The Northwest Territory, Act II: In Which I Approximate In Words the Utopian and Aspirational Spirit and History of This Region

Posted on August 24, 2012


Act II

You remember that three part post I intended to write all that time ago? That I intended to write within a week’s time? Over a week ago? Well, yes, I’m finally getting around to the second part of it, after having fallen into a maelstrom of visa application materials, forms and documents, and of course socializing. But now, I plunge back into the utopian residue and memory of the American heartland.

The first ones that struck me, I found in Grinnell, Iowa. Grinnell’s not the smallest town in the Midwest—nearly 10,000 people and a small liberal arts college of some acclaim, which translates to a funky little main street, well maintained brick storefronts with a fancy, organic farmer’s market and a theatre showing Moonrise Kingdom on one of its screens. But every few blocks, you’ll find, if you look close enough, neoclassical busts and gold-filigreed lions studding out from the sides of buildings.

In the Dakotas, such old world oddities and pretentions/aspirations jut off the plains from time to time. Desiccated and half-deserted communities cluster around still-impressive husks of churches that loom over them, unearthly and almost eternal. In Pierre, a monster of white marble and veined tiles laid down by imported Italian artisans anchors the town, and in fact the governance of the whole state. But the Dakotas’ nod to the monumental is obnoxious and grandiose, a signal coming on too strong and self-aware of its difference from the reality and the landscape.

The thing about Grinnell, or Oskaloosa, or Dubuque, or any of the small towns that stretch across what was once known as the Northwest Territory, all the way into what we now derisively call Pentuckey, is that the strong lines, bold columns, evocative busts, and unnatural marble and filigree are not ostentatious and obnoxious. In these towns, such trappings are ubiquitous, unnoticed, accepted, and mundane. They lend a little glory to the still-thriving towns, although an unspoken one, and to the declining bits of the heartland they highlight a heavy-handed and mournful irony—Ozymandias in miniature.

My grasp of Midwestern American history is limited and I tend to understand it through the stretch of religious fervor across the plains and into the west. But I think my lens isn’t such a bad one in which to view the region—Manifest Destiny, after all, being named such as it is with divine and pre-ordained over- and undertones. So here’s what I read into these little do-dads:

Part of me rebels against what I’m about to say, mainly because a part of me has been scourged with coal and fire by academia for the past several years against making assertions about existential character and meaning, and that part of me wishes only to speak of rationality and logic and heavily supported fact and argumentation. But the more romantic, absurdist, and irrational side of my mind believes that we in America, in the media and in history, hold the image and concept of the heartland dear not because of its political and industrial significance and symbolism, but because of its historical meaning for our nation as it was here that the vital cores of what we have defined the American identity and condition to be first distilled and manifested themselves.

It doesn’t matter whether or not the rhetoric we all know from school—the notion of American as founding itself as the philosophical descendant of heroic ideals of populism and prosperity, the notion of America as the shining light on the hill, the notion of America as a pure and righteous land of progress and exceptionalism—it doesn’t matter whether all of that was true or whether it was truly articulated or believed by any of the founders of this nation. In fact, most of it is almost definitely all spurious historically and presently. But what matters is that (for whatever reasons, and we will suspend inquiry into that point presently) the wash of humanity that fluxed from the east to west in the beginning of the nineteenth century and cleaved onto the banks and plains running around the Mississippi and its tributaries, they believes (or wanted to believe) in that rhetoric (or the already extant myth of it). And there was a religious and utopian, even often directly apocalyptic, bent to that efflux just as much as there was an economic and political bent to it.

From the Burnt-Over District of New York State through the woods of Pennsylvania and into the Northwest Territory, Methodist circuit riders, Quakers, Shakers, and Candle Stick Makers (by which I surely mean Oneidas and their ilk) generated, evolved, splintered, and multiplied in droves, pushing into a (to-them) virgin and unrestricted land where they could burn out the impurities of previous histories (ignore Monk’s Mound and push aside previous residents) to create an earthly garden for themselves. Such little religious towns, even if they were not expressly towns founded by the bursts of faith of the nineteenth century, all expressed something of the era’s notion that one could have salvation on earth as in heaven, that utopia was possible and present, and that it could be realized through America along the banks of the Mississippi and just beyond the old colonies.

I’ll not ramble more and more about such things. If you want to talk religious history and the peopling of the Northwest Territory (or at least the peopling of it with those individuals who were most concerned with writing its history, building its art and architecture, and defining its character), please to let me know. It would be a great chat to have.

But what I want to say is this: you can still see the utopianism and idealism of America embedded in the little fixtures of Midwestern small towns. You can still see something of the aspirational, utopian future that was promised to the nineteenth century American in new lands. You can see something of the fervent pull of the west and the crazed righteousness that built and land and a history and a culture. You can see it marginalized and crumbling and faded, but it is still present, and it still defines the area. It’s little symbols like that, and all that they are charged with historically and conceptually, that I believe lend the Midwest its talismanic importance to our nation.

… We were promised jetpacks. The Greatly Awakened of the settlement era were promised heaven on earth. Our hope is a diminished one. But as long as the heart of America still beats on and looks upon the relics of hope and intention from its past, there will always be something utopian and apocalyptic, something divine and otherworldly about our dreams and belief, our nature and our nation. Part of me believes that and part of me doesn’t. But when I drive through these little towns, the part of me that does (and it is a small part) is so engaged I must write it down while it passes through my mind.

Anyway, that’s the second part of my three-part thoughts on the past leg of the trip. Next time, I’ll speak of the crossing into the old colonies, the woodlands of the east, and why I feel so much more comfortable here than I do in the Midwest, and why I feel there is a grand and natural irony to the fervor and faith Americans and immigrants, religious and political leaders and migrants, traditionally placed in the march west.

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