By Jesse Raber

It’s easy to mistake the Great Lakes for the ocean, at first. I’ve brought a few people to see Lake Michigan for the first time, and that’s what they all say: “It looks like the ocean!”

Maybe they’re just trying to flatter my geographical chauvinism, which I don’t try to conceal, but I know at least one man who has honestly mistaken the Lake for the ocean. He approached the picnic table where I was sitting near the Adler Planetarium, reading a book and staring across the turquoise-gray water. I read a lot of books this way, and the frequent staring breaks do slow me down, but I like to think they help me understand authors who also like to stare across things.

The man asked me if this was the Planetarium, and, hearing his accent, I asked him where he was from. Serbia, it turned out. He was a college student in some kind of visa snafu (under Obama — simpler times) and he’d had to interrupt his travels with an emergency detour to the Serbian consulate in Chicago. He’d frantically booked a flight, rushed to the plane, and hot-footed it to the consulate, and was just now catching his breath. We stared across the water together, having a Henry-Jamesian conversation about politics, with him as the disillusioned Old Worlder to my optimistic American.

“So,” he eventually remarked, “this is the Atlantic Ocean.”

I like introducing people to new things (a charitable way of describing a certain kind of pedant), so it was with a feeling of gratitude for his miraculously preserved innocence that I loaded up Google Maps and initiated him into the mystery. “It’s a lake!” “No!” “Yes! Look at the map!” Then he said something along the lines of “Well I’ll be damned.”

I looked at him expectantly, wondering if he saw the special majesty of the Lake, its spiritual difference from the ocean. What a certain old Michigan license plate design calls its “Great Lakes Splendor.” There’s something heady and Emersonian about the Great Lakes — “in the distant line of the horizon, man beholds somewhat as beautiful as his own nature,” the man says, and nowhere is that horizon more steadily present than on these strangely empty, strangely luminous Lakes. Could a world-weary Serbian appreciate this? I don’t know.

* * *

The ocean has a certain meaning in classic American literature, one that many people understand, and the Great Lakes have another meaning, which I’m convinced that almost nobody understands.

Just for contrast, consider our well-known literary ocean.

The ocean is a boundlessness submerging all merely human conventions. In real life, Frederick Douglass escaped from slavery using papers borrowed from a free black sailor. In the Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, the sight of ships at sea steels his resolve to be free. “You are freedom’s swift-winged angels, that fly round the world,” he cries, while “I am confined in bands of iron! … It cannot be that I shall live and die a slave. I will take to the water.” Herman Melville was in his sailor years around the same time, making it almost (but not quite) possible that he was on one of those ships that Douglass pined for. Melville’s ocean, too, is a place where we can get beyond our social prejudices, and the Pequod’s forecastle is a kind of multiracial utopia.

But of course, for Melville, the ocean overwhelms not just the boundaries between humans, but the boundaries of the human psyche, showing man (for Melville’s sea-world is all masculine) his insignificance in the cosmic scheme. Poor Pip, the cabin boy, “carried down alive to wondrous depths, where strange shapes of the unwarped primal world glided to and fro before his passive eyes,” sees the universe in its full, inhuman truth, its “joyous, heartless, ever-juvenile eternities,” and can no longer understand the self-centered dreams of men. According to Kant, the sublime is the feeling we have when our brain melts down in the face of something too vast to contemplate, but then recovers itself, filled with wonder by its brush with the infinite. With Melville’s ocean, you don’t recover.

The ocean washes away all limits, and sometimes that means emancipation, but sometimes it means terror.

The Great Lakes mean something like the opposite of that.

* * *

The Lakes first appear in our classic literature (if I can be allowed that plummy phrase) in Cooper’s The Pathfinder, or The Inland Sea, where a tough-guy sea captain compares the motionless waters of Lake Ontario to “milk in a pan.” “No man ever saw the ocean still like this lake,” he says; even becalmed, the ocean “heaves and sets as if it had lungs.” The Lakes are tranquil, their pure water as wholesome as a temperance meeting — a fitting home for the teetotaling, aw-shucksing Natty Bumppo, who has, as William James would later call it, “an organism kept in lifelong possession of its full youthful elasticity by a sweet, sound blood, to which stimulants and narcotics are unknown, and to which the morning sun and air and dew will daily come as sufficiently powerful intoxicants.”

Nelson Algren begins Chicago: City on the Make by imbuing Lake Michigan with this same serene innocence, and contrasting it with the city’s pageant of ambition and misery. Here we are at the moment when the first white settlers make their fateful appearance:

“To the east were moving waters, as far as eye could follow. To the west a sea of grass as far as wind might reach.

Waters restlessly, with every motion, slipping out of used colors for new. So that each fresh wind off the lake washed the prairie grasses with used sea-colors: the prairie moved in the light like a secondhand sea.

Till between the waters and the wind came the marked-down derelicts with the dollar signs for eyes.”

The Lakes are friendly to humans, soothing us with their fresh colors, fresh winds, fresh waters. But they despise our bullshit. Those marked-down derelicts don’t belong with them, and it’s a shame, in Cooper, when civilization and its corruptions finally reach the Ontario country.

