What Middle America Meant to
David Foster Wallace
by Josh Roiland
As the sun set on the soggy third night of the 1993 Illinois State Fair, David Foster Wallace finally made his way through the festival’s gauntlet of clacking rides and whirring neon known as Happy Hollow. Wallace had arrived in Springfield ten days earlier to attend the event’s Press Day, and then spent the first days of the fair’s opening ogling livestock, dodging errant batons loosed from their twirlers, and gorging himself to infirmity on baked goods at the annual Dessert Competition. But now here, in his last hour of reporting, he reached an irrevocable limit. It all became too much. His senses assaulted by a confederation of horny teens and stroboscopic lights and leathery carnies, Wallace came to a realization: “It strikes me hardest in the Hollow that I am not spiritually Midwestern anymore.”
In the years since his death, Wallace’s journalism has been criticized for moments of embellishment and exaggeration. I’ve taken issue elsewhere with some of those characterizations, but here’s one certain falsehood: David Foster Wallace was nothing if not spiritually Midwestern.
The Midwest is written all across his nonfiction, both as geographic setting and cultural signifier. Three pieces standout. “Derivative Sport in Tornado Alley” wistfully establishes roots in the region; it’s the Midwest of homesickness. “Getting Away From Already Pretty Much Being Away From It All” subverts that longing via a cynical, sneering return; it’s the Midwest of Thomas Wolfe. Finally, “The View from Mrs. Thompson’s” reconciles those divergent impressions; it’s the Midwest of understanding and acceptance.
Although Wallace was born in Ithaca, NY, he moved to Champaign-Urbana, IL as an infant after his father accepted a philosophy professorship at the University of Illinois. In “Derivative Sport” he tried to claim that his birthplace precluded him from understanding the topographical and atmospheric subtleties of Illinois the way his “native” friends did. But such a statement is rhetorical posturing. As opposed to people from outside the region who “distill the Midwest into blank flatness,” Wallace demonstrates an intimate understanding of his “boxed township of Illinois farmland.”
Wallace biographer D.T. Max called that first Harper’s piece a “fanciful remembrance of his high school sports life.” The story chronicles Wallace’s “near-great” junior tennis career, and he attributes his success to a preternatural understanding of geometry and its applicability to the geographic realities of East-Central, Illinois: “I’d grown up inside vectors, lines and lines athwart lines, grids.” These boundaries and demarcations made Wallace feel as though “my part of the Midwest always looks laid down special, as if planned.” And while elements of that story’s conclusion certainly strain credulity, there remains a personal, possessive investment in the land and its idiosyncrasies.
Anxiety is tempered by routine, and the Midwest is the geographic equivalent
Wallace believed that “so much of my Midwest’s communal psychic energy was informed by growth and fertility.” That elemental virility pushed broadleaves up through cracks in tennis courts and caused corn to tassel and silk seemingly earlier every year. The lushness of the land led Wallace to associate his own puberty and sexual drive with the region’s fecundity: “I knew, somehow, that the call to height and hair came from outside.” And so when his growth lagged behind his friends, and his tennis game followed suit, he began to resent not only his body, but also the land itself. He called this bitterness “Alienation-from-Midwest-as-fertility-grid,” though he admitted such a theory was “a little on the overmetaphyiscal side, not to mention self-pitying.”
Wallace traded that alienation for anxiety when he escaped the Midwest after high school for Amherst College, situated in the “lurid and jutting Berkshires” of western Massachusetts — a landscape so different as to be disorienting. At Amherst he studied English as well as philosophy that was rooted in semantics and modal logic, as he once told Charlie Rose: “The stuff that I was doing was more math than philosophy.” During his sophomore year in college, Wallace suffered a breakdown that caused him to leave school and return home to Illinois where he drove a school bus and began taking antidepressants. He returned to Amherst in the fall of 1983 and found that “college math evokes and catharts a Midwesterner’s sickness for home.” Such a feeling is understandable. Anxiety is tempered by routine, and the Midwest is the geographic equivalent of predictability.
