In a non-pandemic year, a combination of vacation and personal commitments would get me around the state maybe four or five times a year. The people here are tough, sane, a little stoic, decidedly decent – the Minnesota of the myth.
In fact, this year I donned my mask for a day’s work trip to reality Minnesota. This is the condition with Derek Chauvin’s knee on George Floyd’s neck. I spent 12 hours in the field for an interview with Governor Tim Walz on how he was dealing with the twin traumas of racial unrest and the coronavirus. Walz, a serious, amiable man who is the first governor in 40 years not to come from the Twin Cities metropolitan area, tries to rule a once placid state that now highlights the crude, oozing pus, I can’t -Do you-either get the plagues of the Trump era. After leaving the governor’s residence on Summit Avenue in St. Paul, a few hundred yards from F. Scott Fitzgerald’s former home, I made my way to Minneapolis to the intersection where Floyd died. “No justice, no peace,” reads a sign at the makeshift monument that has invaded the intersection.
Before we dive into this reality, let’s dwell a little longer on the myth. A myth is not synonymous with fiction. These loons on the lake, and these nice people that I meet, do exist. A myth is more like a distillation of reality, with the uncomfortable and unappealing parts filtered out. This leaves the pleasurable and assertive parts in their purest form, to lodge deep in the imagination and memory.
Most people, in my experience, want near a mythical destination that looks like what Minnesota is to me. Maybe it’s Fenway Park, or a pancake tasting amazing dinner at 3 a.m. at a stall with friends. The people of Arkansas love to brag about the biggest watermelons you can imagine. Do you remember what it feels like in your hometown after a sudden summer storm? It is the crossroads of the physical place with internal values, where it is possible to design and experience a better version of ourselves.
The great national history of 2020, wherever we live, has been the collision of myth and reality. American mythology is that of an exceptional leader among nations. The reality of this year was exceptionalism of the wrong kind, leading in absolute terms in coronavirus infections and deaths, and with a deplorable record even in relative terms as a percentage of the population. Our common story, taught to children and generally adopted by adults, is that we are on the surface a nation of wacky individualists, but underneath are the kinds of people who put differences aside and come together when it really matters. . Hmm … do you think so?
This shows what we hope will be the big story of 2021. It is to prove that our national myths, while clearly not totally real, are at least not totally fraudulent. How does a country recover from a lost innocence? A good place to start is to remember that innocence was never really there to be lost.
This is where Minnesota is a great case study. This is true in part because – unlike many southern states, which were tainted from the start by slavery – it is not immediately obvious that this northern state, renowned for its progressivism and civic-influenced virtues by the Scandinavians, may have its own historical spots. .
A warning: I’m not actually a Minnesotan. I grew up in western New York City, and while I don’t really consider myself a Washingtonian, I’ve spent well over half of my life living in the district or town of Alexandria, Virginie, just across from the Potomac. So it’s funny that I often feel as at home in Minnesota as I do anywhere else. My father grew up on the Iron Range in Hibbing (a few blocks from an eight-year-old boy, who was then known as Robert Zimmerman and later Bob Dylan.) My summers from my youngest age age have often brought a trip to Pokegama, Grand Rapids. Four years later came to Northfield (to Carleton, one of two colleges, with St. Olaf, invoked in the slogan of cows, colleges and contentment.)
In 1973, Time Magazine immortalized the state’s romantic conception of itself with a cover that proclaimed “The Good Life in Minnesota”. It featured the red-faced Democratic governor Wendell Anderson in a flannel shirt, holding a freshly caught northern pike. The author of Time said, “Some of the nation’s finer qualities are evident in it: courtesy and fairness, honesty, capacity for innovation, hard work, intellectual adventure and responsibility. Garrison Keillor gave this sympathetic interpretation a satirical twist with his stories about “Lake Wobegon”, the Prairie town “where all the women are strong, all the men are handsome and all the children are above average.” .
How do you get from this Minnesota version to the 2020 version, when Floyd’s murder on May 25 produced spasms of protests and riots that left large swathes of Minneapolis on board for months afterwards? The answer is with much more continuity in the threads of the story than one might suppose.
The state, like most places in the United States, was built in part on a foundation of violence and racial animosity. My cousins grew up in the small town of Mankato, in southern Minnesota, where, in 1862, the federal government carried out the largest single-day mass execution in American history. The hangings of 38 Native Americans were approved by none other than President Abraham Lincoln, as part of the conflict between the U.S. military and the Dakota tribe in the state, then four years in the state.
In Northfield, the town celebrates its courageous 1876 defeat to the Jesse James Gang with a campy festival and reenactment. But as my classmate, historian TJ Stiles, enlightened in an acclaimed biography of James, the story of the James-Younger gang should not be understood through a prism of Old West romanticism. Although at times sentimentalized as a brave American Robin Hood, James was motivated not only by greed, but also racial hatred and fury at the North’s victory in the Civil War. The residents of Northfield, some of whom lost their lives in the raid, were able to defeat the invading gang because many of them carried guns and knew how to use them. They certainly wouldn’t have described themselves as innocent.
Minnesotans who engaged in, or helped quell, violent labor unrest in Minneapolis in the 1930s, or racial unrest in the 1960s, would not be either. These people may not have recognized Donald Trump as a political type – his personality is a product of modern media – but they would not have been shocked by what is now called “polarization,” or reality. pervasive malice, identity politics or contempt for the established order that now often defines public life.
A certain laconic style is a dimension of classic Minnesota character. My father, now deceased, was a surgeon, but in the summer when he was a student he worked in the iron mines. He once told me to ride the mines with older men, people he knew in a background like family friends. But in this context, he was categorically their junior, and they barely said a word as they walked to work. Silence, in its way, can convey authority as powerfully as words.
Stoicism, however, can sometimes stifle important truths. It is perhaps not surprising, then, that another part of the Minnesota lore is made up of artists who respond to life’s tasteless exterior by penetrating deeply into the contradictions, hypocrisy and terror that can be found under ordinary exteriors. It is in different ways the achievement of Minnesotans such as Sinclair Lewis, who turned his grim prairie upbringing into a novel “Main Street,” or Fitzgerald, or contemporary writers like Tim O’Brien, who grew up in Worthington, or musicians like Dylan or Prince, who died four years too early to see the streets of his native Minneapolis burst this summer.
There are times, like 2020, when events bring to light the gulf between professed ideals and life as it is actually lived. One response to this exposure is to conclude that ideals have always been a fraud and that the mythologies that supported them are part of the problem. Another response is to accept the paradox as part of our national character and to try again to bridge the gap between aspiration and realization. In Minnesota, as in America, myths can be useful.