ENGLISH 473 - Topics in American Literature
Section: 001 Literature of the Midwest
Term: FA 2017
Subject: English Language and Literature (ENGLISH)
Department: LSA English Language & Literature
Waitlist Capacity:
With permission of instructor.
May be repeated for a maximum of 6 credit(s). May be elected more than once in the same term.
Primary Instructor:

What exactly do we mean when we say that something or someone is so Midwestern? Is that an insult, or a compliment, or something else? Is it a meaningful, helpful designation, or does it fall apart under close scrutiny?

The premise for this class is simple: We’ll read a number of texts (mostly novels and collections of poetry) written by Midwestern writers who in one way or another have a strong association with the region or some aspect of it. Over the course of the term, we’ll see what these texts have to teach us about Midwesternness while we study them the way you should study any good literature, with an eye for close-reading (the exact meaning of which we’ll work hard to understand as a group) and with the overarching goal of making ourselves stronger, more powerful, more incisive readers. My aim is to choose authors that represent a cross-section of Midwestern identity, both in terms of historical period (from the 18th century—before the Midwest was the Midwest—to contemporary literature, with more emphasis on the latter) and geography (from Michigan’s Upper Peninsula to the city of Chicago and the plains of Nebraska).

Ultimately, the class is based on one assumption and is built in pursuit of several questions, which we’ll cycle through again and again over our fifteen weeks together. The assumption: There’s value in studying a collection of texts that are associated (because of their content, because of their authors, or both) with one particular region. The questions: Is the Midwest real? (An admittedly odd and maybe deceptive question.) How and when is it helpful to think in terms of regionality and to assert that some thing or some attitude is Midwestern? And what is Midwesternness, anyway? Is it definable or discernable beyond the common cliché of Midwesternness that we see so often? (Though clichés can be meaningful subjects of study, too.) Can we identify common themes, literary techniques or cultural practices present across the spectrum of Midwestern texts we read, even when those texts seem otherwise disparate or unrelated? And to ask that question in a slightly different way: What might make the literature of the Midwest special, notable, complicated, meaningful, distinctive or peculiar? What about the Midwestern rural versus the Midwestern urban: Does looking at and thinking about these sub-regions illuminate or obscure our understanding of the Midwest? And in what ways can that developing understanding of place help us to develop our understanding of the literature, or does our study of the literature help us to better understand the place?

Our class meetings will be largely discussion-based, since I think conversations, when they’re good (and we have to practice having them to make them good) are the best teaching tools. And: Whether you grew up in the Midwest or are just a temporary visitor to this complicated, sometimes confusing region of the United States, your experiences here and impressions of the place will also be an important tool for helping the class think about the ideas and the texts we study. So come with an eagerness to get to know the people in this class, and, perhaps, to learn from them as much as you will learn from the books we read and discuss together.

One last thought. In a 1997 interview in The Atlantic, the great writer of the Midwest Charles Baxter described the Midwest as “all loveable and mysterious.” When pressed to explain more of what he meant by the mystery of the Midwest, Baxter went on: “Mystery can be found anywhere, but there is a quality in the Midwest having to do both with the blandness of the landscape and the ways in which people here don't always talk about what's on their minds. The combination of those two things creates an interesting field of vision for writers. It's simply not an area that gives up its secrets easily.” In our class you’ll examine theories like these and develop others of your own, all of which we’ll explore and test together in the literature we read.

Likely course texts:

  • SHERWOOD ANDERSON. Winesburg, Ohio
  • GWENDOLYN BROOKS. Selected Poems
  • WILLA CATHER. My Antonia
  • B.H. FAIRCHILD. Early Occult Memory Systems of the Lower Midwestv
  • EDGAR LEE MASTERS. Spoon River Anthology
  • WILLIAM MAXWELL. So Long, See You Tomorrow
  • TONI MORRISON. Beloved
  • JAMES WRIGHT. Selected Poems

Course Requirements:

Three essays, regular reading quizzes, several short, pre-class writing assignments to complete in a class journal.

Intended Audience:

English majors who have taken English 298—though open to anyone with an interest in region and the Midwest in particular.

Class Format:


ENGLISH 473 - Topics in American Literature
Schedule Listing
001 (REC)
TuTh 2:30PM - 4:00PM
NOTE: Data maintained by department in Wolverine Access. If no textbooks are listed below, check with the department.

ISBN: 0451529952
Winesburg, Ohio, Author: Sherwood Anderson ; with an introduction by Irving Howe, and a new afterword by Dean Koontz., Publisher: Penguin Books 2005
ISBN: 0679767207
So long, see you tomorrow, Author: William Maxwell., Publisher: Vintage Books 1st Vintag 1996
ISBN: 0312427735
Middlesex, Author: Jeffrey Eugenides., Publisher: Picador 1st Picado 2002
ISBN: 1400033411
Beloved, Author: by Toni Morrison., Publisher: Knopf 1st Vintag 1987
ISBN: 0143105159
Spoon River anthology, Author: Edgar Lee Masters ; introduction and notes by Jerome Loving., Publisher: Penguin Books 2008
ISBN: 0060882964
Selected poems, Author: Gwendolyn Brooks., Publisher: Harper Perennial 1st Perenn 2006
ISBN: 0374529027
Selected poems, Author: James Wright. Ed. by Robert Bly and Anne Wright, Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux 1. ed. 2004
ISBN: 0393325660
Early occult memory systems of the lower midwest, Author: B.H. Fairchild., Publisher: Norton 2004
ISBN: 0140187642
My Antonia [a Gab bag for book discussion groups], Author: Willa Cather ; introduction and notes by John J. Murphy ; illustrations by W.T. Benda., Publisher: Penguin Books [Book disc 1994
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