And while the hot, muggy weather promoted potency in the soil, it also enabled severe weather. “Derivative Sport” is about tennis, but it is also about wind, specifically tornadoes — and it ends in a gust. Wallace and his tennis partner are doing butterfly drills. They’ve reached a near-Zen state as they repetitively drive shots from fore- to backhand, each running a Mobius strip from Ad to Deuce court. Spellbound, they fail to notice the radical change in weather until cyclonic or straight-line winds suddenly send them pin wheeling, cartoon-like across several courts before dispatching them into a chain-link fence. The date was June 6, 1978.
Although his description of the stealth-then-super power of tornadoes is a bit Wizard of Ozish, Wallace aptly describes the way weather can attenuate during Midwestern thunderstorms — what he calls “real Old Testament skull-clutchers” in another story — becoming spookily silent before a twister, as if all the atmosphere’s potential energy is being hoovered into the vortex before being released in some ungodly kinesis. And he understood, as every Midwesterner does, that in advance of such impending tornadic activity, the importance of opening a house’s windows to “thwart implosion from precipitous pressure drops” bringing to reality an earlier insight that life in East Central Illinois is “informed and deformed by wind.”
Despite the threat of tornadoes, Wallace moved back to the Midwest in summer of 1993, relocating from Syracuse, New York to a home at 1214 N. Fell Ave. in Bloomington, Illinois. He began a professorship in the English Department at Illinois State University that fall, but before the semester started he traveled, at the behest of Harper’s, down the subtle undulations of Interstate 55 — he would write that the “whole drive is a gentle sine wave like this, but it’s like sea legs: if you haven’t spent years here you’ll never feel it” — to Springfield to report on the State Fair.
Compared to his first Harper’s story, Wallace’s temperament towards his home state is markedly different in “Getting Away…” Perhaps it was the difference between the nostalgia of recollection versus the reality of relocating. Regardless, the tone is evident from the start. There’s no more homesickness that needs catharting, as Wallace admits early on: “I grew up in rural Illinois but haven’t been back for a long time.” He then adds: “[A]nd can’t say I’ve missed it.” Topics and themes that appeared in “Derivative Sport” as fodder for discourse on fertility, growth, and games — “the yeasty heat, the lush desolation of limitless corn, the flatness” — have now become annoyances at best and, at worst, causes of despair. For example, the remoteness of towns and cities is no longer quaint: “For me, at least, it got creepy. By the time I left for college the area no longer seemed dull so much as empty, lonely. Middle of the ocean lonely.”
That isolation informs the story’s title and argument. Similar to “Derivative Sport,” Wallace tries to make sense of his Midwest experience by theorizing it. He determines that the “Illinois State Fair’s animating thesis involves some kind of structured interval of communion with both neighbor and space” it represents a “vacation of alienation.” Whereas on the East Coast the “existential treat is thus some escape from confines and stimuli — silence, rustic vistas that hold still, a turning inward: Away,” Wallace hypothesizes that the converse is true in Middle America: “Here you’re pretty much Away all the time.” This observation, which is not far-fetched, would contribute to the persistent, not to mention pissy, bifurcation between the East Coast and the Midwest throughout the piece.
The other Midwestern conjecture conveyed by Wallace comes via the “shrewd counsel of a colorful local,” an acquaintance whom he dubs “Native Companion,” who guides him around the fairgrounds. A thrill-seeker, Native Companion insists on riding The Zipper, a contraption of caged cars Wallace aptly describes as both a “Ferris Wheel on amphetamines” and the “head of a chainsaw.” The ride’s operator and a colleague take great pleasure in mercilessly spinning N.C.’s cage round-and-round before stopping it at its apex while she is upside-down, which causes her dress to fall over her head. They do this intentionally in order to, as Wallace, who is horrified, says, “ogl[e] her nethers.” After the carnies finally bring the car back to the ground the operator calls to Native Companion, who is flushed and ecstatic, “They don’t call me King of the Zipper for nuthin’, sweet thang.” Wallace is in disbelief. But what is significant about this scene is that his outrage is geography-, not gender-based. Wallace can’t believe his friend isn’t more upset: “So this doesn’t bother you? As a Midwesterner, you’re unbothered?” Wallace believes Native Companion’s reaction to the carnies’ lewd behavior might be the key insight for his magazine piece: “This may be just the sort of regional politico-sexual contrast the swanky East-Coast magazine is keen for. The core value informing a willed politico-sexual stoicism on your part is prototypically Midwestern appreciation of fun….whereas on the East Coast, politico-sexual indignation is the fun.” Throughout his protestations Native Companion demurs, asserting that just because “there’s assholes in the world” shouldn’t prevent her from having her own fun. Wallace, still shocked, ends the section: “This could be integral.”
