Early on in my life, I knew what I wanted to be: worldly.
experienced; knowing; sophisticated: as in the benefits of her worldly wisdom
I was the child who read Jane Eyre at ten (or tried to, anyway), convinced it would open up some corner of the universe. I was the teenager who read Jane Eyre again (this time actually) while nested between two branches of a tree, feeling that this was what people in love with the world did. At 21—after many more books, many more secret trysts with vocabulary words and foreign-language dictionaries, many more far-off yearnings, after finally a study-abroad term in Paris—I went east, to Maryland, my desire for worldliness a warmed stone in my hand.
So it should be no wonder that when I ordered a hamburger and fries with my new peers and, to wash it all down, a cool glass of pop, at their giggles I reddened. Deflated. Betrayed by that stowaway word. I understood immediately that to cling to such colloquialisms was to defeat the worldly self to which I aspired.
I had always loved the word before. Pop is exactly what the drink does—pop and fizz and tickle faces with its syrupy sweet leaps.
But it was so quickly that I gave up the word. Said soda consciously at first, those several months in Maryland, feeling the deliberateness of it, its correctness. After I returned home, my mom and dad raised their eyebrows and my brother teased, but what could they do? I’d acquired sophisticated experience, and there was nothing that would make me let my worldly wisdom go.
I wonder now how I became so convinced that Minnesota was not part of this cultivated crowd, that my local experiences were inferior or banal. Probably it was just curiosity at first, a mind ignited by the exoticism I found in books. But at some point I must have noticed: stories didn’t happen here. Or, if they did, the setting served only as a platform for a physical or philosophical outbound train.
In his 1995 essay “Imagining the Midwest,” Scott Russell Sanders talks about the literature set in this part of the country, and amid his fascinating observations, one stood out for me: the midwestern artist’s tendency—when regarding his or her home in the light of some “more cultured” place—to feel shame. He refers to a section of Edgar Lee Masters’s Spoon River Anthology (1915), in which an Illinois painter has fled his small town for Rome but still needs to insist:
There was no culture, you know, in Spoon River,
And I burned with shame and held my peace.
And what could I do, all covered over
And weighted down with western soil,
Except aspire, and pray for another
Birth in the world, with all of Spoon River
Rooted out of my soul?
Sanders goes on to point out that in much of our canonized literature that involves the Midwest—Winesburg, Ohio, Main Street, My Ántonia, The Great Gatsby—sensitive, educated characters don’t stay around. Why would they? As they see it, their hometowns offer only limitations, and like the authors who created them, these characters decamp to modern cities, to the bright coasts, to Europe, even to the Far East. And if they come back, it is to glance about at a safe and superior distance, satisfied that they are no longer of that plane.
In many ways, the custodians of “culture”—be they editors of Norton anthologies or creators of top-ten lists—instruct midwesterners to look back at our roots with condescension, and it’s my guess that one of the reasons many local artists leave is because there lives a loyalty in all of us for our homeland, and it’s always more comfortable to betray from a distance. I know. I have done this, and in many of those moments I felt relief.
So, maybe it’s still shame that fuels these words. Maybe I have simply never fully escaped. Although my small growing-up town was rife with judgment and oppression and a heavily taught caution—none of which, it’s true, is preferable soil for artists—there were also asparagus hunting and campfire songs and the games I played among the cornstalks. There were many times when no one told me what to do or what was important, when I could simply imagine.
Perhaps it’s also pride—my own fierce midwestern optimism—that will not allow me to dismiss the stuff of my Minnesota life as culturally irrelevant, that now takes issue with sophistication as a goal. As artists, it seems to me, we should allow ourselves our own lens. As artists, we should listen to the truths inside us, no matter how backwoods or backwater or backward we’ve been socially constructed to believe them to be. Some midwestern artists have done this—Bill Holm, Jon Hassler, Faith Sullivan, Patricia Hampl—and lately I’ve been taking their books into fields of tall grass, reading their words with the spirit of discovery, so thankful that they’ve stayed, that I can feel them working close to me.
One hot afternoon this past summer—the green and gold landscapes made rich by sun and rain—I reached down and chose a can of Sprite from the cooler. From the depths of all these thoughts, I heard myself say “pop,” and though I had not yet opened the can, a familiar sweetness spread from my tongue throughout my body. Such a simple word, I thought. Yet it shook me in a startlingly powerful, I’m-going-to-burst way.
I’ll never stop wanting to know the world, to feel that it has affected me, for where is our vitality if we are only vessels of standing water? But Minnesota nourished me first. And I won’t forget the well from which I first drank.
Emily Brisse is a graduate of Vermont College of Fine Arts’ MFA program. Her work has been recently published or is forthcoming in Orion, New Plains Review, A View from the Loft, and Third Wednesday. Emily teaches at Watertown-Mayer High School and the Loft. She blogs about Minnesota and the importance of place at www.landingoncloudywater.blogspot.com.