A few years ago, while doing research in southeastern Kansas, I stopped in Independence, a metropolis of around 8,500 on the Verdigris River, and paid a visit to the Independence Historical Museum and Art Center, a brick pile occupying much of a city block just off Main Street, which is also US Route 160. There wasn’t much going on downtown. Traffic was heavier on its western fringes, where the Walmart Supercenter and the Dollar Tree are.
On the first floor I spent a few minutes looking at entries in a school art contest, but when I asked whether there were any historical artifacts on offer, a volunteer led me downstairs. As it turned out, that’s where it was all happening, historically speaking.
There was some of just about everything: wagon wheels, tricycles, beaver and raccoon skins, old firearms, leg-hold traps, quilts, barbed wire labeled by type, and an entire pioneer cabin, reassembled. A placard commemorated the dwelling as the birthplace of “the first white child born in the valley.” Horseshoes and plows, flat irons and clothes wringers, saws and dinner bells sorted with the contents of a blacksmith shop, including “the largest known collection [of anvils] existing today.” These items were not so much curated as simply accumulated, cast-off objects speaking of absence and obsolescence with all the richness and specificity of the past but without the people who animated it. When the volunteer came back, she wanted to take me upstairs to see a whole barbershop.
Insofar as this collection represented a story, it was one about white settlement and achievement, the righteous triumph of hard work and perseverance, casual conquering and acquisition. White people showed up and struggled to survive.
There were, of course, Black people in the surrounding community, such as the renowned frontier physician George Tann, a neighbor of Charles Ingalls, Laura Ingalls Wilder’s father. The families lived near each other on properties thirteen miles southwest of the town. A Civil War veteran, Tann was later commemorated in Little House on the Prairie for saving the Ingalls family during an outbreak of malaria in 1870. Over the course of his career, Tann did much more than that, serving as a doctor for the Cherokee Nation and establishing a nursing home for indigent patients. He died in Kansas, a far more accomplished and economically successful man than Ingalls. Tann’s story and millions of others like it have received little attention, however, because Black settlement and achievement in the Midwest have been long buried or misrepresented in mainstream arts and culture. Our perceptions of a rural “heartland,” as it is cloyingly called, remain almost uniformly and thoughtlessly white.
Two anthropologists, Britt E. Halvorson and Joshua O. Reno, have examined ideas and images of the Midwest, which have contributed, they contend, to the spread of white supremacy.* They embarked on the study shortly after Trump won the region in the 2016 election, and in Imagining the Heartland: White Supremacy and the American Midwest, they seek to show how the place has evolved into “a stage or screen onto which ideas of nation and race are projected and become entwined with imperial and racial projects at a global scale.”
Both have personal and professional ties to the region—Halvorson grew up in Michigan and Reno spent years living and researching in that state—and they suggest that this “most ordinary” place has, through its very mundanity, become uniquely powerful in preserving “racialized white spaces,” which include everything from cultural activities to labor practices and landscapes. They also assume that the connection between the Midwest and whiteness is largely unexamined, something that is “taken-for-granted.”
Offering a useful overview of visual representations of the 1930s and 1940s, they show how midwestern imagery has long favored agrarian over urban or industrial images:
Dominant representations of the pastoral Midwest…sought to present the region and its inhabitants through the lens of a selective tradition of Midwestern farming, as a foil to the technology and modernity of industrial labor as well as its toil, pollution, inequalities, workers of color, and forms of alienation…. An iconic and imagined place, the Heartland remains coded as white.
The Regionalists, including Thomas Hart Benton, Grant Wood, and John Steuart Curry, ultimately created a “positive nationalist sentiment,” they say, largely depicting the Midwest as a “pastoral heartland populated by hardworking white farmers.” They note exceptions—Curry having depicted lynching, for example—but suggest that overall the works skew sanguine. This discussion seems to be leading toward a substantive social and cultural review of how the region has been perceived as the home of “prototypic whites, even hyper-whites.”
But once we leave the safe haven of specific images, we’ve got trouble, right here in River City. The writers jump from topic to topic, and this brief study is further fragmented by first-person “Reflections,” designed, according to feminist writers they cite, to “expose our struggles with racial formation and racism.” They even tell us that “this is not a book about the Midwest, the place, or Midwesterners, the people,” and that “our concern is less with specific places and people than with the cultural work of place-making,” an incoherent assertion that calls into question the need for a regional focus at all.