They also come to stand, in several writers who knew them well, for the part of ourselves that despises our bullshit. For the part that remains pure and clean in a dirty world. Reminiscing about his childhood by Lake Superior, Godfrey St. Peter, the professor in Willa Cather’s The Professor’s House, recalls: “The great fact in life, the always possible escape from dullness, was the lake. The sun rose out of it, the day began there; it was like an open door that nobody could shut. The land and all its dreariness could never close in on you. You had only to look at the lake, and you knew you would soon be free.”

When some Frenchmen ask him about the Lake, he tries to convey this sense of innocent exhilaration: “It is a sea, and yet it is not salt. It is blue, but quite another blue. Yes, there are clouds and mists and sea-gulls, but — I don’t know, il est toujours plus naïf.”

This is what I mean by there being something Emersonian about the Great Lakes. They evoke the imperturbable inwardness of a soul that suffices unto itself, and a tenacious radical innocence.

The thing is, though, Cather didn’t much like Emerson, and St. Peter’s feelings about the Lake are subjected to appalling ironies. The Professor’s House is about a man trying to hold on to something uncorrupted against the onslaught of the world. He tries to keep his college out of the hands of business interests, his protege’s legacy out of the hands of grasping executors, and his beloved house out of the hands of its new owners. Retreating into ever deeper architectural and psychological fastnesses, he seeks some place his spirit can safely rest … so he ends up sequestered in his tiny study and almost suffocates when he falls asleep with the gas on. Waking from his ordeal, he realizes that you can’t opt out of “the land and all its dreariness” — that is, out of the dirt of the world — and that his dream of a serene Great Lake of the soul is just a kind of spiritual dry rot after all.

F. Scott Fitzgerald deeply admired Cather, his Great Lakes also represent a kind of lame, untenable ideal of simplicity that turns out not to be a worthy foe for American capitalism. Before he is miraculously transformed into Jay Gatsby, James Gatz “had been beating his way along the south shore of Lake Superior as a clam digger and a salmon fisher or in any other capacity that brought him food and bed,” living a “half fierce, half lazy” life of simple labor and simple sex, where everything just is what it appears to be and there are no snobbish sophistications. Paradise for the beleaguered professor, perhaps, but Gatz can’t wait to get out. He doesn’t want to behold somewhat as beautiful as his own nature. It’s more fun to drive fast and be someone else.

James T. Farrell’s Studs Lonigan books, too, make ironic use of the Lakes-as-serene-innocence trope, although in them the irony is more ambiguous. Studs, like St. Peter, is exhausted by the modern world and its ceaseless struggle for status. While St. Peter tires of a game he’s winning, though, Studs is one of the rat race’s many losers. He’s always comparing himself to others and never likes what he sees, and, like so many people, he makes his diffuse anxieties concrete by becoming “ashamed of his body.” When he goes swimming in Lake Michigan, though, “he liked his body, and wasn’t at all ashamed of it.” Always obsessed with the neighborhood pecking order, once he gets out in the Lake he feels like “a slow ship that just went along and didn’t have any place in particular to go and just sailed.” He can finally stop defining himself against others, and encounter his real self.

But Studs has ruined his health by keeping up with his friends’ incessant drinking and smoking, so after just a few minutes of backfloating introspection he feels faint, gets “a sudden fear that he might get cramps and drown,” and returns to shore. It’s not clear, in this novel, whether Studs’s attempt at recreation (i.e., self re-creation) fails because there is no such thing as a pristine self that we can save from the world’s filth, or whether there is such a thing but poor Studs is just too far gone to find it. And Studs doesn’t know either, and doesn’t even know how to ask the question, and that’s what tortures him.

One last example. This one is from a novel that is far from canonical, but still deserves to be called an American classic: Henry Blake Fuller’s Bertram Cope’s Year (1919). Fuller was one of those people who influenced and impressed a lot of successful writers without ever gaining much of a reputation of his own. Jane Addams and Harriet Monroe thought he was one of the most brilliant people they’d ever met, but today he’s barely remembered for The Cliff-Dwellers (1893), a pretty decent Howellsian novel that’s only read by scholars of realism and Chicago lit completists. Fuller was also gay, and never had a long term romantic partner. Toward the end of his life, which he seemed to regard as a disappointment on multiple fronts, he wrote Bertram Cope’s Year, which is a quietly excellent novel about a gay adjunct professor at Northwestern. His friends were scandalized by the book’s homosexuality, and he could only get it published with a vanity press.

Bertram Cope’s Year is a delicate tissue of Jamesian tacit understandings, among the characters and also between the author and the reader. One of these unspoken but totally clear truths is that whenever Lake Michigan appears in the novel, it is a metaphor for Cope’s soul. Cope’s strategy as a closeted gay man is to resist all passionate attachments. (He is often compared to an icicle: slim, brilliant, and cold.) His fear of intimacy might be socially conditioned by homophobia, or it might just be part of Cope’s personality — even Cope doesn’t know which. So, using the Lake to talk about what can’t be talked about, one of Cope’s frustrated suitors gestures toward the water and calls it “a big, useless bathtub”: nice to look at, but nothing more. The narrator remarks, elsewhere, that “those who knew the lake best were best content to leave it alone. As a source of pleasure it had too many perils: ‘treacherous’ was the common word.” And indeed, Cope proves willing to sacrifice his lovers in order to save his chilly independence.