The regional tint to Wallace’s theory further emphasizes the geographic division he sets up and exploits throughout the story. More than in any of his other works of nonfiction, Wallace self-identifies as an East Coaster in the State Fair piece. He makes 20 references to the East Coast in his story — e.g., “I’m fresh in from the East Coast to go to the Illinois State Fair for a swanky East-Coast magazine” — which can be read as a rhetorical ploy, a way to juxtapose his own distasteful elitism against the earnest ignorance of the fairgoers. For example, in the pig barn Wallace notices the “owners and swineherds all have one rubber boots nothing like the L.L. Bean East-Coast boots.” Then, upon witnessing the distress of one hog, but recalling his own penchant for bacon, Wallace says, “I don’t know how keen these sullen farmers’ sense of irony is, but mine’s been honed East-Coast keen, and I feel like a bit of a schmuck in the swine barn.” Positioning himself as a foil with foibles softens the blow of his biting observations.
More than a decade later, in reply to a series of student letters from Anne Fadiman’s advanced nonfiction writing classes at Yale University, Wallace explained the complexity of this project, offering clues about his reporting and rhetorical approach:
“We’re talking here about a certain very special kind of essay, one that’s (a) critical, (b) comic, (c) descriptive (as opposed to mainly argumentative or something). Conditions (a) and (b) create the sense of “mockery” your question refers to. And I’d say that this is a dangerous kind of piece to do, because it sets up Narrator Persona challenges, more specifically the Asshole problem.”
And that problem was real. Interspersed throughout “Getting Away from Already Pretty Much Being Away From It All” are a series of callous comments about the fairgoers, each emphasizing the Midwest as the fulcrum of the joke. Wallace made light of people’s weight and cheap entertainment and dumb humor. His criticisms read like a list:
“Midwestern fat people have no compunction about wearing shorts or halter tops.”
“Illinois farmers are rural and kind of inarticulate, but they are not poor.”
“This is going to sound not just East-Coastish but elitist and snotty. But facts are facts. The special community of shoppers in the Expo Bldg. are a Midwestern subphylum commonly if unkindly know as Kmart People.” Wallace characterizes these people as “overweight, polyestered, grim-faced, [with] totally glazed unhappy children.”
“Something East-Coast in me prickles at the bovine and herdlike quality of the crowd.”
“Midwesterners lack a certain cunning. Under stress they look like lost children.”
“A Midwestern child of academics gets trained early on to avoid these weird-eyed eager rural Christians.”
“I think maybe rural Midwestern women are just congenitally big.”
The derision bottoms out when Wallace corrects a t-shirt vendor about a misspelling on one of his shirts that reads, “WARNING: I GO FROM 0 TO HORNEY IN 2.5 BEERS.” He immediately regrets it. Kind of: “And now I really feel like an East-Coast snob, laying judgments and semiotic theories on these people who ask of life only a Republican in the White House and a black velvet Elvis on the woodgrain mantel of their mobile home.”
