By Jon Lauck

The short stories in Charles Baxter’s forthcoming book There’s Something I Want You to Do (Pantheon), which will be released in February 2015, are set in Minneapolis. This literary form and setting were not what Baxter had in mind when he first started writing as a young man in Minnesota. But after an initial rejection of regional literature and three failed novels early in his career, Baxter began to focus on Midwestern settings. One of his early stories set in the Midwest finally propelled him on a course that made him one of the nation’s greatest craftsmen of the short story and the frequent recipient of the highest literary accolades. Baxter was born in Minneapolis and attended college in St. Paul and has taught most of his career at Wayne State University in Detroit, the University of Michigan, and the University of Minnesota. Baxter reflects on his life, his writing, the American Midwest, and regional writing more generally in this interview by Jon Lauck, which occurred on December 6th, 2014 in Basil’s Restaurant in the Marquette Hotel in downtown Minneapolis from 7:30 am-9:15 am.

BELT: Where were you born?

BAXTER: I was born here in Minneapolis. I think at Abbott Hospital. I was a blue baby and almost died during my mother’s labor. They put me in an incubator, where I was fretted-over.

BELT: Where were your parents living when you were born?

BAXTER: At 1779 Girard Avenue South, in the Kenwood District of Minneapolis.

BELT: Would that be considered an old Minneapolis ethnic neighborhood?

BAXTER: What do you mean by “ethnic”?

BELT: Polish, Irish, etc.

BAXTER: Sure. Every neighborhood is ethnic even if it’s populated by white Anglo-Saxon Protestants.

BELT: Is “Baxter” an English name?

BAXTER: I believe it is, although my ancestors, the Baxter ancestors whom I know about, came over from Wales. My great-grandfather emigrated from Wales and became a farmer in Wisconsin. Wisconsin has, or had, large settlements of Welsh immigrants. He brought along with him his father, my great-great-grandfather, an impoverished bookbinder. My grandfather grew up on this farm, walked to school, each way (laughter), and went to Ripon College for two years and then to Williams College. He went into the insurance business as a lawyer. My father sold insurance during the Depression. He died in 1948 at the age of forty-four, leaving my mother with three boys to raise, which I think she knew she was incapable of doing alone. She remarried less than two years later. She married my step-father, Loring Staples. He was a lawyer at Faegre & Benson.

BELT: Most of the Welsh who immigrated to the United States become miners.

BAXTER: These became farmers.

BELT: And in what area of Wisconsin were they living?

BAXTER: West of Milwaukee. Then my family moved to a farm near La Crosse. My great-grandfather is buried, I believe, in a cemetery west of Milwaukee.

BELT: Would the Welsh Baxters who immigrated have been Anglican or Presbyterian?

BAXTER: Anglican.

BELT: Were they, to your knowledge, active in church life?

BAXTER: No. My grandmother’s family was, however. Their family name was Hooker, and they had been active — “active” isn’t even the word — in church history as ministers and theologians. Thomas Hooker, my ancestor, made quite a name for himself as a preacher in Boston.

BELT: Are you aware of any active Welsh communities in Minneapolis?

BAXTER: There’s a small one. My daughter-in-law studied for a Ph.D. at the University of Wales and wrote a dissertation on the Welsh poet David Jones. She was curious about whether there might be a group in Minneapolis of Welsh speakers, because she speaks Welsh. We discovered that there is such a group, and apparently they meet once a month.

BELT: Does your Welsh heritage make you appreciate Dylan Thomas more?

BAXTER: No. I first read his poetry in high school, and the fact that he was from Wales made no difference to me. My family members never made a great point of their origins. They wanted to assimilate. My mother would mention my father’s family origins from time to time only because they were all susceptible to a certain kind of bipolar behavior. My mother would say that my father suffered from Welsh moodiness, as I do. We’re subject to depressive fits now and then. But our Welsh origins were never regarded as a badge of honor. A Welsh Festival Day? Never, we never did that. We had Welsh moodiness.

BELT: If you didn’t identify with your Welsh roots, did your parents identify as Minnesotans or Midwesterners or Wisconsinites?

BAXTER: No, they did not. When I was growing up, they didn’t travel much. Nor did they regard it as a good thing to do. They thought that everything that comprised their life here in Minnesota was just fine. And to that degree, they would have thought of themselves as Minnesotans, but more likely as people who lived in Minnesota.

BELT: How did your father and mother meet?

BAXTER: I never knew my father, and so I can’t tell you what stories they told each other or how they met. My mother didn’t like to talk about it. I believe the first date that my father proposed was that she accompany him to a string-quartet concert of amateur musicians comprised of various members of the Ueland family. Do you know the Uelands? Any of them? Brenda Ueland was a writer here in Minneapolis and had been in the John Reed crowd in the Village in her bohemian days. She wrote a memoir called Me (1939). She also wrote a pep-talk book called If You Want to Write (1938) that’s been republished by Graywolf and has sold thousands of copies. And my father knew all of these Uelands. The Uelands had constructed their own musical instruments and liked to have these amateur musicales in a house near Lake Calhoun. I have been given to understand that they were middling musicians, but they loved to play, which is what matters. My father took my mother over there to witness the spectacle.

BELT: Was your mother a Minnesotan?

BAXTER: She was. She was born here.

BELT: Were her parents or grandparents immigrants to Minnesota?

