The Zone of Indifference
On America’s vernacular regions
September 2, 1981
Questions about how people form a sense of place were stimulated by my own efforts to make sense of the place where I grew up—like it, I have a little bit of a lot of places in me, and like the region I lack a very distinct sense of myself as a result. Most of us’ns do hereabouts.
Wilbur Zelinsky is addicted to geographic puzzle-solving. That can be a profitable vice in a professor of geography, which is what Zelinsky is at Pennsylvania State University. The most complicated puzzles of them all are America’s vernacular regions, what Zelinsky calls "the shared, spontaneous image[s]c of territorial reality, local or not so local, hovering in the minds of the untutored."
Little is known about them, in part because the minds of the untutored remain impervious to the usual cartographic vocabularies. A few local ones have been mapped, but the sub-national regions remain vaguely defined. Those that remain are being eroded by the shiftlessness of Americans, and by shopping malls and the disorientations of the sports industry which perversely maroons Tampa Bay in the NFC’s Central Division. Beyond the compulsions of the preservationist ethic, Zelinsky figured the vernacular regions might be the very next craze. Grassroots regionalism will water the sprouting branches of resurrected ethnicity, historical preservation, folklore studies, even the regional press, because all of them are "deeply imbued with a sense of place." Regional is In.
To chart the dimensions of this new regionalism, Zelinsky closeted himself with telephone directories from 276 U.S. and Canadian cities. He noted the incidence of various regionalisms in the names of dry-cleaning shops, schools, tattoo parlors, and feminist cooperatives in each city; by connecting cities in which the use of a given term or set of terms was roughly equivalent—isolines which chart cultural weather fronts—he was able to identify and map fourteen subnational vernacular regions.
I was interested in one of Zelinsky’s constructs in particular. He had patiently measured the incidence (and thus the putative intensity of regional feeling) of terms denoting northernness and southernness and charted the result; he did the same with families of terms denoting East and West. In each case he revealed what he called a "zone of indifference" between the two major regions in which identifications with either region were so tenuous as to be meaningless.
Curious, I sketched in the area of the map where Zelinsky’s two zones of indifference overlapped—a region whose own placid disregard for labels earned from Prof. Z. the name, Zone of Indifference. This Zone includes a slice of lower Michigan, most of Indiana’s northern half, bits of eastern Iowa and Missouri, and virtually every clod of central Illinois. Zelinsky has thus confirmed scientifically the conclusions I and my fellows had formed years ago, namely that this sketch of the continent is nowhere. In a slightly different connection, Zelinsky argues that there may be places "so secure in their social-geographic identity, so self-contained or else so permeated with a sense of ‘middleness’ with respect to other parts of the nation, that they find it pointless to attach regional labels to their activities." Permeated, that’s us; nowhere in a nutshell.
Like a black hole, the Zone must be described by what it isn’t. It is part of Zelinsky’s Middle West ("Midwest" and "Mid-American") to be sure. But the Middle West is a term connoting no place in particular, as Zelinsky himself showed with his phone books; he found the term being used from Alberta to Tennessee. To those of us who grew up in it, indifferent was something you were, not someplace you were from.
The geology around here gets pretty complicated. It shows in our speech and our food, even sports. Springfield is typical in that it’s riven between affections for the baseball Cubs from Chicago (big city and European, a winter city, quintessential Frostbelt) and the Cardinals from St. Louis (river town, reluctantly urban, humid, a summer, Southern city). When the Redbirds and the Iowa Oaks [Cards and Cubs farm teams] play each other in town, the bleachers colloquies are reminiscent of a Lincoln-Douglas free state-slave state wrangle, a Missouri Com- promise with hot dogs.
This mixing of regional blood revealed itself most providentially in the veins of Abraham Lincoln—the man who was denigrated in his home as "the essence of a cute Yankee," the man who married a Southern belle, who went to war to defend the economics of the West and ended it carrying the flag of the Northern abolitionists. Maybe that’s why Lincoln is innocent of any regional brand; he belongs to the ages because no one has been able to figure out where else to put him.
Zelinsky acknowledges that geography is as much a matter of perception as position. He asks how vernacular regions are born in the , first place but does not answer, except to note that sometimes they enter the folklore from the campus or the press room. The "Sunbelt" is merely the latest of these. "Corn Belt" is another; it is accurate but vague. "Heartland" is a newer variant which manages to be both vague and pretentious. Neither satisfies. E. B. White, noted in his foreword to a collection of essays published in 1962 that although he yearned for the romance of travel, his affairs seldom took him out of his accustomed track. "I invented a new compass and a more accommodating windvane," he explained. From an arbitrary point on and somewhat above Manhattan’s 43rd St., "all I had to do was sit down anywhere and I was somewhere."
That’s an old trick in the Zone; poet Vachel Lindsay once wrote of his ` native Springfield, "Romance, Romance—is here. No Hindu town/Is quite so strange." But Lindsay’s windvane was not so accommodating. He never believed that line about Springfield, and spent most of his life wandering from it on tramping expeditions or lecture tours, and the poems that made him famous were not about the Zone but the places, from the Congo to Kansas, that the Zone was not.
Demography may yet do what geography has left undone since those halcyon days of the 19th century when the Zone stood in relief at the edge of civilization, Press accounts of the census’ final preliminary counts featured maps showing the population shifts with great looping arrows sweeping down from the Northeast and Upper Midwest toward the Gulf and Southwest, like advancing armies. It is an encouraging trend. A few more years, and we here in the Zone will again be poised on the abyss, gazing past our borders into a vast unsettled wilderness. Only this time we’ll be looking in the other direction, so that some 21st century itinerant will stop again, sample our cooking, and report the results to his incredulous readers. "Out East," he’ll call it. ●