New Podcast: The Geographic and Linguistic Identity of the American Midwest

Do you walk on a sidewalk or a pavement? Eat fries or chips? The differences between American and British English can seem trivial at times, but they point to a deeper debate around language and identity that has been fought in the literary sphere as well as in everyday life. What differentiates American writers from their English literary counterparts? And even looking within America rather than across the Atlantic, since America is a diverse and huge nation with many different forms of speech, how can one writer ever hope to represent the ‘American’ language or a quintessential American self? In this podcast Molly Becker charts how the American Midwest ended up as the pin at the centre of a complex map of language and identity. This region was memorably treated by writers such as Sinclair Lewis, whose novels of midwestern small town life, such as 1920’s Main Street, came not unproblematically to be seen as representative of the nation in the mainstream.

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In 1930, Sinclair Lewis became the first American to be awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature for writing ‘the new language—American—as one of the representatives of a hundred and twenty million souls.’ Capping a period of abundant Midwestern literary production and linguistic experimentation in the first decades of the twentieth century, Lewis’ win both cemented the relationship between American identity and American language and established the small-town, Midwestern American culture his novels depicted as nationally representative.

Yet in order to create this distinctly Midwestern feel, Lewis resorted to setting most of his major novels in a fictional state, Winnemac, which he intended to be more Midwestern than any of the existing Midwestern states. Lewis’ conceptualization of the quintessential ‘Midwest’ as a place existing outside traditional borders is one that reflects the general perception of the region. Geographically and linguistically,the Midwest has proven itself difficult to define. In lieu of clear boundaries, definitions of the Midwest and of its dialect often make use of more concretely defined regions to decide what the Midwest is not, instead of what it actually is—in other words, the Midwest starts where New England, the South, and the West end.

The terms used to describe the Midwest today, such as ‘the Heartland’ and the seat of ‘General American’ English, however, demonstrate that the characterization of the region as central to American culture, established in part by popular Midwestern authors, has persisted despite the region’s geographic and linguistic uncertainty. Using Lewis’ fictional Midwestern state as a starting point, this lecture will analyze the novels and short stories of early twentieth century Midwestern writers to examine the relationship between geography, identity, and language in the American Midwest during a period when Midwestern authors were establishing both regional and national identities.

This podcast was recorded during our series of Late Summer Lectures 2019. Hear more from the series.

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