BAXTER: Her father, Leo Eaton, was born in Wisconsin in Oshkosh, and her mother, as I understand it, was originally from New England. Leo was a lawyer, worked in the Soo Line Building. The Eatons go all the way back to the Mayflower.

BELT: This older Anglo world of English-cum-New Englanders and Welsh immigrants gets little literary attention, it seems, these days. Older immigrants such as the Irish and Norwegians and some newer immigrants get attention, but the old English element is rather lost in a generic American-ness, no?

BAXTER: Probably. They don’t seem exotic, and they were in positions of power and therefore preferred to be invisible.

BELT: I read that your mother knew Sinclair Lewis. Can you describe that connection?

BAXTER: Both my mother and father knew him. They were neighbors of his in the 1940s. When he lived up on Mount Curve Avenue, they lived on Girard Avenue South, and they were part of this musical, literary, Kenwood neighborhood crowd in the 1940s. They’d have him over for dinner fairly frequently, almost once a week, after he taught his class at the University of Minnesota. And she initiated a correspondence with him when he was out of town, so that there are now many, many letters from him to her. The letters should have gone to Yale, but she gave them to Macalester. That’s where they are now. Because Sinclair Lewis claimed to be afraid of dogs, when he walked back to his house after dinner, he always insisted that my father accompany him. And my mother always claimed that Lewis would confide in my father that he was written out, that his gifts were gone. Which is interesting because Mark Schorer in his biography of Lewis more or less makes the claim that Lewis didn’t seem to be aware that his work was going downhill.

BELT: Your mother was a librarian on transatlantic voyages, and she knew Sinclair Lewis. She must have been a great connoisseur of literature.

BAXTER: Not when I was growing up. She had stopped reading.

BELT: Why do you think she stopped reading?

BAXTER: I don’t know. Why does anyone stop reading?

BELT: You moved from South Minneapolis out to Excelsior with your mother and your new step-father Loring Staples. What age were you when that transition took place?

BAXTER: Three and a half or four years old. I have no memory of being a little boy, a toddler at 1779 Girard Avenue South. We went back there for a year when the house out in Excelsior was being remodeled. My mother had not sold it. She rented it out. And so I had one year in third grade when I lived there. I became attached to reading and to literature in junior high and high school because our house in Excelsior was so isolated. We had very few neighbors, and it was hard for me to fetch up playmates because only a few were within walking distance, if that. We lived in lordly solitude. My step-father had these grand ideas of living out in the country on an estate. My brothers and I were the poor relations who happened to live there. As a child, I seldom had dinner with my parents, because in my stepfather’s view, children should only dine with parents on the weekends. My brothers and I ate in the back room by ourselves. And that kind of loneliness drove me into the habit of reading.

BELT: For the uninitiated, your new home was in the Lake Minnetonka area of Minneapolis, or the wealthy Western suburbs, is that correct?

BAXTER: Yes, on the shore of Lake Minnetonka, on the site of a summer hotel. There’s a housing development there now.

BELT: How many siblings did you have?

BAXTER: Two. My brother Tom, who was adopted, and who died in 1998, and my brother Lew.[1]

BELT: What kind of law did your step-father practice at Faegre & Benson?

BAXTER: Mostly corporate law. When the Northwestern National Bank was sued by the Justice Department for anti-trust — they had started to open branch banks in small towns, partially, I think, in hopes of running the local banks out of business — my step-father kept the officers of Northwestern National Bank out of jail. He also did work for ASCAP, copyright law. He sued The Trashmen for their song “Surfer Bird” as a plagiarized piece, and he won. He went to Turkey to help set up an office for Minneapolis Moline. He was a bit of a jack-of-all-trades, except he didn’t do family law. He may have helped Antal Dorati, the conductor, go through a divorce, but mostly he just did corporate law.

American author Charles BaxterBELT: I gather that your step-father was deeply involved in the civic and social affairs of the establishment in Minneapolis such as the orchestra, public television, and institutions such as the Minneapolis Club. Is that correct?

BAXTER: Yes. He headed up the orchestra association and kept it solvent, was president of KTCA when it got started, and wrote a history of the Minneapolis Club.

BELT: Did you go to high school in Excelsior?

BAXTER: No. I went to public school in Mound up through seventh grade and then my parents forcibly enrolled me into a country day prep school called Blake. And I went to Blake from eighth grade through 12th grade.

BELT: Why did you decide to go to Macalester for college?

BAXTER: I was admitted there. Every other school that I applied to rejected me. My parents thought it would be a good idea for me to go to Williams College because my father had gone there, my uncle had gone there, and my two grandfathers had gone there, an upscale family history. I didn’t want to go there, but in my junior year they took me to Williams where I had an interview with somebody in the admissions office. Behind closed doors his first question to me was: “Now, Charles, why do you want to go to Williams College?” and I said, “I don’t,” and he said, “Well, that’ll be our little secret.”

BELT: The country estate, the distant step-father, the prep school, the attempt to force you to go to Williams and your resistance to all these regimens and controls — it sounds very Salinger-ish, no?

BAXTER: Maybe. A bit of Henry James thrown in there, too.

BELT: Were you an English major at Macalester?


BELT: How did you get involved in the operations of the Minnesota Review?

BAXTER: Roy Swanson had come to Macalester after leaving the University of Minnesota Classics Department, and he brought the Minnesota Review along with him. I had been in one of Roy Swanson’s classes, and he apparently liked me and asked me to become the business manager of the magazine in 1966. And I was the business manager until I graduated in 1969. Roy gave the editorship of the magazine to Alvin Greenberg in 1967. Al made me an assistant editor. I owe a lot to Al, then, later, and now.