As their argument emerges, it becomes clear that culture, however produced and of whatever quality, is in their view a consumer item, and it doesn’t matter whether the whiteness of a given work is presented as “desirable and virtuous” or “deplorable.” By way of establishing the whiteness of the Midwest, we are offered “commodified global icons as diverse as Dorothy Gale [of Oz], Superman, and Freddy Krueger.” To locate them, the authors have studiously consulted the American Film Institute database for 1,669 films “explicitly associated with the region” but have somehow missed the endlessly televised 1962 version of Meredith Willson’s The Music Man, a film presenting a prototypical midwestern town, one with not a single Black person on either side of the tracks. Professor Harold Hill is no Freddy Krueger, but if anything is coded as white, it’s this movie. Likewise, our attention is directed to Field of Dreams, Pleasantville, Smallville, Parks and Recreation, and Saturday Night Live, but not to the frothy white fantasy of Meet Me in St. Louis from 1944.
The bias toward modern cultural artifacts obscures a long tradition of midwestern literature whose creators—by imagining the heartland—used the region to show America to itself, revealing its abject regard for conventionality and unthinking bigotry. Millions of American public schoolchildren were introduced to our most unappealing selves by being assigned a handful of classics, including Sinclair Lewis’s Babbitt, whose titular character became a byword for such traits. But Lewis receives short shrift here, considered only for “virulent classism” in Main Street.
Compounding their reductionist view, Halvorson and Reno have a limited grasp of the breadth and complexity of midwestern literature and history. They seem vaguely aware of these shortcomings, suggesting that “tracing…many points of overlap exceeds our focus.” But their admittedly “selective” attention to “events informing the region’s invention in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries” is jarringly contemporary.
A nuanced understanding of the origins of an imagined heartland is lost by the authors’ failure to address foundational works, including Edgar Lee Masters’s 1915 poem cycle Spoon River Anthology, which was so closely and unnervingly based on the residents of his hometowns of Lewistown and Petersburg, Illinois, that it was banned from local schools and libraries in the former until 1974 for exposing the community’s worst secrets (rape and abortion). Giving voice to the dead in the municipal cemetery (its influence on George Saunders’s graveyard novel, Lincoln in the Bardo, is often cited), Spoon River dared to include a Black man criticizing whites. It may well be, as Imagining the Heartland’s authors argue, that “distinguishing virtuous from non-virtuous whiteness is an old, long-standing component of white supremacy,” but the fact that Spoon River became an international best seller is a historical fact that’s relevant here.
Also unmentioned is Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio, with its gallery of those he calls “grotesques,” townsfolk crippled by emotional fears of one another and shocked dumb by sexual desire. Winesburg, which influenced Hemingway, among others, has been one of the most frequently taught books in the country, after The Great Gatsby. It mentions the existence of Black people once, in a reference to “two drunken Negroes,” an example of how Anderson’s claustrophobic focus on white repressions blinded him to much else. Spoon River and Winesburg may be homely, old-fashioned works, but they reveal the barbed wire, every twist and kink, running through the story of how a regional literature came to stand for a national one.
What’s more, the part whiteness plays has not been taken for granted. A hundred years ago D.H. Lawrence provided a succinct, if dated, model of racial analysis by examining “the white American soul” in James Fenimore Cooper’s Leatherstocking Tales, novels about whites’ encounters with the stereotypical “noble savage” from the wilds of New York to the heart of the Louisiana Purchase. Lawrence deemed them “white novels” in Studies in Classic American Literature (1923), an excoriating take on the contradictory national urge to glorify and exterminate indigenous people.
The authors comment on short stories that Langston Hughes set in the Midwest, including one about the life of a Black maid in the home of a “morally corrupt” Protestant family. Yet, claiming that “dominant cultural notions of the Midwest frequently exclude…cities like Detroit and Chicago,” they skip the Chicago literary renaissance of the 1910s, which, in addition to Masters and Anderson, also included Carl Sandburg, who reported on the Chicago race riot of 1919, the year he won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry. Nor do they consider the city’s Black renaissance of the 1930s and 1940s led by Richard Wright and Gwendolyn Brooks. Wright is mentioned once, in an endnote, perhaps because his career doesn’t tend to support the thesis of this book. There’s not a word about Hemingway, whose In Our Time enshrined the Midwest as a place of natural regeneration and moral alienation.
