When my wife and I moved away from the Midwest some fifteen years ago, we began an age of perpetual homesickness. I’d tear up at the sight of Notre Dame’s stadium on Saturday football broadcasts, recalling our years in South Bend where I did my graduate studies, only just ended. I watched every Michigan State basketball game that year, in part for the sake of seeing that small postage stamp of East Lansing that was the Breslin Center court. Tom Izzo, with his Yooper gruffness and continuous exasperation, reminded me of one of my own great complaints: Why could we not go on living where we had been born? In the decade that followed, nearly every morning, as I woke up, I would ask myself, “Why am I not in Michigan?”
I have a friend who felt a supernatural calling away from his native land. For decades, he served as a pilot for a Christian missionary organization whose work was conducted in impoverished and often hostile countries. He, his wife, and even his children longed to brave new lands and serve Christ at the farthest reaches of the globe. I admire his adventurousness. As for me, I have felt called to do many things in my life, including to serve the one universal Church, which looks on no one land as holy but rather seeks to make them all holy. “Wonderful,” I would think. “Let me answer that call. Just let me do it in Michigan.”
One cannot enter the academy without being aware that the job search may lead to unwonted places. Professorships are few, and the newly anointed doctor of philosophy generally can hope for—at most—one offer of a position. And so, when the time came, my wife and I moved, with relief, gratitude, and trepidation, to the western suburbs of Philadelphia.
It was not so difficult. We lived—literally—in a village on the top of a hill. Our parish church sat just across the street; a local repertory theater and a clutch of restaurants lay a short walk down Main Street. The station for the commuter train stood just beyond. My children, the last four of whom were born in Pennsylvania, could pass through a gate in our back fence and walk to the library or the playground without crossing a street. The anniversary of the day we moved into our house—August 30—we pronounced “Stickers’ Day,” and celebrated it with dinner in the back yard, followed by the telling of stories or a game of catch or freeze tag. In this, we quietly honored the work of William Stafford and Wendell Berry, who admonish Americans to be “stickers,” to settle in a place and stick, rather than “boomers,” always on the move and chasing the next boom.
All the same, my heart looked westward, toward the home we had first been given. When summer came, we scuttled back to Michigan for long stretches. Crossing the Pennsylvania countryside, with its rolling hills out of which it seemed old stone barns had grown up from the earth, we would arrive at the end of a long day’s drive in the flat, marshy lands of my home state. We would encounter the great sky, horizons stretching in all directions. We would pass wide fields purple with vetch, white with Queen Anne’s lace, and shimmering with awkward crops of wild sumac, before arriving at the little streets of East Lansing, built long ago upon recovered wetland and crowded with the shops, restaurants, and down-at-the-heel houses of a true Midwestern college town.
I spent part of a couple summers up at the Russell Kirk Center in Mecosta, the old logging country to which Kirk had retreated to write his books in his family’s ancestral home. After the lumber industry was exhausted, Mecosta was left, in Kirk’s words, a “blasted” landscape. The cleared fields were in need of repair, the village was a single shabby street on a bend in the road leading from Mount Pleasant to Big Rapids. And yet he had spent his years in pleasure, exploring the swamps and woods of that landscape thick with small lakes and log cabins. I would hole up in his musty library, a former cigarette roller factory, read old books, and take the kids for the occasional ride to School Section Lake for a swim.
Most years, we would impose on the grandparents in turn, first my parents in East Lansing, then my wife’s on their vineyard estate near South Haven.
East Lansing is best known for the Michigan State Spartans and for its masses of undergraduate students who do not hesitate to flip couches off the front porch and set them ablaze when the Spartans win—or lose. Like the best of Midwestern college towns, it is a place where farming and intellectual life converge. Michigan State was originally MAC (Michigan Agricultural College), and much of the campus’ vast acreage is taken up by the agriculture school’s farm fields. In my youth, I would, now and again, be introduced to a professor who smelled of pigs, and I could be sure he came by it honestly. I took my own children to the places I used to haunt: to Beaumont Tower, on the old northern edge of campus; to the college farms, to see the animals; or through the horticultural gardens on our way to the dairy for ice cream. In the long twilights after dinner, we headed to the beach at Park Lake to swim and watch the fishermen put their boats in the water to catch trout and perch in the darkness.