Wallace caught hell for his characterizations of Midwesterners and for casting himself as a seeming East Coast aesthete. In a Harper’s letter to the editor, a writer from Michigan — who admitted he, himself, had never attended a state fair — condemned the writer’s “caustic approach” and cultural elitism, concluding: “Against a backdrop of shit, meat, vomit, and blood, Wallace’s scorn strikes me as the most disgusting spectacle of all.” Wallace later admitted to being surprised by the backlash. In reply to a different letter from one of Fadiman’s students Wallace discussed his reaction to the criticism:
“When I did the State Fair piece, I thought it was fairly neutral, even sympathetic portrait of the Fair and venue and locale and attendees. Then, when the Harper’s version came out, I got hate mail, third-party hate mail sent to area newspapers, etc. The gist of which mail being, Here’s this native who’s gone all East Coast and uptown now coming home and making fun of his roots. (Folks were especially upset about the references to lots of people being fat. It was and is all true — go figure.)”
As a Midwesterner myself, who has attended a dozen or so county fairs as well as both the Illinois and Minnesota State Fair, I can say that Wallace was not factually inaccurate with most of these observations. I have seen much the same thing. And while Wallace does, in fact, come across as an asshole in several of these moments, I don’t read “Getting Away…” as a condemnation of the Midwest at all. Insider status offers intimacy though at the expense, perhaps, of the critical faculty. Outsiders more readily pick up on outliers, while lacking the closeness to parse out nuance in their observations. In “Getting Away…” Wallace slides back and forth between these statuses, such a position is what gives the story its insight and its bite. Consequently, I don’t read Wallace as an East Coaster gone uptown to cast aspersions on the good old boys and girls back home. When I read that story, I actually hear Garrison Keillor, another Midwesterner who left the edge of the prairie for the bright lights, big city of the East Coast only to eventually return home. Love or hate A Prairie Home Companion, there’s no denying Keillor’s Midwestern bona fides, or the fact that he occasionally mocks its inhabitants. And like Keillor, Wallace displays an insider’s insight for this place and its customs. Looking back, Wallace actually remembered the reporting process fondly: “But I also recall a certain tenderness for the Midwesterners there (of whom I was, by origin and upbringing, one).”
As for the claim that he was “not spiritually Midwestern anymore” — the statement does not hold up. Wallace follows that declaration with a list of purported reasons: “I do not like crowds, screams, loud noise, or heat. I’ll endure these things if I have to, but they’re no longer my idea of a Special Treat or sacred Community-interval.” These characteristics, however, have no ipso facto residence in the Midwest; rather, they are the viscera of every large-scale summer festival. Wallace experienced — and wrote about — a similar revulsion a decade later when he reversed his route and traveled to the East Coast to cover the Maine Lobster Festival for Gourmet magazine (an event he likened to a “midlevel county fair” and a “Midwestern corn festival”). His time in Rockland, produced much the same response as his time in Springfield: “I confess that I have never understood why so many people’s idea of a fun vacation is to don flip-flops and sunglasses and crawl through maddening traffic to loud, crowded tourist venues.”
Finally, readers will remember that for all the story’s monocled sneering, the East Coast gets its comeuppance in the end. In the last scene, Wallace witnesses one final ride, a sort of horizontal bungee jump called the SKY COASTER, where a participant wearing tinted aviator sunglasses (“No one in the rural Midwest wears aviator glasses, tinted or otherwise.”) and $400 Banfi loafers (“Without socks.”) is harnessed prone and raised by a crane, like “high-altitude beef,” above the fairground. Wallace suddenly realizes this guy’s “from the East Coast.” He actually calls him “a ringer” and, for the story’s purpose, he is just that. The clip is detached and the foreigner is almost-literally cast out of the story, out of the Midwest, as he is sent screaming across the sky.
By the time American Airlines Flight 11 slammed into the north face of the World Trade Center’s North Tower on the morning of September 11, 2001, David Foster Wallace had been living in Bloomington for eight years. Earlier that year he had been named the Roy E. Disney Professor of Creative Writing and Professor of English at Pomona College, and he would leave for California the following summer. But on the morning of the attacks, Wallace was at home in the shower “trying to listen to a Bears postmortem on WSCR Sports Radio in Chicago.” Without a television of his own, Wallace witnessed the unfolding events of that day — allegedly with shampoo still in his hair, he says — at the home of his neighbor and fellow church parishioner, the putative Mrs. Thompson. He recounted his experience of that day and the days succeeding it in a story for Rolling Stone’s special 9.11.01 issue.
