Towards a midwestern gothic.


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The Midwest has been an absent center of literary studies for as long as people have passed it over on their way to somewhere else. While the region has produced a litany of writers and stories central to the canon of American literature, little work has been done to unify or systemize its defining characteristics. I argue that beginning right after the turn of the twentieth century, the Midwest became a distinctly gothic region. I demonstrate the developing characteristics of midwestern gothic literature through the works of Willa Cather, Louise Erdrich, Marilynne Robinson, and Gillian Flynn. Fusing elements of borderlands theory, frontier theory, American gothic theory, and Queer theory, the midwestern gothic framework emphasizes the role of what I call the Midwest’s over-bordered/borderlessness. Having more borders than any other region, transience is an ever-present threat to a Midwesterner. At the same time, settlement is also a difficult proposition in the region. Throughout the literature of each author, individual characters can be identified as either a settler or a wanderer, but the Midwest places limits on either destiny that can be oppressive or fatal. I chart the development of the genre over a century of writing. In Willa Cather’s O’Pioneers and My Ántonia, characters on either side of the settler/wanderer split are subverted; once this two-sided entrapment is identified, the latent gothic undertow becomes visible. Louise Erdrich’s Love Medicine demonstrates the cultural compression that results from life in small frontier towns, and I analyze the way this works to determine the fate of characters in The Beet Queen. Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead novels combines the fact of compression with proximity to borders. This equation culminates in a particularly gothic form of midwestern transience. Finally, Gillian Flynn’s best-selling Gone Girl demonstrates the apex of the genre and its vast proliferation, cementing the Midwest as a persistent horror-scape in the imagination of the contemporary reader.



Midwestern Literature. American Gothic. Regions. 20th Century.