, we Midwesterners are sometimes pegged as hayseeds and bumpkins just because we toss horseshoes at picnics, and prefer beer and brats over nouvelle cuisine. Au contraire, mon frere. We are worldly as all get out. We’ve heard of phone sex, arbitrage and secular humanism. Fine and dandy, we think, but if we don’t get a move on we’ll miss the start of the tractor pull. In fact, Midwesterners are so cosmopolitan that we name our towns after famous world cities. There’s Glasgow, Brussels, Cairo, Athens and Venice not far away in Illinois. Missouri has Versailles, Innsbruck, Belgrade, Vichy and Caledonia. Why go to Europe when it’s all here in our own backyard?

Finally, the Midwestern character is ultimately practical, an attribute that is two parts sensible and one part muleheadedness. Consider: Most of us have our cars “winterized” before the first snowfall, and we know which corner of the cellar to cower during a tornado. We’re so practical that we don’t put away our winter garments at the first spring thaw. We’re so practical that we’ll just keep working despite all the carping about a recession and foreign interests buying out everything. We’ll do it because we’re Midwesterners goldang it, and we don’t know any other way.

Wm. Stage 2013