Wallace scrawled the hand-written title “View from the Interior / Interior Views” onto the first notebook draft of the piece, and that heading stayed remarkably consistent through each publication. Rolling Stone labeled their version “The View from the Midwest,” thus turning Wallace into a spokesperson for an entire region. When Wallace published the essay collection Consider the Lobster a few years later, he included this story, but changed the pronoun, calling the piece “The View from Mrs. Thompson’s.” It’s possible to read the increasing specificity of the title as a way of averring accountability for the assessments expressed within piece, but that would be wrong in this instance. Superscripted in bold above the main text in both the RS and book versions is the word “SYNECDOCHE.” Wallace never explicitly comments on its function, but I think it’s clear that the view from Mrs. Thompson’s represents the view from the rural Midwest.
As a piece of Midwestern literature, “The View from Mrs. Thompson’s” reconciles Wallace’s nostalgia in “Derivative Sport” with his contempt in “Getting Away…” Due perhaps to the gravity of the topic, but also to the fact that he had called this community home for nearly a decade, Wallace’s tenor has softened from his earlier sarcasm in Springfield. He portrays Bloomington-Normal as folksy and nondescript: “As Midwest cities go, the only remarkable thing about Bloomington is its prosperity. It is all but recession-proof.” And its residents share that same tame quality: “In true Midwest fashion, people in Bloomington aren’t unfriendly, but do tend to be reserved.” Wallace notes that, except for church, there isn’t much of an active community life in B-N: “Folks keep to themselves (the native term for light conversation is visit).” In lieu of a robust public culture, residents “watch massive, staggering amounts of TV,” especially during the colder months because “winters here are a pitiless bitch.”
Wallace’s harshest criticism of the region is directed at the local newspaper, the Bloomington-Normal Pantagraph, which he imagines as “a well-funded college newspaper co-edited by Bill O’Reilly and Martha Stewart.” He’s also critical of the individual and municipal devotion to lawn care: “To be honest, it’s all a little creepy, especially in high summer, when nobody’s out and all that green just sits in the heat and seethes.” But for the most part, the city and its citizens are represented in almost-forgettable simplicity.
Wallace sets up an straightforward binary in the story: the innocence of Mrs. T. and her church friends against the worldly skepticism of Wallace and Mrs. Thompson’s Vietnam Vet son F — , whom Wallace calls “one of my very best friends here,” and of Duane Bracero, a Slipknot-and-camo clad twenty-something, whom Wallace openly abhors, and who is the son of one of Mrs. Thompson’s friends. As the story’s conclusion makes clear, Mrs. Thompson and Co. are a stand-in for an old-fashioned Midwest, while Wallace &c. represent the knowing, postmodern world that was home to the attacks.
Figuring that readers would be familiar with the latter community, Wallace spends most of the article fleshing out the unassuming particulars of the society that Mrs. Thompson inhabits. It is neither fancy nor phony. She lives in a “tiny immaculate one-story home that on the West Coast would be called a bungalow, and on the south side of Bloomington is called a house.” His emphasis on the ordinariness of Mrs. Thompson’s world is idealized, but even so, it gives an impression of how Wallace idealized the Midwest in his nonfiction. Inside Mrs. Thompson’s house the commonplace continues:
“Mrs. Thompson’s living room is prototypical working-class Bloomington, too: double-pane windows, white Sears curtains w/ valence, catalogue clock with a background of mallards, woodgrain magazine rack with CSM and Reader’s Digest, inset bookshelves used to display little collectible figurines and framed photos of relatives and families. There are two knit samplers w/the Desiderata and Prayer of St. Francis, antimacassars on every good chair, and wall-to-wall carpet so thick that you can’t see your feet (people take their shoes off at the door — it’s basic common courtesy).”