East Lansing is landlocked in the flat center of the state, whereas South Haven is one of the great shore towns of Lake Michigan. There, our children ran wild on the hundred-acre estate, hiking through the vineyards and the orchards, canoeing on a pond stocked with great orange koi by some eccentric previous owner. My oldest went hunting for deer bones, which the coyotes made sure were not difficult to find. The hill in the vineyard was the highest point in the county, and looking out to the west at sunset, you could see, beyond the trees, the vast sky opening above the lake.
Most of the books I have published were finished in Michigan. That was important. If I could not live there, I could at least do there the work that mattered most to me. When giving readings, I would always mention when a poem had been written in Michigan. “Through the Water,” my favorite, is dear largely because two of its stanzas recall walks in the vineyard with my oldest daughter. When I was asked to write a long poem about the Catholic Church in the Americas, I could not help but reflect on the distinctive Midwestern experience of the faith, which is distilled by Fr. Marquette’s traveling everywhere by humble canoe and consecrating the Mississippi the River of the Immaculate Conception.
Many years ago, during a short stint in North Carolina, we visited the home of a colleague who was a native Tar Heel and regarded his return there, after years out West, as a great triumph. His life was now a festival of bow ties, seersucker suits, and Carolina barbecue. After a long hibernation, his accent had decorously reasserted itself. I wanted to go home, too, I said, though at the moment I could think of nothing that particularly recommended Michigan as a more desirable place to live than the Carolina coastal plain.
I have been told that the word nostalgia was coined as a medical diagnosis in the seventeenth century. Swiss mercenaries, serving far from their native mountain villages, would become melancholy upon singing their traditional songs. Nostalgia means the sickness for what is one’s own. It is a modern disease, one that arises in an age of explorers, imperialists, and mercenaries.
One of the clichés of our presentist age is the opprobrious phrase, “nostalgia for a time that never was.” This formulation attempts to dismiss as fantasy what is in fact recollection, the possession within the heart, of what has been lost in the world. Yes, nostalgia gilds a memory and in this sense falsifies, but it also reminds. Nostalgia cherishes and longs to return to goods that are justly held precious—precious not because they are universally great but because they are particularly ours.
Josef Pieper, in his classic study Love, argues for the most compelling of that word’s definitions. To love is, he writes, to welcome the being of another. To love is, in the silence of deep feeling, to proclaim, “It is good that you exist.” We know the lesser imitations of love when we see them: the pursuit of pleasure, the embrace of the useful. “I like his company because he amuses me,” someone might say, knowing that the company is not so much a friend as a pastime. At the experience of false love, we feel used. Our being is cheapened. We were loved for some aspect of our selves and not for who we are, which lies deeper than any quality, talent, or pleasing aspect. To be loved is to be received in the fullness of one’s being, and not for any further end, because all possible ends are comprehended within and subordinated to the full existence of one’s self. If a man can answer the question, “Why do I love her?,” he probably does not.
Even more than the love of a husband for his wife or a wife for her husband, the love of mother and father for their children shows this. The love of one’s country is like the love of a mother or a father. Its object is unchosen; it is natural and born with us, however much it may be deepened and developed.
Homer has his Greeks proclaim with hope, “Let us return to the fatherland.” The Neoplatonists found it hard to describe any place in this world as part of our destiny, and yet they quoted this phrase from Homer to indicate the orientation of the soul to the One: Even the spirit has a metaphysical homeland. And of course Virgil provided the most perfect image of this love, which he denoted the virtue of piety. In the Aeneid, he has Aeneas lift his aged father onto his shoulders, his father clutching to himself the household gods, while Aeneas’s son, Ascanius, takes his hand and follows. They flee from conquered and burning Troy, and Aeneas will lead them to their true homeland, Rome. In his departure from Troy and search for Rome, seat of an expansive empire, Aeneas may sound like the archetype of the “boomer,” but for Virgil he is equally the pious son, the “sticker” being faithful to a home that has not yet been founded.
Piety, for Virgil, is love of the father of one’s family, love of the fatherland, and finally love of the all-father god. Aeneas is heroic for two reasons: for his piety to his three fathers of family, country, and cosmos, and for his piety to his son. He remains faithful to what is older and earlier than he, but he does so by looking to the future, leading his son into his own fruitfulness and destiny. It is because he is first a pious son, aware of what he owes to his origins, that he can be a good father to his own son.
