What is Midwestern Nice?
We should start with what it isn’t. It isn’t the feigned kindness of the South, where people sipping bourbons at cocktail hour reserve the right to boot-heel you when you turn your back. It’s not the abrasive honesty of the Northeast, where everyone speaks, as Don DeLillo once put it, in the same nasally, knowing cynicism. It is genuine, Midwestern Nice.
I grew up in Iowa but I’ve heard the same line repeated of people from Minnesota or Wisconsin or Nebraska, and always with the unfussy grammar of the plain-spoken: “The Midwest is a great place to be from.” It is nurturing and civic-minded, maybe due to the Scandinavian and German Protestants who settled the land, living by the Golden Rule, and its history is a continuity of compassion: the territory of Iowa in the Antebellum Era refusing to segregate schools, an idea that even Ulysses S. Grant called radical; a president from Illinois who ended slavery; Wisconsin laborers, in the early 20th century, receiving workers' compensation and unemployment insurance decades ahead of the New Deal; Iowa, Minnesota, and Illinois, in the modern age, allowing gay marriage years before the progressive movements in New York and California could do the same. The Midwest takes pride in all this; it would just rather not talk about it, you see, because that would be boasting, and boasting is not nice.
That humility permeates everything, helping to create the most remarkable facet of Midwestern Nice: the restraint from speaking ill of others, even if others should probably be ill-spoken of. I remember sitting at my grandmother’s table, in the hour before supper on a summer afternoon, watching her read the newspaper. I must have been 10 or so, in the last years before I learned to fully appreciate her -- a woman who grew up in the Depression, survived TB, raised six daughters alongside her farming husband, collected eggs from the chicken coop every morning, and read voraciously each night. She was always cheerful, which isn’t remarkable in the Midwest, but it is worth mentioning because reading one article that afternoon, I remember her eyes narrowing and her lips pursing themselves into an ugly knot that I never saw. She was upset, so upset that she soon read aloud that there had been, if memory serves, a murder in a nearby town. Police had arrested a suspect. She walked over to a dining room window and seemed to almost shake; she occasionally shopped in the town. Staring out at the bright afternoon, she looked in a trance, and even I could see the thoughts racing through her mind. But she just turned back to the dining room, and the one thing she said she half-muttered to the floor, in that flattened-vowel lilt of hers:
“And on a day like this.”
I scoffed, and for a while the afternoon stayed with me, as one more example of Grandma’s earnest, almost Old World simplicity. But as I got older I began to see it differently. Her reaction was about mastering fear, about stoicism and restraint, about not saying something caustic simply because you can, even if it’s about a person who has literally just murdered someone. Grandma’s six words, I discovered, were an anthem of sorts for Midwestern Nice.