It’s not just literature, either. We learn how many Lutherans there are in Madagascar (where Halvorson did field work) but not in Minnesota. Frederick Jackson Turner, who famously elaborated his frontier thesis of manifest destiny at the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair, gets a lick and a promise, while Thorstein Veblen, the economist from Wisconsin whose theory of conspicuous consumption has parallels to Babbitt, comes up crickets. Frank Lloyd Wright, who invented the Prairie style, might as well not have. He would have been an interesting figure to consider here beyond just that. In 1914 his mistress, her two children, several workmen, and a workman’s son were slaughtered in an axe murder at Taliesin, his home in Wisconsin, by a Black servant who burned the house down. A recent Wright biographer, Paul Hendrickson, has suggested that the murders may have helped inspire the 1921 Tulsa race massacre.
We’ve nearly come to the end of the book before we learn that there are seven million Black people living in the Midwest. Beyond the anti-Semitism of Henry Ford there is little about specific manifestations of white supremacy there, with no discussion of the Kansas-based Koch brothers and their ties to the ultraconservative John Birch Society, whose leaders supported White Citizens’ Councils, described by Martin Luther King Jr. as a “modern form of the Ku Klux Klan.” According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, the Midwest hosts a considerable number of hate groups—twenty-three in Illinois, twenty in Ohio, eighteen in Michigan, and seventeen in Missouri. But so do the South and the West (California has sixty-five), and the authors never adequately demonstrate how the region is uniquely responsible for encouraging and exporting such views.
Imagining the Heartland leaves the impression that the Midwest may have played a significant part in contriving and circulating images of white supremacy, but readers may wonder how other regions compare. The book’s conclusions are muddied by a comic-book view of culture, which turns everything into inert commodities—Superman, Nightmare on Elm Street—that somehow spread whiteness like a virus, making endless copies of themselves. In lectures delivered at Harvard in 1990 (published in 1992 as Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination), Toni Morrison (from Ohio) demonstrated how a more sophisticated analysis might be done, albeit without a regional focus. She examined in unsparing detail “the parasitical nature of white freedom” as it appears in works by Willa Cather, Edgar Allan Poe, and Hemingway. She was less interested, she said, in “a particular author’s attitudes toward race” than in “the ways in which a nonwhite, Africanist presence and personae have been constructed—invented—in the United States, and of the literary uses this fabricated presence has served.” She knew how to tell a story and how to take one apart.
Jessa Crispin’s My Three Dads: Patriarchy on the Great Plains addresses the Midwest from a different angle, exploring its veiled violent origins in a memoir. Picking the white patriarchal corn off the nasty little cob of her childhood in rural Kansas, she allows us to consider real places and real people, namely the men Crispin identifies as intellectual and spiritual fathers: Joseph Pianalto, her elementary school art teacher who murdered his family; John Brown, abolitionist agent of righteous mayhem who, in 1856, slaughtered five proponents of slavery during the “Bleeding Kansas” era; and Martin Luther, whose attack on the Holy Roman Empire launched wars and massacres.
Born in 1978, Crispin grew up in Lincoln, Kansas, a town of 1,600. She attended Baker University, a private Methodist institution in another small town near Topeka, but left after two years. In 2002, while working at a Planned Parenthood in Austin, Texas, she founded Bookslut, a popular literary website and blog that cultivated a reputation for sticking a thumb in the eye of the publishing industry while reviewing comics, books by women and people of color, and works in translation.
In that forum Crispin presented herself as a gadfly and outsider, skewering MFA programs and local independent bookstores in Austin. In her youth, she often seemed at pains to criticize an older generation of feminists, writing a column called Slut Lessons.
Bookslut ran for fourteen years, until Crispin shut it down in 2016 to focus on longer work, producing several books herself—The Dead Ladies Project: Exiles, Expats & Ex-Countries (2015), a discursive reflection on famous literary exiles written while living abroad; The Creative Tarot (2016); and Why I Am Not a Feminist: A Feminist Manifesto (2017)—the writing often flavored by bog-standard blog, lax and snarky.
My Three Dads, by contrast, is wry, serious, and searching. In an introductory passage, she returns from Europe to renovate and rescue a hundred-year-old rental in the historic Hyde Park neighborhood of Kansas City, Missouri, largely abandoned during a period of white flight. In this house, boarded up for fifteen years, she keeps encountering a ghost, a damp, doleful, low-spirited ghoul who takes the plaintive forms of a puddle on the basement stairs, wet footprints, and the sound of someone pacing. He’s a drip.
