Jonathan Franzen on Midwestern Values

Question: What was it like growing up in the Midwest in the '70s?

Jonathan Franzen: What was it like growing up in the Midwest in the ‘70s? I think it was probably more like growing up in Hawaii or Washington State or Florida in the ‘70s, than it was like growing up in the Midwest of other decades. I think it was mostly the ‘70s and those were same everywhere.

Maybe we took it a little bit less ironically, all of that personal growth and self realization stuff of the ‘70s--we really bought it. Again, maybe just for a critical year or 18 months longer, but that’s enough to set the hook.

And I think it’s about a prolongation of innocence and it’s a prolongation of childhood. That’s how I would describe the Midwest; you are just so far from a border or a coast that the possibility of cynicism takes just a little longer.

When it hits, it hits full force because you have to embrace that cynicism and that irony and that rage because you’ve been duped, because you have survived to a greater age with your innocence and you feel so betrayed by the world and that the first reaction is to become unbelievably cynical and hard. But there is that kind of soft caramel center that never goes away, and maybe I’m just generalizing for myself, but I know that I was an unbelievably innocent 18 year old in every way. But not stupid and not unaware of the world, but I somehow still thought it was a nice world.

Question: What changed your mind?

Jonathan Franzen: Freshman year at college basically. I went to Philadelphia. It was not Philadelphia’s fault. I love Philly.

And it wasn’t those other kids’ fault; they came from somewhat tougher east coast schools, a lot of private school kids. Wow. The voltage between their jadedness and my innocence was bound to make one of us unhappy and it wasn’t going to be them. 

In some respects, it’s never really be ruined. There’s something about this whole narrative that makes me uncomfortable because I truly don’t believe in the Midwesternness of the Midwest. I cannot get outside it and account for it; I believe it exists, but it’s sort of like the center of the earth. I don’t actually know for sure that we have a molten core, I’m told we do and there’s no reason to doubt, and it must be there. And the Midwest, which is kind of the molten core of the country, that must exist too.

Question: What are Midwestern values?

Jonathan Franzen: Whenever anyone asks me to generalize about the Midwest, I want to come back and say there is no such thing as the Midwest.

And every once in a while, someone says, “You know, there’s no such thing as the Midwest."  And then I want to argue with that person and say, “That’s not true. Have you ever watched a Midwesterner get on the subway in New York City?”

It was certainly true in my high school that fashions got there a year or two later than they did on the coast. What we thought was very, very cutting edge was already passé in California and New Jersey--as I bitterly discovered when I went east to go to college.

So what that time lag represents, I’m not sure.

Midwestern values; I don’t think there is such a thing as Midwestern values. 

It’s kind of the crank capital of North America right now; those wonderful Midwestern plain states. So it’s not like, what do you say? It’s no different from anywhere else, and yet we all feel that there is something there.

Recorded On: Apr 1, 2008

Jonathan Franzen on growing up in the Midwest in the 1970s.

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