Wednesday, July 28, 2010

From Cat's Cradle, by Kurt Vonnegut

Crosby asked me what my name was and what my business was. I told him, and his wife Hazel recognized my name as an Indiana name. She was from Indiana, too.
"My God," she said, "are you a Hoosier?"
I admitted I was.
"I'm a Hoosier, too," she crowed. "Nobody has to be ashamed of being a Hoosier." 
"I'm not," I said. "I never knew anybody who was."
"Hoosiers do all right. Lowe and I've been around the world twice, and everywhere we went we found Hoosiers in charge of everything."
"That's reassuring." 
"You know the manager of that new hotel in Istanbul?"
"He's a Hoosier. and the military-whatever-he-is in Tokyo…"
"Attaché," said her husband.
"He's a Hoosier," said Hazel. "And the new Ambassador to Yugoslavia…"
"A Hoosier?" I asked.
"Not only him, but the Hollywood Editor of Life magazine, too. And that man in Chile…"
"A Hoosier, too?"
"You can't go anywhere a Hoosier hasn't made his mark," she said.
"The man who wrote Ben Hur was a Hoosier." 
"And James Whitcomb Riley." 
"Are you from Indiana, too?" I asked her husband.
"Nope. I'm a Prairie Stater. 'Land of Lincoln,' as they say."
"As far as that goes," said Hazel triumphantly, "Lincoln was a Hoosier, too. He grew up in Spencer County."
"Sure," I said.
"I don't know what it is about Hoosiers," said Hazel, "but they've sure got something. If somebody was to make a list, they'd be amazed."
"That's true," I said.
She grasped me firmly by the arm. "We Hoosiers got to stick together." 
"you call me 'Mom.'"
"Whenever I meet a young Hoosier, I tell them, 'You call me Mom.'"
"Uh huh."
"Let me hear you say it," she urged.
She smiled and let go of my arm. Some piece of clockwork had completed its cycle. My calling Hazel "Mom" had shut it off, and now Hazel was rewinding it for the next Hoosier to come along.

Hazel's obsession with Hoosiers around the world was a textbook example of a false karass, of a seeming team that was meaningless in terms of the was God gets things done, a textbook example of what Bokonon calls a granfalloon. Other examples of granfalloons are the Communist party, the Daughters of the American Revolution, the General Electric Company, the International Order of Odd Fellows—and any nation, anytime, anywhere. (89-92)

This passage reminded me of a line I've noted before on this blog: in My Ántonia, Willa Cather wrote,
We were talking about what it is like to spend one's childhood in little towns like these, buried in wheat and corn, under stimulating extremes of climate… We agreed that no one who had not grown up in a little prairie town could know anything about it. It was a kind of freemasonry, we said.
Cather's not talking about Indiana, but to some extent, I think that what Vonnegut's making fun of is a more general Midwestern phenomenon, although I find that it is strongest among Hoosiers—although geographically, we're one of the easternmost states of the region, in a certain sense, we're the Midwest of the Midwest, the Heart of the Heart of the Country, as Gass has it, and so the "kind of freemasonry" which Cather describes and which Vonnegut ribs is most pronounced among us. As a Hoosier myself, I can personally attest to this sense of sodality, of a sort of immediate and unspoken mutual understanding which flashes up the moment you realize you're talking to another Hoosier abroad (this only works if you're not in Indiana, for obvious reasons).

My hypothesis for why this kind of thing happens is that Hoosiers are taught almost from birth that we are a rooted, immobile people, practically buried, as Cather says, in our wheat and corn, but we are also eager to compensate for the inferiority complex this creates by over-lauding anyone who makes it out of Indiana and makes good someplace else. Yet this excessive adulation further drives home the idea that Hoosiers mostly stay at home, and so when any of us who do leave the state meet someone else who has done so, we fasten onto this meeting quickly as a rare and improbable occurrence, and we trust that the feeling is mutual. It's a very magnified case of innocents abroad, yet even knowing this doesn't really diminish its rather funny power.

The rather amusing flip side of this is that non-Hoosiers, I've found, tend to assume that all Hoosiers know each other. I've been asked more than once if I know some fellow Hoosier who, come to find out, actually grew up in South Bend or in Bloomington or in Carmel—places an hour or two or three from where I grew up. The sad part is that sometimes I do know the person in question, or have a friend in common.

1 comment:

Shelby said...

Just wanted to say that, from what I've seen in the six months since I started reading, I really love your perspective on literature. I'm a military brat who's been in Ohio in for the past five years (far longer than any previous stay of residence) and have found myself slipping eerily and self-consciously closer to identifying as a Midwesterner--so your thoughts on the region are a welcome contextualization.