Nostalgia is the melancholy longing to be present in the place, whatever its defects, where we can proclaim with joy and satisfaction, “It is good that you exist!” It is piety under duress. As I sat by the backyard firepit with the children in Berwyn, Pennsylvania, I wished that other members of our family were also crowded around us. More difficult to explain, but no less real: I wanted the ground beneath our feet to be the sandy loam of Michigan and not the slick clay of Berwyn. I wanted the twilight to linger long past the children’s bedtime, as it does in the Michigan summer.
When we made our way home in the summers and crossed the state line from Ohio into Michigan, I made a ritual of proclaiming to my wife, “Antaeus-like, I grow strong!” Antaeus was the son of the earth goddess, who remained invulnerable as long as he stayed in contact with the soil. My wife never groaned at this pedantic ritual, for which I remain grateful.
Piety means being born out of a particular earth and responding with a gratitude no less particular. It may abide for no reason, and despite many reasons.
Giving reasons can be a wonderful exercise in praise, though when I try to offer some, they seem mostly like trivialities. For example, I simply prefer the way Michiganders speak, at once friendly and laconic, as if with a hint of embarrassment at disrupting the silence. The most characteristic Michigan expression is not even a word, but a muffled apology: “Ope.” I relish the way Michiganders explain where they are from and where they are going by using their right hands as maps. I appreciate the way Michigan kids earn money by collecting discarded pop cans after football games and returning them to the store for the deposit.
Other reasons seem very nearly irrational. Like most people, I wince when I see those sprawling state highways lined with gigantic box stores and squat, grotesque blocks of chain restaurants. And yet the sight of a Meijer causes my breast to swell with good feeling. It is the store where you can buy everything and ride a mechanical horse for a penny. (On the night of my senior prom, we made a stop at Meijer to lounge about the patio furniture in our formal wear.) It will perhaps explain nothing to say that what matters most is to be around people who know how to play euchre.
I love the flat open spaces, though I came to appreciate them only after spending a couple years amid the beauty of the Berkshire mountains. I love the woods and the wildness of the place, which increase as one drives north. West Michigan, which is in many ways different and separate from the rest of the state, has its own natural beauties, above all the dunes and shoreline of Lake Michigan. The shore of a Great Lake is something altogether more peaceful and pleasant than the hard elements of Pacific or Atlantic beaches. The woods of Michigan in winter are not sublime like the mountains of the American West; they have rather a vast yet intimate beauty through which one wanders. They are places of bears and cougars, where one ventures on cross-country skies with at least a little caution.
A century ago, the St. Louis–born T. S. Eliot opined that the American Midwest had never developed a culture of its own. That was a naive judgment. The best tradition in American politics is the conservatism of the Midwest, which has historically been found in both our major political parties. Independent in spirit and yet community-minded, it envisions society as an entity that ought to be able to care for itself. It seeks autarky, that is, to sustain itself on its own resources, to grow what it needs and to draw from outside only parsimoniously. It looks with skepticism on the imperial and industrial ambitions of the Northeast and the drama of martial prowess central to the Southern tradition.
The Midwest was the center of the America First movement and of other, earlier politics of realism and restraint. The chief reason Russell Kirk seemed such an odd figure in the rise of twentieth-century American conservatism was because, put simply, he was a Michigander. Mrs. Rambo, my grade school teacher, used to remind us that Michigan was the only state in the country whose agriculture was so various it could put all three meals on the table. Michigan could provide for Michiganders. Hence why Meijer stores have everything one needs. And hence why, when Michiganders go on vacation, they do not leave the state, but head “further up and further in,” north toward the Two Hearted River.
Michigan’s conservatism has its weird libertarian side, as expressed by the family friend who praised the local sheriff for knowing to keep inside his station unless somebody specifically called him. In a dark way, the murderous Timothy McVeigh and the would-be coronavirus kidnappers hint of that tradition. When news of the kidnapping plot broke, I struggled to find a way to say “that is the most Michigan thing ever” without seeming to approve of their actions.
Like other Midwestern states, Michigan has a native culture of small farm and college towns. Its largest city, Detroit, was always an anomaly (and became a nightmarish one, at that, despite its lively culture of music and punishing tradition of professional sports). It is Michigan’s great good fortune that, whereas New York state lies in the long shadow of the city of the same name, the Motor City never rose to such oppressively mythical heights.
Many places in Michigan declined in the last century, like the rest of the Rust Belt. Almost all its towns and cities, however, have a culture centered more on the outdoors than on the factory: Witness the mint, blueberry, and cherry festivals; the hunting and fishing; and the long drives north in summer and winter, to lake house or ski lodge. When the weather is good, life centers on parks and outdoor amphitheaters, such as that at Meijer Gardens, where local beer can be drunk and local musicians take the stage—sometimes to sing songs about Michigan.
