So what, then, of Edgar Rice Burroughs?
Yes, that wildly popular author has been dead a long time, and his books, especially the ones dealing with Tarzan or John Carter of mars, have been debated and argued and in and out of style for decades. His legacy, whatever you feel that to be, is secure, and I shouldn’t need to worry about him. But I do.
See, I wanted to write a little something about Midwestern authors, as the “What Is the Midwest?” exhibition has recently opened. I’m sure there’s some consideration of the question “What is Midwestern literature?” in the exhibition, but I haven’t had time to go see it yet. And, in any case, I don’t ALWAYS agree one hundred percent with everything the Newberry announces, odd as that may seem. (Do you have ANY idea how long I whined about the line “most priced at under two dollars” in the Book Fair press releases?)
But my question is “Does Edgar Rice Burroughs, born in Chicago and working there until he could afford to build Tarzana, California, count as a Midwestern author, seeing as how his most famous books are set in Africa or on Mars?” (Yes, he also wrote about Venus and the Earth’s core, but this was at least partly to tease his rival, Otis Adelbert Kline, who wrote very Tarzan-like novels set in THOSE locations. Kline responded by writing a few books set on Mars and in Africa. Oh, by the way, Otis Adelbert Kline was ALSO born in Chicago. Does HE count?)
What can you say about Midwestern authors after you look around and see that this roster includes Ernest Hemingway AND Bess Streeter Aldrich, two authors whose names have probably never before been used in the same sentence? We can’t neglect Gwendolyn Brooks and Richard Wright, and listing them doesn’t even take us very far from Chicago.
How about people who did their most famous work out of town? James Thurber was from Ohio, but he and The New Yorker will always be linked. My own literary mentor, Will Cuppy, grew up in Indiana, took his master’s at the University of Chicago, and then lived most of his life as a hermit in New York City. (I guess it can be done.)
I ran into a couple in the lobby who were discussing a question very similar, apparently something along the lines of “Is there a Midwestern literary style?”
Midwestern writers, he was declaring, are more able to take close, intimate, personal looks at their neighbors, and point out their eccentricities.
The woman who was listening to him (who, if she isn’t his wife, should be), said, “Oh, you mean like P.G. Wodehouse…in England.”
He scowled at her. “Midwesterners aren’t as…obvious about things as that. They’re quiet, and don’t draw attention to themselves or their work, content to observe and make notes.”
She nodded. “Oh, like Emily Dickinson. In Massachusetts.”
He changed directions (and contradicted himself) by bringing up Mark Twain. “There’s the essential Midwestern author. Anyone who lives near the Mississippi River has read Mark Twain.”
She shrugged. “I always think of Mark Twain as a Southern writer.”
“He was from Missouri!” the man told her.
“I think of Missouri as part of the South,” she replied.
He was triumphant. “Well, part of the Midwest IS in the South!”
“Okay,” she said. “After all, the Mississippi River ends around New Orleans, which is practically Lake Wobegone with gumbo.”
That was about the time I decided I shouldn’t be taking up space in the lobby when people wanted to get into the exhibit. The debate, nationally, locally, and personally, could go on without me.