Wallace highlights how distraught everyone was — he called the events of 9/11, “the Horror” — by noting that common courtesies and social customs dissipated on that day. When he arrived at Mrs. Thompson’s house he “didn’t ring the bell but just came on in, which normally here one would never do.” Still, all of the guests continued to ask Mrs. Thompson for permission to go into the kitchen and use her telephone “until she tells them to knock it off and for heaven’s sake just use the phone.” (Wallace notes how “the native accent around here isn’t southern so much as just rural.”) Another effect of tragedy he noticed: coffee “usually just sort of appears” but on this day you have to get it yourself. Again, these are neither drastic nor inconvenient measures, but they do point to the subtle ways different cultures adjust and act during traumatic moments.
And like everyone else in the country, they all gathered around the television. Generally speaking, Wallace observes that watching TV in the Midwest is “a more social phenomenon than on the East Coast….What you do in Bloomington is all get together at somebody’s house and watch something.” Accordingly, Mrs. Thompson’s TV is extra large — a 40-inch Phillips flat-panel. As they watched Dan Rather and fretted about loved ones who lived and worked in New York, Wallace realized that none of the women had “even the vaguest notion of New York’s layout.” To comfort them he explained how far Midtown Manhattan, where a relative of the psychologically delicate Mrs. R — worked, is from the Financial District. However, Wallace explains that his “half-assed geography lesson is the start of a feeling of alienation from those good people that builds in me all through the part of the Horror where people flee rubble and dust.”
The Midwest is a place, but it is also a culture. And like all geographies and cultures, it’s not monolithic.
Despite their geographic ignorance, Wallace emphasizes: “These ladies are not stupid, or ignorant.” Instead, he notes: “What these Bloomington ladies are, or start to seem to me, is innocent. There is what would strike many Americans as a marked, startling lack of cynicism in the room.” This disconnect animates the entire piece. As Wallace watches replay after replay of the second plane crashing into the South Tower and of both tower’s collapse he realizes how similar the events are to a series of Hollywood analogues like Independence Day. Still: “Nobody’s near hip enough to lodge the sick and obvious po-mo complaint: We’ve Seen This Before.” At least not aloud. Thus his aforementioned alienation, which leads to this conclusion:
“Truly decent, innocent people can be taxing to be around. I’m not for a moment trying to suggest that everyone I know in Bloomington is like Mrs. Thompson….I’m trying, rather, to explain how some part of the horror of the Horror was knowing, deep in my heart, that whatever America the men in those planes hated so much was far more my America, and F — ’s, and poor old loathsome Duane’s than it was these ladies’.”
Unlike the end of the State Fair piece where Wallace dissociates and looks away as the East Coaster — a proxy for his own persona — makes his exit, in “The View from Mrs. Thompson’s” Wallace confronts the ways he’s different. This gesture is not heroic, but it is does symbolize a different, more accepting and comfortable persona. Those differences are not exclusionary, nor do they cancel out all the attributes he shares with Mrs. T. and Native C.: Neighborly. Considerate. Approachable. The Midwest returned to Wallace as he returned to it.
The Midwest is a place, but it is also a culture. And like all geographies and cultures, it’s not monolithic. David Foster Wallace’s personal Midwest is closely tied to the subtleties of its land, to the extremes of its weather, and to the expansiveness of its people. It’s filled with love and longing, derision and distance, and, ultimately, reunion and reconciliation. These multitudes are exemplified in the tender opening paragraph of The Pale King. The passage, a pastoral psalm, unites land and family. An index of twenty species of native grass becomes an incantation, concluding: “All heads gently nodding in a morning breeze like a mother’s soft hand on your cheek.” From meadow to rock: “Quartz and chert and schist and chondrite iron scabs in granite.” Permanence: “Very old land.” An imperative: “Look around you.” A communion, borne of near-religious intimacy. The final sentence, a benediction: “We are all of us brothers.”
Josh Roiland is an Assistant Professor and CLAS-Honors Preceptor of Journalism in the Department of Communication and Journalism and the Honors College at the University of Maine. He’s working on two book manuscripts: The Elements of Literary Journalism: The Political Promise of Narrative News and The Rest is Silence: The Unexplored Nonfiction of David Foster Wallace. You can read his two previous essays on Wallace here and here.