BELT: Richard Foster, who started the Minnesota Review at the University of Minnesota, moved from the University of Minnesota to Macalester in 1968 and stayed until 1973. Did you ever meet him?

BAXTER: He was my teacher at Macalester, an excellent course on “voice” in poetry.

BELT: My impression is that the Minnesota Review was somewhat regionally focused when it began, but it began to lose this focus by the late 1960s.[2] Is that your impression?

BAXTER: It had lost that focus by the time Roy Swanson took it over. Roy’s education was very wide. He was deeply erudite, multilingual, and, as a classicist, he was interested in global literature. You’d be very hard pressed to read the issues that Roy Swanson edited and have any idea of where that magazine was from. The only reason you would have known that the Minnesota Review had anything to do with Minnesota prior to Roy’s editorship of it was that Richard Foster sometimes included work by James Wright, who was then on the University of Minnesota faculty. I don’t think there was any other sign in those days that the magazine had anything to do with this region. Roy Swanson published poems by Robert Graves and Par Lagerkvist.

BELT: As a young man from Minnesota and going to college in Minnesota, did you ever lament the fact that the Minnesota Review didn’t focus more on the Midwest?

BAXTER: No, I didn’t. I thought magazines were supposed to publish the best work they could get from anywhere. Roy did publish work by Minnesotans. He was open to the possibility of publishing local writers, but it was by no means part of the agenda of that magazine.

BELT: Were you involved in any of the social movements of the 1960s when you were at Macalester?

BAXTER: Yes. Everybody was. I was opposed to the Vietnam War. Most of my classmates were. I’d stand out in the snow on Grand Avenue in St. Paul on some Fridays as a silent protest against the War. I did what I could. Rebellion didn’t come easily to me. In those days rebellion often meant finding a way of staying out of that lunatic war, if you could. I was ready to become a conscientious objector, but as it happened, I ended up teaching in the public schools of Michigan, where I got a draft deferment.

BELT: When you graduated from Macalester, you took a job as a school teacher in Michigan?

BAXTER: Yes. Teaching fourth grade.

BELT: How did it happen that you made the transition to Michigan as opposed to Idaho or California or some other place?

BAXTER: We all knew there was a teacher shortage in Michigan, a severe teacher shortage. You could get a job there just by having a B.A. And, if you were teaching in the public schools of Michigan, the Michigan State Draft Board would give you a deferment.

BELT: Was that not true of other states?

BAXTER: Not that I know of. I don’t think it was true here in Minnesota. There must have been 30 of us at Macalester who went to Michigan to teach. The draft board called me up for an army physical. It was that close.

BELT: When you went to Michigan to teach school, did you have in the back of your mind that you would go to graduate school in the coming years?

BAXTER: Oh, sure.

BELT: How did you decide to go to Buffalo to graduate school?

BAXTER: I knew about it because of the faculty members who taught there. I knew that John Logan, the poet, taught there; I knew Robert Creeley was on the faculty, as was Leslie Fiedler; I knew that John Barth was on the faculty; and I had met Arthur Efron, who became my teacher. It was an extraordinary English department with a kind of synthesis of creative writing and critical scholarly work. At the time it was one of the best English departments in the country. And I deeply, deeply wanted to be a graduate student there. And so I applied and I got in.

BELT: Were you attracted to Barth’s postmodernism?

BAXTER: Not at first. I had liked End of the Road (1958). I thought The Sot-Weed Factor (1960) was tiresome and Giles Goat-Boy (1966) even worse.

BELT: Would you say you were first exposed to experimental writing at Macalester during your time with the Minnesota Review and working with Alvin Greenberg?

 BAXTER: Yes. He taught us books by Beckett, Louis-Ferdinand Céline, everybody.

BELT: How long were you in Buffalo?

BAXTER: For four years. I got a Ph.D. in four years.

BELT: What were the dates?

BAXTER: 1970 through 1974.

BELT: And how soon after you earned your Ph.D. did you begin teaching at Wayne State?

BAXTER: Immediately. I received my Ph.D. in the late spring of 1974 and I began teaching at Wayne State in the fall of 1974.

BELT: What did you think of Detroit? Let’s put it this way: did you ever think about how pleasant Minneapolis was in comparison to Detroit when you arrived in 1974?

BAXTER: It’s a leading question. Of course I did. The kinds of social problems that were, and still are, bedeviling Detroit, had never in the same way touched Minneapolis. But I had had a taste of that in Buffalo. Buffalo was a city going through a steep industrial decline when I was there. I was quite provincial. I had no idea that cities could self-destruct. All I was used to was Minneapolis. And Minneapolis is not like Detroit or Buffalo, economically, socially, or in any other way.

BELT: During your time in Pinconning, Michigan, where you taught school, or Ann Arbor, did you begin to think about the “Five Oaks, Michigan” that would become so prominent in your future fiction?

BAXTER: Yes. Half of my work would have been impossible for me to write if I hadn’t lived in Pinconning. Saul and Patsy wouldn’t exist. “Gryphon” wouldn’t exist. And it would have been impossible in another way if I hadn’t lived in Ann Arbor. And probably impossible if I hadn’t lived out in the middle of nowhere, beyond Excelsior in the part of Minnesota that – well, we didn’t really live in Excelsior. We lived out west of there between Excelsior and St. Bonifacious.

