Page images
[ocr errors][merged small][merged small][merged small][merged small]

for a "grind," their general pose of "This place would be all right were it not for the curriculum." Some observers say Middle-Western youngsters study because they are in contact with embryo engineers, physicians, and lawyers, to whom one. paragraph unlearned might eventually mean a railway wreck, a patient invalided for life, or a client hanged. Others trace it to a sink-or-swim desperation, as the average Middle-Western youngster has his own way to make, and knows it. For myself, I call it an evidence of Middle-Western straightforwardness and energy. On a steamer a Middle-Westerner declared, "I'm taking the family abroad for culture, and, by George! we 're going to get culture if we have to stay six months!" I smiled at the six months, but respected the by George! Culture is elusive. It cometh not by observation. On the other hand, it is equally true that it cometh not by indifference and assuredly not without work.

In Europe and parts of the East a perpetual well-spring of sentiment is the church. Its mysticism and serene beauty touch the heart with a refining tenderness. As a rule, Middle-Westerners distrust all that. Churchliness might replace spirituality with mere ecclesiastical estheticism. At the one extreme they worship in buildings vaguely resembling opera-houses; at the other they court an informality the last extreme of which has given us that highly interesting Middle-Westerner, the Rev. "Billy" Sunday.

A breezy person, undeniably. So are they all-by repute. Hotel lobbies roar with conversation. In a railway carriage your ticket is your introduction. There are Middle-Westerners who slap you on the back after an hour's acquaintance. Next day you rise to the dignity of "old horse." Some pick you up, present their cards, and relate their family histories. It is a "low-church" custom handed down from the pioneer days, when all were strangers, hungering for sociability and dependent upon one another for defense against savages, wild beasts, and starvation. To-day it seems to imply, "The less

form outwardly, the more warmth inwardly." I like it.

I could even wish it a shade franker. I have a feeling that sentiment feeds on expression, and the rashest Middle-Westerner fears to express sentiment, and will not suffer you to express it. The Eastern husband of a Middle-Western woman began by addressing her as "Dear." She made him stop. Your Middle-Western friend, far from clasping you to his bosom, "guys" you within an inch of your life. Beware! They are ferocious humorists, the plainsmen. The Middle West produced Mr. George Ade, now a college trustee, and Mr. Finley Peter Dunne. It produced George Fitch. It produced Mr. Julian Street, Mr. Booth Tarkington, and, in an earlier day, the incomparable Eugene Field. Fun gambols and frisks out there so joyously, indeed, that sentiment, assailed by half a dozen other destructive forces at once, might well have cut for cover. Instead, it rules. Never be deceived by a Middle-Westerner's hard-headed practicality or a MiddleWesterner's prosiness or a Middle-Westerner's jeers at sentiment. Underneath, he is poetical,

Varied are his ways of proving it. John Brown went forth from the Middle West, alone-almost-to free the slaves. A little Middle-Western old lady undertook to deliver humanity from intemperancewith a little hatchet. Mr. Joe Chapple advertised, "I will pay $10,000 for heartthrobs," and the Middle West responded; Volume II has since appeared. Mr. Bryan, with rainbows for timber, builds a new heaven and a new earth; until of late, the Middle West has idolized Mr. Bryan. Mr. Ford institutes a Children's Crusade (of adult pacifists), and two Middle-Western States have demanded him for President. Mr. Nicholas Vachel Lindsay preaches his gospel of beauty in Middle-Western farm-houses; the farmers relish it. Oh, they do such things and they say such things on the prairie! Bravo! Their hearts are right, and right tender. Try them with "There, Little Girl, don't Cry!" or "An Old Sweetheart of Mine,"

[graphic][merged small][ocr errors]

"Where a grain-elevator looms gaunt and hideous next to the tracks"

or look on while a sweet lass of twelve at a Sunday-school festival recites "Nothing to Say, My Daughter."

They have their follies, their weaknesses, their sins. They confess them. They are not "smug." They recognize

even the defects of their qualities; for example, of their progressiveness. The Spoon River Anthologist has convinced himself that the Middle West already shows symptoms of decay; yet what is this I read? "Ripon, Wisconsin, was down in the public building bill for a $75,000 postoffice, but asked Congress to take back the gift and apply the money to national defense." The elder generation would hardly have done that. In those perfect days a Middle-Western senator wrote, "The purification of politics is an iridescent dream," adding, "The ten commandments and the golden rule have no place in a political campaign." Only yesterday a young Middle-Westerner told me his belief that the young Middle West had lost the fine, heroic hardihood of the pioneers. He himself is the very personification of hardihood, as good as his fathers, and in many ways better.

What a paradox, this Middle West! How self-deceived! How deceptive! It appears to ache with monotonous, prosaic unpicturesqueness: standardized cities, standardized villages, standardized country-side, standardized Middle-Westerners,

whose existence painfully lacks color. In New England life wears a Puritan blue, or so they say; in the South a patrician purple; in the far West "any color as long as it 's red"; here, to the alien eye, no hue whatever, or at best a torpid brown. Recently a Middle-Westerner unpacked his soul regarding why he adored the Middle West. Said he (anonymously, because the outburst seemed to him so ebullient), “I own my house, I sport a Ford, and I go to the theater twice a month, all on an income of fifteen hundred dollars." Gammon! He loves the Middle West because he loves Middle-Westerners. He loves Middle-Westerners because of their boundless genius for sentiment. The most prosaic of regions, theirs is the most romantic. The Middle West narrowly escapes quixotism. It has more than once failed to escape. It is inartistic sometimes, inarticulate often, and, like farmer-folk the world over, of rarer make inside than outside. It is never insincere except toward itself. It is a little ashamed of its leading virtue, and worships just that. Its keenest interpreter was James Whitcomb Riley.

[graphic][merged small]
« PreviousContinue »