Sorry, Boston. Sorry, L.A. Sorry, D.C. Sorry, San Fran. Sorry, the South. You have your claims, no doubt, but they are as the claims of Pushkin, Lermontov, Chekhov, or Gogol. To be sure, Tolstoy and Dostoevsky do not account for the entirety of Russian literature, certainly do not exhaust all options, but they are irreplaceable, irreducible forces upon the landscape of the national literature, and so it is with New York and Chicago, Chicago and New York.
(I say this under the influence of Sister Carrie, which is known as a Chicago novel, but is actually both a Chicago novel and a New York novel, divided almost perfectly down the center—Carrie and Hurstwood leave Chicago about 53% of the way through. That's not quite unique, but it is unusual, almost as unlikely as a Russian novel that combines Tolstoyan sweep and Dostoevskian polyphony.)
The reason for this Chicago-New York division of U.S. literature (and not a more logical coastal binary) can be seen from the simple fact that for Dreiser's novel, the Midwest is west enough. No thought is ever given by any character to moving west (Carrie considers going back to her home in Wisconsin, but Columbia City is really just a transposition of Dreiser's Indiana hometown, so the geography still works in a non-trivial way). Of course, this is an accurate representation of the geographical imagination of most Americans at the time,1 and to some extent is still the mindset of many Midwesterners today.
For instance, although Jonathan Franzen's Midwest is centered on St. Louis and not Chicago, it can certainly be said of The Corrections that "the Midwest is west enough." As I've noted before, the geography of that novel is very peculiar given the claims it makes for comprehensiveness: it's so much a novel about the American family, about American society, about late capitalism, the turn of the century, etc., that what is left out in its cartography is almost shocking:
The way Franzen constructs his novel on a geographic plane is interesting: there is Lithuania, which exists as a sort of netherworld, and then there are three zones of declining cultural intensity or "hipness" or what have you: New York, Philadelphia, and the Midwest. Philadelphia is an intermediate zone—clearly more desirable for the Lambert children than their home in St. Jude (St. Louis?), but nevertheless ritually excused for a certain lack of... you know, New York-ness. Franzen depicts the Midwest sympathetically, but he never tries to redeem it culturally, allowing all the insults his characters fling against it to stand unaddressed and certainly unredressed. Franzen, I would say, does not mind being slightly ashamed of his own Midwestern origins (not that I blame him). But what is fascinating in this schematic geography is how much it excludes—California and the West for one, not to mention the South (including Florida), or the erstwhile Third World. California's exclusion is fascinating given its prominence in so many critiques of late capitalism; its celebrated ethos seems so antithetical to the personal ethic of Alfred Lambert that one might think Franzen had made a mistake in sending Alfred's children East—if Franzen intends to set up an antithetical binary, it should be the younger generation's California vs. the elders' Midwest. And yet the Midwest never has seemed to be in any ideological relation whatsoever to California; can you think of any novel or even film that plays the two off one another?That's a question I still haven't answered, although I know Frank Norris's unfinished Epic of Wheat trilogy does have one novel set and titled as "A California Story" and the other set and titled as "A Chicago Story." (The Octopus and The Pit, respectively.) (And I don't consider Oklahoma the Midwest, so don't try The Grapes of Wrath.) I'd be interested if anyone else has some ideas or examples, but I'm pretty confident that this absence of Midwest-West opposition (or even juxtaposition) characterizes U.S. lit pretty consistently. New York and Chicago it is.
1Cf. William Cronon on "the Great West" in Nature's Metropolis (xviii):
By "the Great West," I mean a region that no longer exists on the mental maps of most Americans. According to nineteenth-century usage, it was the vast interior region of the nation that was neither the North (the region north of the Mason-Dixon line and east of the Appalachians or the Great Lakes) nor the South (the region defined most simply as the losing side of the Civil War). The Great West began either at the Ohio River or at Lake Michigan, and extended all the way to the Pacific Ocean… I am quite confident that for much of the nineteenth century the West began in Chicago, not in Denver or San Francisco. To try to redefine the West to fit our modern vocabulary is to do violence to the way Americans in the past understood that term…"