BELT: Pinconning is in Northern Michigan near one of the big lakes, of course, and is in some ways a world apart from Detroit. Did you begin to highlight such intraregional distinctions in your work?

BAXTER: Pinconning is in central Michigan, not northern Michigan. The landscape is very flat. The town — this was before the internet — felt quite isolated. That struck a chord in me.

BELT: Did you first begin to focus on Midwestern characters and Midwestern settings when you began writing fiction in Ann Arbor?

BAXTER: When I first began writing fiction I was very much in the shadow of people like Donald Barthelme. I frowned on regional fiction because I thought its goals and horizon were limited and dated. I imagined myself as an avant-garde post-modernist, an experimentalist, which is actually a bogus category. My first few stories, published stories, had nothing to do with any region. Maybe the region of the mind. Then I wrote a number of failed novels, which also had nothing to do with the areas of the country I grew up in. But I was so traumatized by the failure of these novels that I thought, well, I’ll try writing about the areas and the sorts of people that I actually know. And the first few stories in which I did that — one called “Xavier Speaking,” which appeared in the Antioch Review[3] and “Gershwin’s Second Prelude”[4] — take place in the Midwest. The first story that I wrote that really did have some feeling for the Midwest was “Harmony of the World,” whose locales are Ohio and Indiana.[5] I turned to that sort of writing because I had no gift for the other kind.

BELT: Would you say that the Midwest saved your literary career?

BAXTER: No, I wouldn’t. I would say that a feeling for a landscape and the people in it turned my work in a different direction. I don’t like the language of salvation.

BELT: Do you remember the moment when you began to abandon your hostility to regional literature and you began to realize that writing about the region you are from might be fruitful?

BAXTER: Probably with “Harmony of the World.” In that story, I was trying to develop an idea of the size of one’s personal world and what happens when somebody whose horizon is relatively small moves into a world where the general, intellectual, emotional context is larger or cosmopolitan. The opening paragraph of that story encapsulates this whole problem. In some sense it describes what happened to me. When I was growing up, my intellectual compass was narrow. And the older I got, the more I could see the size of the world. I wanted to write about that experience. Now, that’s a very old theme. It’s Sinclair Lewis. Hell, it’s Flaubert and Stendhal. It’s a story of being wised up. And, of course, the war had this effect. The political unrest had been part of it. We were all affected. No matter where you lived in this country — and I think Garrison Keillor made a point of this in your recent interview[6] — you couldn’t think in exclusively local terms any more. You had to think of America as a global player, often a bully, sometimes with terrible consequences.

BELT: In “Harmony of the World,” you describe a much-lauded young man with musical talents in a small Ohio town who makes the transition into the broader world of music and discovers his talents are nothing special. Do you think a lot of small town Midwesterners are defeated by such realizations?

BAXTER: Yes. They give up too easily.

BELT: Did you write “Harmony of the World” while living in Ann Arbor and teaching at Wayne State?


BELT: Do you remember where you were when you were told that “Harmony of the World” would be included in The Best American Short Stories, 1982?

BAXTER: At home in Ann Arbor, reading the mail.

BELT: Do you regret the fact that the ’60s generation, for lack of a better way of describing an era of writers, was not amenable to regionalist writing?

BAXTER: No. We couldn’t be. Of course, there were regionalist anthologies floating around. There was one called Heartland (1967), which was a collection of poetry from the Midwest, which impressed me because there were good poets in it.[7] I think James Wright’s work was there, along with various others, some of them mediocrities. But the writers whom we were reading were people like Donald Barthelme and Kurt Vonnegut and Joan Didion, to start with, and then more — call them international, global — such as Samuel Beckett and Iris Murdoch. I loved Beckett. I still love Beckett’s work. It just seemed as if regional writers didn’t have their eyes fixed on the problems these writers were facing down. The war, civil rights, metaphysical dread — about these very large phenomena the regional writers had little or nothing to say. Robert Bly and James Wright changed all that.

BELT: Were there some Midwestern writers that you took cues from during those years?

BAXTER: (Pause) No. Not really. I’m trying to think of who I was reading: Djuna Barnes and Malcolm Lowry and Ralph Ellison and Samuel Beckett and Gertrude Stein and Chekhov and Tolstoy. The only writers who really gave me a sense of place, made me feel the Midwest had very particular, spiritual, psychic component, were the poets, James Wright in particular. When I read The Branch Will Not Break, I thought: this guy is really writing about something I know. When I first heard Robert Bly give a reading, I could see how landscape was a spiritual and psychic location for him. I couldn’t write poems the way they did, although I tried. But it was not until several years later when I became interested in the work of Wright Morris and the kind of fiction he was writing and then, much later, the work of William Maxwell, that I began to think that there was a way of dealing with regions intelligently so they wouldn’t become defined only by locale.

BELT: During these years, did you ever reach back to the work of Sherwood Anderson, a Midwesterner, as a guide to short story writing?

BAXTER: No. The first time I read Winesburg, I thought it was a terrible book. I didn’t get it. I was incapable of seeing what was good about it. And I made my way through some of his other stories, and they made almost no impression on me, or I thought they were awkward, badly written. I couldn’t bear them.

BELT: You sound as if you agree with Garrison Keillor’s recent critique of Sherwood Anderson.