She imagines Charlie, as she calls him—he’s indisputably male—dis- approving of her louche ways: lonely and depressed, she brings home a stranger on her first night in the house, “in the hopes he would either fuck me or murder me, and I wasn’t sure which I preferred.” The ghost becomes attached in her mind to the grim history of the “serial killer neighborhood” that surrounds her. She doesn’t name the murderer, but it’s Robert Berdella, the Kansas City Butcher, who between 1984 and 1987 tortured and killed at least six young men a few blocks away.
Roused to ironic inquiry, she calls in a team of psychic ghostbusters, but Charlie is a literary device, suggestive of “a story without an ending…unfinished business.” She’s sensing, she says, “a lot of dad energy” from him: disapproval and “this long list of unspoken rules, this very Midwestern version of masculinity that is all emotional constipation yet still strangely captivating.” He is our first encounter with “all of the men who had been used to teach me what love was, what god was, what pleasure was, what art was, what truth was.” These father figures have little to offer, yet she admits to remaining in thrall to them. Having once escaped from Kansas, the dream of “every former farm kid,” she returns to the general scene of primal crimes in an attempt to reckon with these spectral presences.
After that introduction, she begins in Lincoln, the year before she was born and shortly before her family arrived, by alluding to a Badlands-style murder spree that would reverberate through her childhood. Kansas newspapers reveal that on May 7, 1977, several members of the Wiebke family, the parents and their youngest child, an eighteen-year-old son, were taken hostage at their farmhouse north of town by a twenty-six-year-old desperado from St. Louis, John Earl Steward. The night before, Steward had shot his ex-girlfriend twice in the head, killing her, and gone on the run. After a standoff lasting several hours, the gunman shot and killed all three of his hostages along with himself.
Compared to the murders twenty years earlier of Charles Starkweather—who, in late 1957 and early 1958, at nineteen, murdered eleven people across Nebraska and Wyoming over the course of little more than two months—news coverage of what had happened in Lincoln was subdued. The Starkweather rampage launched an anguished national debate over the immorality of American youth that lasted for decades, inspiring multiple movies, including 1973’s Badlands, and famous songs by Bruce Springsteen and Billy Joel.
But the murders in Lincoln inspired no such outpouring. “The grief still moves through the town,” Crispin says. In the aftermath, investigation was quashed, according to a Salina Journal columnist, particularly any scrutiny of the hours when the killer was sequestered with the family and surrounded by law enforcement, who did not act. Only a month later, the columnist wrote, the town was trying to stifle talk of the killings, as if in a bid to return to the safety of ordinary life. “The sooner forgotten the better” was the general sense. An undersheriff said, “I think everybody’s trying to forget about it, really.”
The determined suppression of terror after male violence becomes the backdrop to Crispin’s early life and a theme of her book. The oppressive social forces of conventionality are the same as those described in Spoon River or Winesburg or Babbitt, and if not unique to the Midwest, they are strongly associated with it. The smothering of emotional reaction is also a central feature of her account of the Pianalto murder-suicide, which, as with her references to the earlier killings, is stripped of dates and factual detail, her recollections having been formed in childhood. In describing it, she identifies gaps in her memory and chronicles the emotional numbness of the moment, voids that perpetuated her shock and confusion, prompting in later years tantrums, bouts of weeping and vomiting, and episodes of rage and fear.
The Pianaltos moved to Lincoln when Crispin was five. Joseph Pianalto taught art in the elementary and middle schools. She remembers him as funny but edgy and his daughters as counterparts to herself and her siblings: “The older daughter, Anne, was a little younger than me, the younger, Jennifer, a class or two below my little sister.” Joseph loved pranks and elaborate Halloween tricks:
One year the scarecrow with the bowl of candy on his lap turned out not to be made of hay but to be Mr. Pianalto himself. As we tentatively reached our hands into the bowl, he snatched at them, a soft inanimate mass come to life, and we screamed and we giggled and we thrilled.
She basked in his attention without, she adds, feeling violated. He read plays she wrote and drew her a poster in case she wanted to put on a performance.
Crispin was eleven and in the sixth grade when, on a Monday morning as she was looking forward to art class, Mr. Pianalto did not show up. In his honor she had chosen to wear a dress with “spring green ruffles on the skirt, and one spring green ruffle along the neck. He had not seen this dress before. I put it on and wondered if he would like it.” Class was inexplicably delayed until the principal showed up with a man in uniform—a police officer or a priest—to deliver incomprehensible news:
I remember all of these things, and yet what I remember most are the blank spots. I remember being at my desk, and then I remember being in the back of the room pulling tissues out of the box, and I remember noticing the gap in time and being confused. Had I raised my hand for permission…. There was another blank spot, and then I was back at my desk, and tears were running down my face, and I was surprised at this. Why was I crying?
