Holiday Issue: ‘From the Heartland’

Published in: November-December 2021 issue.


WE’VE DEVOTED an issue to New York City and visited the West Coast many times, but don’t wish to fall into the familiar trap of neglecting the part of the country between the coasts that’s justly called “the Heartland.” Whether there’s anything discernibly “Midwestern” or “Prairie” about the people featured here in some cultural sense—and there’s always a risk of falling into stereotypes—we all have a sense of what this vast region represents.

            That being the case, painter Grant Wood seems to epitomize the “Midwestern” artist—or does he? The painter of American Gothicwas considered a “regional” artist who painted Iowa’s rolling hills covered with crops and barns and wholesomeness—except, as Alfred Lees showed in a previous issue, one such landscape seems to conceal the glans of a giant penis! Or, as Ignacio Dardaude shows here (among other things), in another Wood painting a pair of hillocks becomes a pair of (probably male) buttocks once you tilt your head.

            The name Willa Cather evokes the smell of Nebraska’s soil or a sunset on a treeless plain; but beneath these idyllic surfaces are the lives of her characters, most of whom are exiles from far away who struggle to find a sense of place. Cather herself left home and found her way to New York City (via Pittsburgh) with her life partner Edith Lewis, all the while turning out her brilliant prairie novels. Andrew Holleran takes up a new biography that looks at this partnership and finds a well-oiled machine, with Cather writing the novels and Lewis, a PR maven, promoting them with the same marketing savvy that she used to sell soap.

            The name Alfred Kinsey may not conjure amber waves of grain, but the kid from New Jersey ended up teaching at Indiana University, which is still the home of the Kinsey Institute for Research in Sex, Gender, and Reproduction. The Institute could probably have been set up most anywhere, but somehow its presence in a conservative Midwestern state has had the effect of “mainstreaming” Kinsey’s highly controversial work. In this issue, Martin Duberman tracks the relationship between Kinsey and one of his acolytes, C.A. Tripp, a gay scholar who later wrote The Homosexual Matrix(1975).

            No trip to the Heartland would be complete without a stop in Chicago. Historian John D’Emilio, who’s done extensive research on the city’s LGBT past, argues in an interview that Chicago can be seen as paradigmatic of the “broad sweep of the LGBT past,” a city at the crossroads of America’s many currents. Another Chicagoan was playwright Lorraine Hansberry, who’s the subject of a new biography reviewed here by Reginald Harris. Her classic play A Raisin in the Sun, about housing discrimination against a Black family, takes place in Chicago, which sets the tone for a story that could be happening in any American city.