BAXTER: No, I don’t, but the jury has been out on Sherwood Anderson for almost a century. Gertrude Stein liked his work; Hemingway liked his work; Faulkner said he was the father of his generation; Jim Harrison thinks that “Death in the Woods” is the best American short story ever written. My contemporary, Robert Boswell, thinks about Sherwood Anderson all of the time. I never used to, but I do now. The true qualities of his work are hard to get at, because he’s writing about inarticulation, speechlessness, self-contradiction. Sometimes he’s visionary without being particularly eloquent. When I edited The Library of America Edition of Anderson’s work, I got Ben Marcus, a fine experimental writer who teaches at Columbia, to do a recording of an Anderson story and to talk about him. I got Siri Hustvedt to do a reading, along with Antonya Nelson, Robert Boswell, and Patricia Hampl, but all of these people will say, if you force them into a corner, that some of Anderson’s sentences are very peculiar. Most of them will agree that he is a very uneven writer, which he was. But he knows everything about speechlessness and dysfunctional talk. He was diagnosing verbal gaps and non-fluency that very few other writers had recognized in the way that he did. His stories sometimes sound like bad translations, as a result. He completely understood how people grow mute in their lives, and how pointless talk can be a form of muteness. The poet Donald Justice says there is a kind of prose sublime at work in Anderson. And Ben Marcus argued that Anderson was very moving in the way that he inscribed within a story the difficulty of writing a story, which is something that the avant-garde supposedly only knows how to do. In all of Anderson’s work, part of the narrative is the difficulty of telling the truth about anything, an emotional blockage, which the narrator will often share with you. Your community often does not want you to be articulate. They’d rather that you keep your mouth shut. And that gets more pronounced as the work goes on. Anderson has a great gift for the dramatic image, a greater gift for it than many other writers of his period. There’s a story called “The Corn Planting,” for example, whose ending will make your hair stand on end. I challenge anyone to read that story and not remember forever its climactic image. Susan Sontag didn’t like his work. Garrison Keillor doesn’t like it and says that the volume that I edited is terribly strange.

BELT: In your story “Gryphon,” set in Five Oaks, Michigan, an eccentric substitute teacher is defeated by convention and suspicions of the unorthodox. Is this a nod toward Sherwood Anderson?

BAXTER: No. It was a reflection of my time as a public-school teacher.

BELT: It is no accident, to be sure, that you became the editor of The Library of America’s recent collection of Sherwood Anderson’s short stories.[8] Can you explain how you were chosen?

BAXTER: They just contacted me by email and asked me to do it, and I agreed.

BELT: Was it during the years after graduate school that you reached back and reviewed the work of Frederick Manfred?

BAXTER: I knew his work in high school. I read This is the Year (1947) in high school, a fine novel about farming. I had been assigned Lord Grizzly (1954) a young man’s book, in tenth grade. His novel The Man Who Looked Like the Prince of Wales (1965) came out when I was at Macalester. And Channel 2, the local public television station here in Minneapolis, aired several hours of interviews that Fred Manfred did with John R. Milton; however, I knew I didn’t want to write like that. I didn’t have his background. I didn’t think that his subject matter was mine. I was interested in it, but there was nothing for me in it to learn from.

BELT: John R. Milton was a Minnesotan who spent the bulk of his career teaching at the University of South Dakota and he launched South Dakota Review. Did you know him? What was your impression of him?

BAXTER: No, I never knew him.

BELT: Frederick Manfred lived in Minnesota, down close to the South Dakota border. I believe your first book was about South Dakota. Can you tell me about that?

BAXTER: It was not my first book. It was my second book. My first book was poetry and was called Chameleon (1970). It’s even harder to get than The South Dakota Guidebook (1974). Both are juvenilia. My family lived on Minnesota Highway 7, and we always went east on Highway 7 into Minneapolis. West of us the highway went toward South Dakota. From time to time when I was growing up, I’d ask, “What’s in South Dakota?” and my mother always had one answer, which was, “Nothing.” This intrigued me. When I finally had a car and had a driver’s license, one of the first things I did was to drive around South Dakota for a few days just to see what nothing looked like. In those days, in the late ’60s, if you were a young poet, there was a very common form of poetry that many of us were writing that was much in debt to European models and to people like Bly and Wright who were translating European, particularly Spanish and also South American writers. It was surrealist and imagistic. I took my cue from that. The South Dakota Guidebook was a joke title. Of course, it’s not a guidebook to South Dakota. It has almost nothing to do with South Dakota. It’s about a region of the mind, what was desolate in me and dark and empty. It’s a guidebook to the way I was in those days.

BELT: Did you spend a lot of time driving around South Dakota as you were writing the book?

BAXTER: No, I didn’t have to do that. I had been there and I had absorbed it and taken photographs of it. But I wasn’t a native. If I had been a native, if I had been a native of South Dakota, I would have written about it in a completely different way. It’s a bad book.

Another thing I have to apologize for is that there is a sequence of poems in the book about Native Americans. Again, in my generation, among those against the war and those in the counterculture, there was a great deal of sentimentalizing of Native people. White people thought they could write about them, which I did. It was unforgivable.

BELT: Do you think that it’s common among intellectuals for South Dakota to serve as a metaphor for desolation and darkness? That is, when the place is thought of at all?

BAXTER: Yes. The Dakota, a residential building in Manhattan, was constructed around 1880 on 72nd and Central Park West. It was so far uptown that it acquired the name “Dakota,” as a label for the remote, the inaccessible, the unknown.