And so, again, we have the Great Lake as a gloriously self-contained soul, and again have a negative verdict passed on the whole proposition. In its freshwater horizon, we see the self we might have been if the world weren’t full of dollar-sign eyes and Puritan inquisitors, and … we see that this self won’t save us.

* * *

Credit: Pedco, via Wikimedia Commons

The Lakes’ geography lends itself to this conceit. Like the transcendentalist’s soul, they are fresh, clean, and somehow both vast and self-contained. They’re far too wide to see across, but their coastlines are dotted with “Circle Tour” road signs reminding you that they can be circumscribed. (I’ve completed the Lake Michigan Circle Tour, and maybe three-fourths of the parts of the Huron and Superior tours that are within the US.)

And their fate strangely mirrors that of American romanticism, too. Once, they were intimately involved with the country’s growth. Its economic lifeblood, ore and grain and timber, passed through them. This period roughly coincides with the life of Walt Whitman, that singer of himself who also says, in his “Song for Occupations, that “In the labor of engines and trades and the labor of fields I find the developments, / And find the eternal meanings.”

Later, the perfection of the railroad and the automobile bit into the Lakes’ shipping. It became easier to ship things to New York and send them west overland. So, during American literature’s age of high modernism, the Lakes fell out of any vital relationship to the country’s productive energies. Their role became, for the most part, purely aesthetic. For a literary touchstone here, maybe Hemingway’s story “The End of Something,” which takes place in a deindustrialized Lake Michigan mill town, where the old mill’s stone foundations look “more like a castle” in picturesque desuetude than like a place of work. This at the same time that America’s high literary scene tried to sharply distinguish itself from “Babbittry” and the merely economic life.

After the Second World War a plan was hatched, by Richard J. Daley among others, to Make the Great Lakes Great Again by opening up the Saint Lawrence Seaway. If you draw a string taut across a globe, you’ll see that the most direct route from Europe to the geographical center of the USA is right along the Saint Lawrence river, and on through Lakes Ontario and Erie. By building canals circumventing Niagara Falls, deepening shipping channels in Lake Saint Clair (Detroit’s mini-Great Lake), installing locks at Sault Sainte Marie, and so on, the way could be opened for freighters to sail directly from Chicago to Le Havre or Hamburg. This vision coincided, chronologically, with the marriage of romantic idealism to economic chauvinism in the rhetorical heyday of the “American Century”: we would beat communism because the same culture that unleashed capitalist dynamism also liberated individual self-expression. It was the age of the CIA secretly promoting Jackson Pollock and Dave Brubeck, impressing the world with our spiritual freedom as well as our military-industrial might. Its best Great Lakes-adjacent symbol is Saul Bellow’s Adventures of Augie March, about a dreamer who is also a shrewd capitalist, whose lyrical reveries are punctuated by a stint on a Lake Michigan shipping barge.

Ultimately, though, the Seaway plan failed. The shipping route was opened, but new technologies, plus the growing importance of trans-Pacific commerce, led to larger and larger ships being used. By the 1980s, the most popular kinds of oceangoing freighters could no longer squeeze through the Seaway locks. It was those familiar partners in crime, technology and globalization. Now the only barges you see on the Lakes are moving ore from the Lake Superior iron mines down to the steel factories in northwest Indiana. Their value remains, essentially, aesthetic. They’re still nice to look at, and it seems that’s all they’re destined to be. If they’re even destined to be that — there are plans afoot to eliminate the Greak Lakes Restoration Fund, leaving them at the mercy of human pollution. For now, no longer vital to the nation in any obvious way, they are still treasured by connoisseurs, and Americans who can afford to do so will check them out at least once, though they may not make anything in particular of them. Kind of like Emerson.

* * *

I walk along Lake Michigan every day, with my dog, right around the beach where Studs swam. I even have a little project going on my Instagram feed to take a picture of “Every Color Lake Michigan Can Be.” (My feed’s informal title. Can Instagram feeds have titles?) But the more I know the Lake, the more trouble I have deciding what what it’s like. Some days it seems full of awesome grandeur, its sweep vast, its waves mighty, its ever-changing colors inexhaustible. Other days, when, say, the view down to the steel mills is clearest, it feels small, as if you could almost see across it. (And indeed, in the right weather conditions people in St. Joseph, Michigan can see a kind of mirage of the tops of Chicago’s skyscrapers.)

Is it great, a worthy object of devotion? Or is it a predictable, circumscribed thing after all, just Bertram Cope’s big, useless bathtub?

I don’t know — do I believe that my soul is a wellspring of beauty that no circumstances can pollute?

I don’t know. Does anyone find questions like that worth asking anymore? Sometimes, in the winter, I walk along deserted stretches of the lakefront and the only footprints I see are my own, from yesterday.

This essay originally appeared on (March 2017)

Jesse Raber teaches English at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and advises about Chicago authors for the American Writers Museum.