giving it all away

“But perhaps more essential, in The Beautiful Room Is Empty (the rather enigmatic quotation is from Kafka) are [Edmund] White’s descriptions of the discovery of the world of art, a subject not often explored by American writers. The novel begins not with a discussion of the young man’s sexual awakening but of his hunger for books, music, painting, information – commodities almost all Midwestern writers report being starved for. . . . The narrator is an interesting rarity, a budding artist and intellectual in Michigan. Normal Mailer, writing | somewhere of James Jones, speaks of ‘the terrible inferiority complex of the midwestern writer,’ meaning perhaps the feeling many Midwesterners have of coming upon culture suddenly or by accident, whether by going East to school or to Europe in a war, and having the impression that they were just now being let in on something other people had always known. . . . Though every American region has its apologists, the Midwest, which has produced so many of our greatest writers, has the fewest, is the most resolutely ‘a country where no one else was like me.’ Writers who start out there have tended to move (as White, who lives in Paris, has done) and not to take their flat, unromantic heartland for a subject. Just as blacks, from Baldwin to Baker, have found a more agreeable life in Europe, so the Midwesterners – Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Gellhorn, Jones, Herbst, to name a few – have their own set of circumstances to flee, those White describes so well.”

(Diane Johnson, “The Midwesterner as Artist”, pp. 71–72 in The Review of Contemporary Fiction, Fall 1996)

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