BELT: I suppose its sinister reputation is only bolstered by the fact that John Lennon was assassinated in front of The Dakota, no?

BAXTER: Yes. And Rosemary’s Baby was filmed there.

BELT: Both Chameleon (1970) and The South Dakota Guidebook (1974) were published by New Rivers Press, which was founded by Bill Truesdale, a one-time Macalester professor. Did you know him at Macalester? What was he like?

BAXTER: I did know him. He was a complicated man. I wrote an essay about him that’ll appear in a book celebrating New Rivers Press at — what? — fifty.[9]

BELT: In your work you have described the worlds of Frederick Manfred and of South Dakota and of Detroit and of Minneapolis and of small Michigan and Ohio towns. You seem very much in tune to the various sub-regions of the Midwest. Do you think that is true?

BAXTER: Well, I lived in them, and they became my imagination’s home. But there’s an enormous difference between writing a novel or a story which takes place in a location and saying that the fiction is about that location. I didn’t feel that I was writing about these places. I was writing stories and novels about events that happened to occur in these places. It was not deterministic in that sense. “Anywhere is everywhere,” as William Carlos Williams said.

BELT: You have brought up a number of times two names, James Wright and Robert Bly. Would you describe them as major influences on your writing?

BAXTER: James Wright certainly was. His poems often expressed a shocking spiritual anguish. I knew what he was talking about. Also I admired the compression of imagery, the compressed metaphors. He wasn’t afraid of sounding nakedly vulnerable. Bly’s work didn’t have the same anguish: it oscillated between anger and the laconic. Both Bly and Wright lived or had lived in Minnesota. It was a place to start from. Robert Bly’s work was always so distinctive — particularly in its sense of peaceful, mysterious, isolation. You couldn’t imitate it because it would just sound like a Robert Bly poem. But Silence in the Snowy Fields was an important book to me because I heard a quietly assertive sound in it that I hadn’t heard elsewhere.

BELT: Did you ever meet James Wright?

BAXTER: Yes. A number of times.

BELT: What was he like in person?

BAXTER: He was a mixture of a Mack Truck and a hothouse flower. He was burly. He had been a football player in Martins Ferry, Ohio. He was very kind to me, very generous. I once went to a reading he gave in upstate New York where he read a translation he had made of Apollinaire’s “The Pretty Redhead,” (“La jolie rousse”) and he came to a line in that poem that he had translated as, “All we want is to explore kindness the enormous country where everything is silent.” After he read that line, he stopped and looked up at the audience. He said, “I would sell my soul to have written that line.” Nobody laughed. We all knew that he meant it. And he looked at us as if he meant it. I hadn’t known many writers who were willing to throw every single poker chip on the table for the sake of a poem or a story or a novel. But Wright was like that, and Bly was like that. They weren’t kidding around. You got the feeling that these were life and death matters for them. I also admired Bly’s political positions and how much he hated the war, hated all the lies.

BELT: As Garrison noted, Allen Tate led the effort at the University of Minnesota to deny Wright tenure. At the time, Wright described to Carol Bly being completely defeated by Minneapolis, which he called “a city of horrors.”[10] Do you know much about Wright’s troubles at UM?

BAXTER: No, I don’t. I do know that he wrote “The Minneapolis Poem,” which is a curse on the city, though he once told me that any curse can turn into a blessing.

BELT: When did you come to know William Maxwell?

BAXTER: Much later. I had already published several books, and we had mutual friends who thought we should know each other and, in effect, I had letters of introduction to Bill. I first met him in the 1990s. Almost all of his best work was done by that time. I think his book of stories All the Days and Nights (1995) was yet to come out. So I knew him during the last decade of his life.

BELT: How important was the Midwest to his work?

BAXTER: It was crucial to it. He would say, “I was always a Midwesterner, no matter where I lived.” I once asked him whether he considered himself a New Yorker. “Oh, no,” he said, “my imagination’s home is Illinois.” And I said to him, “Well, I’m worried about being taken as a provincial. I don’t want to be taken as a provincial.” And he said, “Oh, I do.” That was disingenuous, but in some sense he meant it.

BELT: What did he mean by that?

BAXTER: He meant that he wanted his readers to know that his emotional investments were in particular localities and the people who had lived in them. Most of his emotional investments were in people and places from his boyhood in Illinois. Some of his later stories such as Over by the River (1977) take place in his neighborhood on the Upper East Side and another story called “Thistles In Sweden,” is meant to replicate for his New York neighborhood what he did for Lincoln, Illinois.[11] But I think it’s the work that takes place in Illinois that he’s going to be remembered for, especially So Long, See You Tomorrow (1980), which is a memoir, a book of sociology, a confessional, and a great novel.

BELT: Do you consider your emotional homes Minnesota and Michigan?

BAXTER: Yes. These are the places that I think of when I close my eyes and start to daydream. Everything I see happens here or in Michigan.

BELT: Again, like the Sherwood Anderson collection, it is no accident that you edited the collection of appreciations of William Maxwell for W.W. Norton. Can you explain how that came about?

BAXTER: Edward Hirsch, Michael Collier, and I had all known Bill Maxwell. We wanted to put together a celebratory memorial volume about him, and we pitched it to Carol Houck Smith at Norton, who agreed to edit it.