The state is divided in loyalties between the University of Michigan and Michigan State. The differences are real, the animosity deep. You can have some other college or team as your personal favorite, but you must also still choose between UM and MSU. When you go to church, you can dress up in shirt and slacks, but a Wolverines or Spartans sweatshirt also counts as formal attire. If you were a kid who knew nothing about sports (as I was), you could still get into a fist fight to defend the Spartans against the Wolverines (as I did). Up at camp each fall would be recorded how many deer had been shot and also the score of the MSU–UM football game. I didn’t appreciate how unusual this was until I came to know the cities of the East, where there are many colleges and universities but few command local loyalty beyond the student body and alumni.
The coming and going of the students from East Lansing and Ann Arbor brings a formative rhythm to life in those places. East Lansing is Michigan pure and simple, whereas Ann Arbor has its eastern pretensions. East Lansing has its couch fires, Ann Arbor its exotic cuisine. Our small towns have held onto their brickwork nineteenth-century downtowns, despite the near-fatal damage of “urban renewal” in the mid-twentieth century. Most have been renewed with the revival of brewing, distilling, and farm-to-table dining over the last two decades. This is especially true of Michigan’s finest city, Grand Rapids, and also of the lake towns, where quaint streets of shops and restaurants open onto lighthouses and the water beyond. The ideal form of such a town is found on Mackinac Island, where transportation is by boat, bicycle, or horse only and everyone dines on fudge.
I don’t assert that Michigan is the best state, but it may be the state with the most pious residents. I have sat in traffic, with a sticker representing the state of Michigan on my car’s back window, and looked about and seen that all the cars in view around me have the same sticker. If a Michigander goes to buy porch furniture, there is a good chance he will return home with chairs whose backs are shaped like the Michigan mitten. I know that things are bigger in Texas, that New York never sleeps, and that California is practically paradise except for the people, traffic, real estate, wildfires, and government. In Michigan the winters are long and rough, the sky is overcast, and the roads are a potted ruin. But our longing for paradise leads us not to get away, but to go deeper in; our idea of paradise is a Two Hearted IPA and a view of the Lake.
I tried to pass that love on to my children, even as we resided in Pennsylvania. They could not receive the exciting instruction in Michigan history that Mrs. Rambo had provided me, but I could give them a taste of it, by reading them August Derleth’s novels, Father Marquette and the Great Rivers and Sweet Land of Michigan. The first recalls Michigan’s French Catholic past, with its humble missionary spirit, still reflected in many of our place names (including French transliterations of Ojibwa names). The latter recalls the great war between Michigan and Ohio over the fate of Toledo. No shots were fired, but our fate was decided. Michigan walked away from the capital on Lake Erie and was given the Upper Peninsula in exchange. The novel suggests that, indeed, who would not turn away from foreign lucre, when he has a peninsula so rich and pleasant already about him?
One winter’s day two years ago, my nostalgia for Michigan came to an end. It did so as part of one of the typical stories of our age.
Some readers will recall Herbert Agar and Allen Tate’s classic localist symposium, Who Owns America? In the first chapter of that volume, David Cushman Coyle holds open the possibility that technological advances may allow a renewed decentralization of the industrial economy in our country. The industrial age had led to the rise of large cities, centered on factories and swarming with mechanical laborers. Centralization, “massification,” and uniformity were the qualities of the early industrial age. The small town and agricultural village had fallen into desuetude. Might that same march of technology, in the end, reverse the process of centralization? Coyle observed,
With the increasing pressure toward lower electric rates, many functions are going back into the home. With electric machines the housekeeper can do many jobs that were for a while more efficiently done in the factory. The home machine may be idle most of the time, but it produces the product directly in the hands of the consumer without the costs and risks of the market. This is technological decentralization in an extreme form, and the extent to which it will occur with lower electric rates is only beginning to be realized.
The short-lived localist and agrarian magazine Free America advocated for this position. Its editors endorsed the New Deal because of its proposals to develop the electrical infrastructure of the country, to make domestic industry increasingly available alongside the family farm, and in so doing decentralize the economy.