She could see that the principal himself was having trouble breathing, sighing heavily, tilting his head back and “opening up his mouth like a fish sucking at food on the surface of the water.”
The students learned some version of the facts: In the middle of the night (it was March 12, 1990), Joseph Pianalto had taken a hunting rifle and shot his sleeping wife in the head and then shot his daughters, eight and six years old. Then he killed himself. There was never an explanation. An account of the memorial service in the Salina Journal captured the grotesque incongruity of local responses. A priest called the dead “the ideal family,” as if they’d been taken up in the rapture. Joseph Pianalto’s sister taught the classmates of the children he murdered to sing “If I Were a Butterfly.” After the service, Crispin writes, “the deaths of the Pianaltos, in true Midwestern fashion, were never directly discussed again.”
Later, “as a graduate of The Pianalto Family Management Program,” the author becomes a “hysteric,” in her term, obsessively reading magazines as her connection to a wider world, listening to heavy metal, and compulsively being “saved” at revival meetings only to lose interest. She grew to understand that “loving someone could get you killed.” She was astounded to hear her family laughing over their own recollection of attempted murder: as a child, her troubled uncle Tom had twice tried to poison her mother when her mother was a toddler, feeding her “the contents of the medicine cabinet.” Not surprisingly, as an adult Crispin devoted herself to reading true crime, brooding over stories of other familicides, learning that in a world in which domestic abuse is commonplace, Joseph Pianalto “wasn’t such an anomaly after all.” If the subdued reaction to his murders was peculiarly midwestern, the murders themselves were part of a long American tradition.
John Brown, the state martyr, was also a murderer, she says, notwithstanding the righteousness of his cause. She notes that in the service of it “he made his sons into murderers” and pressured reluctant followers to kill. For this he is celebrated in Kansas, a mood best expressed in the bizarre John Steuart Curry mural Tragic Prelude, in the Topeka statehouse, the manic Brown striding electrified into the foreground, his hair standing on end and his beard trying to, Union and Confederate soldiers facing off behind him, and behind them a tornado and a raging prairie fire. In his left hand Brown holds a Bible, open to the letters alpha and omega, in his right a “Beecher’s Bible,” the breech-loading Sharps rifle used during the Bleeding Kansas era and thought by those who flourished it (as well as Henry Ward Beecher, for whom it was named) to be a weapon of moral rectitude.
Crispin first saw the mural (which was initially rejected by the legislature and never completed) on a school field trip. “He radiated madness and fury,” she writes of Brown, and she was frightened by “the pool of blood, the fire raging behind him, his mouth open in a yawp.” She reflects on recent bouts of local psychosis, including the 2009 assassination in Wichita of abortion provider Dr. George Tiller by Operation Rescue and the mania of Topeka’s Westboro Baptist Church, whose parishioners protested at his funeral.
She contemplates white nationalism and Timothy McVeigh, radicalized by a paramilitary cell in Michigan after the Branch Davidians burned at Waco, Texas, in 1993. Watching him interviewed on 60 Minutes, Crispin says, “I don’t see a dead-eyed monster. I see the guys I grew up with, the ones I was a little afraid of but went to the creek with anyway.” The bombing of the Federal Building in Oklahoma City on April 19, 1995, which killed 168 and injured at least 680 in the deadliest act of domestic terrorism ever seen in this country, may not have been attributable entirely to midwestern origins (McVeigh was from New York). But Crispin drifts between imagining that her own Kansas heartland is responsible for atrocities and recognizing that the region is, if anything, a distillation of the whole—America but more so.
What is the Midwest, after all, but a long, straight superhighway to the past, a place where suicidal farmers and homicidal cops and polite fanatics in dad pants are phantasms of the frontier’s original settlers? Grappling with the pioneer mythos, D.H. Lawrence defined the essence of those driving to the interior, far from the known world. They were men who came here “to get away—that most simple of motives…. Away from what? In the long run, away from themselves.” At their core was a cold American soul, “hard, isolate, stoic, and a killer,” and they built a country where the white men wielding the Bibles and the rifles have been getting away with murder since the very beginning.