The Midwest is becoming more conservative

The Midwest is considered barren, provincial, conservative. The German writer Gregor Hens, who has lived in Ohio since 1995, developed a more multifaceted picture - also with a view to the cultural presence of the American heartland.

"I just flew over Ohio and was thinking of you," writes a New York friend. I've been working in Columbus, the capital of Ohio, for sixteen years, and I've been receiving messages like this for sixteen years. The Midwest, which stretches from Ohio to North Dakota and Kansas in the west, is flyover country and is not a stopover for most coastal residents value. But there is some evidence that you can find something here that another term seeks to encompass: “the American Heartland”. Even if the image that the world has of America is shaped by Hollywood in the west and Wall Street in the east, Americans have not forgotten that the soul of the country, its perceived center, is somewhere between Pittsburgh and Kansas City , located between Chicago and St. Louis. It may be that this soul is ailing.

Pacemaker for politics

The unease that prevails in large parts of the Midwest is not least brought from the outside, it is transported by books and films and acknowledged by its residents with the defiantly defeatist motto: "It's not that bad" - it could be worse. Ohio has enjoyed a dubious reputation long before the housing slump that hit the entire region hard. The state, which until the middle of the last century was characterized by agriculture and industry, a lively immigrant culture and powerful, progressive trade unions, has long been considered conservative, backward and provincial. So it seemed almost imperative that Bill Clinton brought the Bosnian negotiators together at an air force base in Dayton, Ohio, in 1995. The place seemed particularly suitable to shield the parties in a strict conclave and to keep them away from any distraction.

If Ohio is considered a cultural and social wasteland, the state is of the greatest political importance. Crucial political battles have been fought here for decades, often with very close results. As Ohio goes, so goes the nation, it is said that Al Gore experienced this particularly painfully in 2000. If he hadn't withdrawn his campaigners from Ohio before the decision was made, the world would have been spared the unspeakable scramble for the ballots in Florida. Because since Kennedy no one has won the presidency who could not lead Ohio in their victory column. On the active side, too, the political importance of the state should not be underestimated: seven of the forty-four American presidents were born in Ohio. House spokesman John Boehner, who was President Obama's direct opponent in recent debt-raising negotiations, is from a constituency near Cincinnati.

When the film “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes” is shown in an American coastal city and the cinema audience learns that the father of Marilyn Monroe's fiancé lives in Ohio (“A long distance call for you, from Dayton, Ohio...”), It laughs loud on. Ashamed and a little puzzled, I slide deeper into the armchair and wonder whether the comical effect was intended and whether the audience reacted similarly in 1953. For Vladimir Nabokov and Stanley Kubrick, such an effect was apparently not necessarily obvious. When Humbert Humbert accepts a position at the fictional Beardsley College, he explains to the protesting Lolita: "It's in Ohio, you'll like it there."

Of course, it is primarily films that shape the ideas of the global audience. My personal favorites include the 1979 adolescent drama “Breaking Away” from Bloomington, Indiana, Clint Eastwood's “Gran Torino” and a scene from Jim Jarmusch's cult classic “Stranger than Paradise”. In the latter, two New York friends visit a cousin in Cleveland, Ohio. The three of them stand on a platform after they have overcome a disused track system in the driving snow and look at the completely overexposed Lake Erie. What they see is white nothing. Ohio is at the end of the world, nothing comes after that, no lake, no Canada, nothing at all.

Even the hardest of all Hollywood directors, Steven Soderbergh, is drawn to Ohio again and again, at least in his mind: "Traffic", a drug thriller from 2000, presents the city of Cincinnati as a rift between upswing and decline, between the American dream on the one hand and total neglect on the other : here the suburbs of the whites, their neat houses and front gardens, there the crack-infested black district Over-the-Rhine. According to the illuminating backstory, the main character of Soderbergh's “The Informant”, one of the most disturbed protagonists in recent film history, grows up as an orphan in Ohio.

How does the Rhine get to Ohio?

The most mocking reference was probably made by Philip Roth, whose grandiose debut from 1959 was entitled "Goodbye, Columbus". The city only appears in a single subordinate clause in the book. What more effective way of expressing disdain? The novel "Ohio" by the sensitive Swiss author Ruth Schweikert appears to be somewhat different. Ohio is a family place of longing and a beautiful word here, an almost palindrome that can be carved into the bark of a Swiss stone pine tree.

The Over-the-Rhine neighborhood, which has been rioted again and again; a politician named Boehner; a district in Columbus called German Village, which has become a noble quarter, and whose park is adorned with a statue of Friedrich Schiller; Places like Gnadenhuetten and Berlin - all of this shows that the region was heavily influenced by German immigrants. I owe my position to this tradition, because the German studies department at Ohio State University, where I work, lives on it to this day.

The founder of American structuralism, Leonard Bloomfield, taught German here in the 1920s. Bloomfield's academic stations read like a travel guide through the region: University of Cincinnati, University of Illinois, Ohio State University, University of Chicago. The fact that he did not end his extraordinary career in the Midwest but at Yale University is exemplary: young academics are making a name for themselves in the provinces and moving on as luminaries, to California or the Ivy Leagues. Berkeley linguist emeritus Charles Fillmore, whose most famous work was done in Columbus in the mid-1960s, once told me: I've never worked as well as in Columbus, and I've never been so unhappy again.

Monument to modernity

Also in Indiana, a few hours drive from Ohio, there is a town called Columbus. When you see it from the highway in a vast landscape covered by endless cornfields, it at first seems like an alternative to the old, backward-looking, somewhat rundown Midwest. Columbus, Indiana, is a vision, a company town and a monument to modernity: the diesel engine manufacturer Cummins employs most of its residents, and a foundation of the company has paid the world's best architects to build here for over fifty years. In the city of only 44,000 inhabitants there are buildings by Richard Meier and Robert Venturi, a public library designed by IM Pei, two church buildings by Eliel and Eero Saarinen, Eero Saarinen's spectacular Miller House and his Irwin Union Bank, perhaps the most beautiful building of all in a region rich in good architecture, associated with names like Frank Lloyd Wright and Mies van der Rohe.

Irwin Union, a regional bank, filed for bankruptcy in 2009, causing the state deposit insurance fund FDIC to lose $ 850 million. If you now stroll along the quiet main street of the town and through the eerily empty shopping center designed by César Pelli, it quickly becomes clear that the optimism that architectural modernism has always conjured up in the wake of an all-embracing Malais itself in this magical place has almost passed away.

The writer Gregor Hens has taught at Ohio State University since 1995. His autobiographical essay “Nicotine” was published by S. Fischer Verlag in the spring.