Although the New Deal succeeded in making electrification nearly universal, the American economy continued to grow more centralized for the better part of a century. We all know, however, the modest reversal of that trend, which has occurred in these last three years. My family was among those given the chance to move wherever we wished because I could, on a permanent basis, work from home.
And so we returned to Michigan, settling in a house equidistant from the two sets of grandparents, in the city of Grand Rapids. Moving house is distressing for children, and our move was no exception. After years of celebrating “Stickers’ Day” every August 30 in Berwyn, Pennsylvania, they were suddenly asked to celebrate it on July 3 in a new home in Michigan. The place was not quite foreign, but it was not their old home; they were surrounded by relatives but not their familiar neighbors. They had grown up swimming in Lake Michigan, but being dwarfed in everyday life by the gangly blond Dutch Reformed, whose names are all Van-something and who populate so much of West Michigan, was a bit intimidating.
One afternoon, during our first autumn back home, I was sitting in our sunroom. I felt a great weight upon me. It was as if I had become conscious of gravity’s force. I was being pulled, not somewhere, but down more deeply to where I was. It was the first time in many years that I did not feel within me a pining to be where I was not. Antaeus-like, I had grown settled. Nostalgia’s weight had become pure piety once more.
We had chosen a difficult time to return. Michigan had legalized recreational marijuana use in 2018, and cannabis shops had sprung up all over the place, with their ridiculous names and vulgar slogans appearing on billboards along the highways. The whole state has been defaced with bad puns on words like “high” and “stoned.” And in 2022, the citizens of the state voted to lock abortion rights into the state constitution. It also elected its first Democratic legislature in forty years, and in the short time that coalition has been in power, it has pushed through a slew of left-leaning programs that will further erode the moral and educational standards of the place—all done, ironically, in hopes of luring new residents to the state. Michigan risks becoming a state where the slaughter of the innocent and the drugging of citizens into inertia and schizophrenia are celebrated as pastimes. Its governor proudly speaks of these things as part of a golden vision of the future, alongside the construction of a new Chinese-owned plant for electric vehicle batteries.
These changes have given my family occasion to see why the love of country, the piety of Virgil, is so essential. When one feels betrayed or disappointed—or wounded by the legal establishment of grave evil—the loving reaction is not to withdraw but to abide, to recommit oneself to the saving of what risks being lost. “It is good that you exist!” Love sees through the faults and perversions of the hour. It stands firm, when other kinds of commitment or affection would crumble. This kind of love has to be wound about the bone and deep within the sinew, just as its vision of the object loved is not subject to present appearances. Our truest loves are not universalizing, free, and deliberate, but stubborn, unaccountable, and particular. We do not love immutability, eternity, or omniscience. We yearn to see God’s face, which we find in the human countenance of Jesus. The same holds for natural pieties, especially love of one’s home.
My friend the missionary felt called away from his native place in order to be faithful to God. Aeneas set sail for a new land as a matter of duty. Not all vocations are the same. For most of us, however, the sacrifices necessary for love come more confidently and are more unreservedly given when they are natural, when they are tied by roots to the place of our birth.
A love rooted more deeply than choice hints of those loves that transcend the caprice of the will and the mutability of all that is finite. It hints of the proper order of things and our due place within them. Just as Dante looked up at the fixed rotation of the saints in heaven, unshakable as they circled God in glory and adoration, the more humble fixity of loyalty to a place gives the human being in this life a stability and certainty of commitment so stubborn that, when it is taken away in daily life, it returns as nostalgia. Monks, who give their lives to their Lord in Heaven, also take a vow of stability to their monastery on earth. A love deeply rooted transforms the material and the everyday into a symbolic, even sacramental sign of the everlasting and transcendent. In this fashion, Michigan long ago became for me, in some sense, sacred and eternal.
The French poet Charles Péguy used to proclaim that France was eternal. He did not mean that France was older than history or somehow transcended history, but rather that France was the historical place where the eternal was made manifest. So it is with Michigan’s abiding claim on me.
James Matthew Wilson is Cullen Foundation Chair in English Literature at the University of Saint Thomas, Houston.
We launched the First Things 2023 Year-End Campaign to keep articles like the one you just read free of charge to everyone.
Measured in dollars and cents, this doesn't make sense. But consider who is able to read First Things: pastors and priests, college students and professors, young professionals and families. Last year, we had more than three million unique readers on firstthings.com.
Informing and inspiring these people is why First Things doesn't only think in terms of dollars and cents. And it's why we urgently need your year-end support.
Will you give today?