BELT: In your essay about Maxwell you note that he was “incapable of hysteria” and the absence of “satire and cartooning” in his writing and his “steady refusal to be glib.”[12] Do you think these human qualities are in greater supply in the Midwest?

BAXTER: Generalizations are dangerous, but yes.

BELT: You’ve compared Maxwell to his fellow Midwesterner James Wright, who you also call a “sworn enemy of glibness” who recoiled from careless cocktail party witticisms, cynicism, and the creation of pointless spectacles.[13] This reminds me of the argument of David Foster Wallace, who was from Maxwell’s Illinois, that “irony is ruining our culture.”[14] Do you think literature should be more sober, less glib, and less ironic?

BAXTER: Literature should be anything it wants to be. DFW was one of the great ironists of our time, but he suffered it. Irony is the new chastity. There’s plenty of it around. You don’t necessarily have to add to the supply.

BELT: It is said that you specialize in portraits of Midwesterners. Is that how would like to be remembered?

BAXTER: I don’t care if I am remembered, and I don’t care how I am remembered. I don’t mean to evade your question. But I don’t think I have any say in the matter, and, at this point in my life, I don’t care. And if people read my fiction for portraiture, I suppose that’s fine.

BELT: Did you consciously decide to become a specialist in portraits of Midwesterners?

BAXTER: No, never. I just wrote my stories any old way that I could. Any writer who arrives at any particular scene tries to ask him or herself what hasn’t been done and what the task is that he’s suited for. And probably I’m in a tradition that argues that what you need to do is to look around and ask, “Who are these people, how do they act, what do they live for, how did they talk?”

BELT: Joyce Carol Oates once said of your writing about Midwesterners that the characters had a zombie-like quality. Is that the impression you wanted to leave with readers?

BAXTER: No. She wrote a book called Zombie. I didn’t. I don’t even know what she means by that. She also accused Anne Tyler’s fiction of zombie-ism. It seems condescending to me, patronizing, snobbish, snide. My characters, I think, are often passionate, often angry, they have a lot to say. I think they’re funny, many of them. They are not always psychopathological or violent or angry all of the time. If that means that they’re zombies, too bad.

BELT: You note that your characters aren’t often manic or violent or out-of-control and you indicate that they are often living normal lives. Isn’t that another way of saying that they are Midwestern?

BAXTER: No. That formulation is too neat, too uncluttered.

BELT: In “Harmony of the World,” one of your characters purposely embraces routine and order so she can give her life some structure and meaning and relieve herself of some of her anxieties. Do you think there’s a Midwestern element to this?

BAXTER: There’s a human element to that. People do that everywhere.

BELT: Do you think we need a revival of interest in and writing about the American Midwest?

BAXTER: What I think we need is a revival in interest in environments. If there’s going to be a revival in interest in regions and localities, it’s going to be because of environments and questions of sustainability. I think younger generations, if they are interested in North Dakota, for example, are concerned about it partly because of what’s going on in Williston, the Bakken Oil Fields. What a mess that is. Among younger people two changes of consciousness have occurred, among others; one is the dissolving of the old idea of regionalism because of the internet, screen culture, mass media. Mass media constitute an acid that dissolves what was once distinctive about isolated places into a kind of quasi-global village. You can’t imagine Sherwood Anderson’s stories happening in the same way that they once did because of the isolation in a place like Winesburg. The context has become much larger thanks to the internet. I think regionalism as we knew it is probably gone forever, although there are those that say that if you grow up in a small town right now things haven’t changed that much, particularly if you feel like an outsider, if you are gay, if you are a lesbian. Homophobia lives on, that’s for sure. If there’s something distinctive about you that the town will not tolerate, you still have to leave.

But I do think that the way regionalism is going to find itself returning has to do with landscapes, with real estate, and with what sorts of elements in a locality are being used or misused.

BELT: Yourself and Garrison Keillor are prominent voices of the American Midwest. Are there other voices we should be listening to in terms of people who focus on the Midwest as a region?

BAXTER: Sure. Just for starters, Stuart Dybek, whose stories take place in and around Chicago, is a genius, and has used that city as a locale for a kind of magical realism that he’s invented.

Jim Harrison has written a great deal about Michigan, the Upper Peninsula, that no one had thought about until he got to it.

Janet Kauffman, who was a very prominent writer in the 1980s and ’90s, should be rediscovered. She had many stories in The New Yorker about farming in Michigan, particularly women who were farming. Her attention has turned to feminist issues, and now she writes about environmentalism.

Toni Morrison is a Midwesterner, from Lorain, Ohio.

Larry Woiwode, who lives in North Dakota, is due for a rediscovery.

Marilynne Robinson writes beautifully about communities in Iowa.

The great thing about being in the coming generation is that they’re much more global than my generation was; they’re better traveled, they know more languages, the context is much larger. But they are also focused on these matters of the environment. And that makes it interesting.

BELT: I detect in your commentary about what a future Midwestern regionalism might look like — a globally-oriented regionalism if you will — a fairly strong skepticism of older forms of regionalist writing. Is that fair?

BAXTER: Yes, absolutely.

BELT: Is it true that your new book of short stories will be about Minneapolis?

BAXTER: It will be about events that occur in Minneapolis. But I did try to get the ruins near the Mississippi River into the stories. I tried to get into the stories that feeling of the ghost city, the “ghost” of manufacturing down by the Mississippi River, and the way that that area has been taken over for expensive condominiums, where nothing is manufactured except ennui. Minneapolis is like many other American cities — commodities were once manufactured here, and now what is manufactured mostly is imagery — advertising. Money is moved around in retail and law, but there’s a ghost of the old city. I tried to get that ghost of the city into the stories as well as I could.

