Zeke Pappas is off to the Rotary Club luncheon.
Nine years ago, in the summer of 1999, I was hired to be the director of the Great Midwestern Humanities Initiative (GMHI), a federally funded program designed "to foster a greater sense of community, increase public literacy, and strengthen levels of civic engagement in the American heartland." The program was typical of the projects launched at the end of that optimistic and high-rolling decade, as its founders believed it could cease or at least slow the brain drain that was occurring in that region of the country, both the crumbling Rust Belt and the blighted Grain Belt. I was raised in Madison, Wisconsin, and I still live there, a city full of transplants where everybody’s optimism about the heartland seems to outpace the reality of our condition: we are dying.
People have been leaving the Midwest for decades and they still are many decades later and nobody is particularly surprised. From the streets of Cleveland and Detroit and Gary, to the fertile fields of Wisconsin and Iowa and southern Indiana, the young people flee. They go south and west, to the newly cosmopolitan and sprawling cities like Atlanta and Orlando and Salt Lake; they deal with the heat—it’s worth it to them. I can imagine them sweating, those exiles, in newly purchased summer suits of linen and seersucker, in dresses that bare their still pale and overly broad shoulders. Some of the exiles head west to the great mountains and the deserts and the outdoorsy, freestyling existence that such places as Boulder and Bozeman and Tucson seem to promise. They go to sunny and arid places with high-tech corridors and solar energy projects. Some go directly to the coasts: to San Francisco or New York, those hubs of artistry and commerce with their diverse and teeming neighborhoods, the magnetic bustle of business and action, the sounds of foreign music and unknown spices wafting out of the windows and into the sky and streets. They do not stay here in the Midwest with its sagging and empty auto plants, steel factories running at half power, and farms plagued by unprofitable hogs, underpriced grain, silos in sore need of repair.
The founders of the Great Midwestern Humanities Initiative included a gaggle of congressional leaders, led by Wisconsin Republican Quince Leatherberry, an anti-immigration conservative from the state’s wealthy Fifth District, who, despite his constant sermons on self-reliance and hard work, has never held a job outside of Capitol Hill and has lived, largely, on the fat of his father’s land. Leatherberry, an unlikely ally for public humanities funding, was joined by H. M. Logan, a business leader and the chair of GMHI, as well as an odd alliance of advocates, vigorously paid lobbyists, and oft-bewildered but generous businessmen who believed that in order to slow our regional brain drain, young Midwesterners simply needed to know the hallowed heritage of their homeland, to read the rich literature of their own region, and to understand the blessed uniqueness of their landscape and culture. Then they might stay!
It was also believed, by the founders, that the study of the humanities, in the broader sense, might enlighten the work force of the Midwest, ignite a wildfire of innovation and experimentation in the private sector, from automotives to agriculture, economic combustion engines fueled by the bright minds of Michigan and Wisconsin and Iowa and Minnesota and Ohio and Nebraska, digesting and ruminating upon the works of our own undervalued sons and daughters: Willa Cather and F. Scott Fitzgerald and Sinclair Lewis. If only the music of our own famous musicians and composers—John Alden Carpenter, Benny Goodman, Miles Davis, Bob Dylan—were lodged forever in our internal melodies; if only we allowed the images of John Steuart Curry and Grant Wood to enliven our vision of place; if only we realized that we share the prairie with the same lines, light, and landscapes that inspired Frank Lloyd Wright and moved Aldo Leopold—if only, if only, then our engineers in Detroit and our productivity managers in Cleveland and our logistics coordinators in South Bend would discover new ideas and revolutionary technologies.
It was, as Representative Leatherberry said, "a real win-win."
"Oh, the humanities!" once exclaimed benefactor Howard Morgan Logan, after a particularly rousing Governor’s Lecture in the Humanities by the visiting critic Stanley Fish. Logan, a retired oil man and closeted homosexual originally from Kenosha, turned to a harrumphing Congressman Leatherberry and whispered, tears in his eyes, "Oh, life!"
I was barely twenty-four the year I took this job, armed with a self-designed bachelor’s degree in "The Narrative Text and Social Movements" from the University of Michigan, and I believed in many things, including the noble and mind-boggling mission of the GMHI: To encourage and advance civic engagement, commercial initiative, economic development, and regional pride in the American Midwest through the study and promotion of the humanities disciplines.
I was charismatic then, I worked out every day, and my eyes shone with the sort of confidence I think we all gleaned from our silver-haired president in that decade: no conflict too deep to resolve, no domestic issue too muddy to clarify, no potential lover too distant or risky to bed, no humanities discipline too abstract to define. In fact, I’d been the one who’d written the successful vision statement that had landed us ten million dollars in federal money—an earmark added to a domestic spending bill sponsored, for some unknown reason, by Representative Leatherberry, which, he claimed on the House floor, would somehow help the United States clamp down on illegal immigrants. And so the newly incorporated board of GMHI, chaired by H. M. Logan and supported by letters of proclamation from the governors of thirteen Midwestern states, chose Madison, Wisconsin, as the project’s headquarters, appointed me as the executive director, and then pretty much left me alone except for twice-a-year meetings that very few board members ever attended. I’d been working part-time at a small, erudite independent bookstore near campus, where H. M. Logan was a loyal customer and, to all appearances, had no small crush on me. The job was mine, most likely, for no reason other than this: he wanted to spend more time with me.
Today, nearly a decade later, the economy is in shambles, the nation is at war, and my own job is precariously perched on a list of the luxuries we can no longer afford. I am sitting at a banquet table in the corner of a reception room at the Marriott on the far west side of the city, picking at a rubbery piece of pork loin smothered in a raspberry barbecue sauce. The West Side Rotarians are about to commence their weekly meeting, and I am, courtesy of H. M. Logan, guest speaker, an honor I accepted because it is widely known that Rotarians are often insurance brokers and lawyers and bankers and have the ability to be philanthropists. The GMHI is now in dire need of philanthropy.
The club’s president calls the meeting to order with a gavel. All of the Rotarians stand at once. There is a short prayer, led by a man in a blue suit with neatly parted white hair. Just as I manage to mumble my "Amen," the crowd turns abruptly to the left, where a large American flag stands on a raised platform on a golden pole. The Rotarians begin to recite the Pledge of Allegiance, something I have not done since sixth grade. For a moment, I place my left hand over my right breast, but by the time the crowd is pledging to the republic for which it stands, I have the correct hand in the correct position, and I am hoping nobody noticed my very unpatriotic faux pas.
At "justice for all," I sit d...