Literary Blog Hop.) Haughty New York novelists seem to enjoy picking on the city of Milwaukee, characterizing it as a cultural wasteland to be escaped from at all costs for the literary Oz that is New York City. As evidence, two novels I've read recently have set up Milwaukee as a sort of symbol of Midwestern bumpkinery.
Exhibit A: In Michael Cunningham's new novel By Nightfall, NYC art dealer Peter Harris grew up in Milwaukee, and doesn't miss a chance to explain how he overcame what he sees as a birth obstacle. "Can he help having been born in Milwaukee?" Cunningham even wonders (for Peter) at one point. At another, point Peter considers the possibility that Milwaukee actually killed his brother Matthew, who died of AIDS. "Is it any wonder Matthew got out of there two days after he graduated from high school, and had sex with half the men in New York?" To his (and Cunningham's) slight credit, Peter quickly corrects himself, realizing how dumb that is. But this Milwaukee-hate is one reason I felt the novel underachieved: because it overachieved in pretentiousness.
Secondly, in the novel A Fortunate Age, by Joanna Smith Rakoff, about a group of 20-somethings trying to make their way in New York, a character named Beth who is away doing graduate work complains about her "mounting disgust with boring, freezing Milwaukee." I'll give her freezing, but Milwaukee's far from boring! What do they say — only boring people are bored? Beth spends most of the first half of the novel complaining about her "fate," being stuck in Milwaukee. I can think of worse. But here's a bit of schadenfreude: Rakoff's novel was pretty much universally panned as shallow and silly. It's average rating is only three out of five stars on Amazon.
So, yeah, I take these affronts to Milwaukee personally. I'm a Midwesterner, born and raised. And I went to college in Milwaukee and spent another five years there after I graduated. (I've been in Chicago for almost three years now.) I love Milwaukee, and still visit frequently. And seeing it dragged through the mud in such condescending ways burns me up.
Look, I thoroughly enjoy New York City, and I certainly recognize why many consider it the center of the cultural universe. I'd never claim that Milwaukee is on par with New York culturally. But that certainly doesn't mean Milwaukee is devoid. Despite its reputation as a blue-collar, beer swilling town (which it certainly is, too), Milwaukee does have a modicum of culture. Independent and used bookstores are everywhere, it has one top-tier university (Marquette) and several other commuter and community colleges, including a college of art and design. And it has several museums, including an absolutely stunning art museum designed by international starchitect Santiago Calatrava. (In the photo above, it's the white building on the right that looks like it has wings.)
So, I say to New York novelists: Leave Milwaukee — a great city on a Great Lake — alone. If you need a symbol of a town of what you consider good, hard-working, but culturally stupid, people, make one up. Take a hint from Mr. Sherwood Anderson. That strategy turned out pretty well for him.
Have you noticed similar literary biases against Midwesterners? Do you think such a characterization is justified, or does it annoy you as well?