BELT: Did you see the article[15] in the Star Tribune last week about the discussion at the Walker Arts Center about rebranding Minnesota as a non-Midwestern state?

BAXTER: No, I didn’t. It’s absurd. If anyone is talking that way, they’re using the rhetoric of merchandising and advertising. It’s aesthetic Leninism: we’re the vanguard, get out of our way. I’m glad I didn’t see it. One last thought — one writer whose work has meant a lot to me and who is not read much anymore is Wright Morris. I may have mentioned Wright Morris.

BELT: Was he a Nebraskan?

BAXTER: Yes, a Nebraskan. He wrote about Nebraska obsessively, though he lived most of his life in California. Saul Bellow thought that Wright Morris was a great writer. Cranky, strange, unsociable, sometimes the fiction just doesn’t move at all. He was a photographer, and his work consists often of just one fictional tableau after another. It can go inert. But his work has meant a great deal to me. You should read Fire Sermon (1971), one of his best.

BELT: Wasn’t there some sort of controversy with his — was he involved in a murder or shot someone on his farm or something like that?


BELT: I am thinking of someone else.

BAXTER: You’re thinking of someone else. I know who you are thinking of. Who was that?

BELT: I think it occurred in Minnesota or North Dakota or something like that.

BAXTER: You’re thinking of the poet. (Pause.) Tom McGrath.

BELT: Oh, yeah, yeah. He was from North Dakota, I believe.

BAXTER: Yes, yeah. I don’t know what the details were.

BELT: There was an intruder or something.

BAXTER: Right. Somebody got shot. Forget that. Letter to an Imaginary Friend (1962, 1970, 1985) is a terrific poem.

BELT: Well, Charles, thank you very much.

BAXTER: Thank you.

[1] Baxter’s brother Tom is discussed in Baxter, “Shame and Forgetting in the Information Age,” in Baxter (ed), The Business of Memory: The Art of Remembering in an Age of Forgetting (St. Paul, Graywolf Press, 1999), 141-44.
[2] Jon K. Lauck, “How Regionalism Dies: The Intellectual Journey of The Minnesota Review,” MidAmerica vol. 41 (2014). See also Lauck, “The Death of the Midwest: Garrison Keillor’s Impending Retirement as a Wake for Midwestern Regionalism,” Belt Magazine (March 24, 2014).
[3] Antioch Review vol. 36, no. 1 (Winter 1978), 21-36.
[4] New England Review vol. 15, no. 1 (Winter 1993), 9-19.
[5] Michigan Quarterly Review vol. 20, no. 2 (Spring 1981), 22-44.
[6] Jon K. Lauck, “Garrison Keillor: An Interview,” Salmagundi no. 184 (Fall 2014), 46-67.
[7] Lucien Stryk, Heartland: Poets of the Midwest (Dekalb, Northern Illinois University Press, 1967).
[8] Baxter (ed), Sherwood Anderson: Collected Stories (New York, Library of America, 2012).
[9] Suzzanne Kelley (ed), Paper Camera: A Half Century with New Rivers Press (Moorhead, Minnesota, New Rivers Press, 2015).
[10] Anne Wright and Saundra Rose Maley (eds), A Wild Perfection: The Selected Letters of James Wright (New York, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2005), 280.
[11] Maxwell, “Thistles in Sweden,” New Yorker, June 21, 1976.
[12] Charles Baxter, Michael Collier, and Edward Hirsch (eds), A William Maxwell Portrait: Memories and Appreciations (New York, W.W. Norton, 2004), 87, 93, 102.
[13] Baxter et al, A William Maxwell Portrait, 105.
[14] See Matt Ashby and Brendan Carroll, “David Foster Wallace Was Right: Irony Is Ruining Our Culture,” Salon, April 13, 2014.
[15] Kim Ode, “Does Minnesota’s Region Have an Identity Crisis?” Minneapolis Star Tribune, November 20, 2014. See also Kim Ode, “Defenders of ‘Midwest’ Present Fresh Evidence for Its Vitality,” Minneapolis Star Tribune, December 23, 2014.

Jon K. Lauck received his Ph.D. in economic history from the University of Iowa and his law degree from the University of Minnesota.  Lauck is the author of American Agriculture and the Problem of Monopoly: The Political Economy of Grain Belt Farming, 1953-1980 (University of Nebraska Press, 2000), Daschle v. Thune: Anatomy of a High Plains Senate Race (University of Oklahoma Press, 2007), and Prairie Republic: The Political Culture of Dakota Territory, 1879-1889 (University of Oklahoma Press, 2010) and co-author and co-editor of The Plains Political Tradition: Essays on South Dakota Political Culture (South Dakota State Historical Society Press, 2011) and The Plains Political Tradition vol. 2 (South Dakota State Historical Society Press, 2014).  Lauck’s newest book is The Lost Region: Toward a Revival of Midwestern History (University of Iowa Press, 2013).  Lauck has worked for several years as a full-time professor, a part-time professor, and a lawyer and is currently serving as an adjunct professor of history at the University of South Dakota, as the Associate Editor and Book Review Editor of Middle West Review, and as president of the Midwestern History Association.

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