"You are brilliant and subtle if you come from Iowa and really strange and you live as you live and you are always well taken care of if you come from Iowa." – Gertrude Stein
"Seldom has a people been less interested in spiritual self-expression and more concerned with hog nutrition." – Johan J. Smertenko
A few years ago, Molly & I visited the lovely Shenandoah Valley town of Staunton, Virginia, and happened into a bookstore where I found These United States: Portraits of America from the 1920s. It’s a collection of 49 essays—one for each state plus New York City—which appeared in the Nation magazine beginning in April of 1922. The essay on Iowa, penned by Johan J. Smertenko, is so crude, so mean-spirited, so comically malevolent and harrumphingly elitist, that, well, I purchased the book straight away. I guess I enjoy that sort of thing.
Iowa has always been backward in the popular imagination. One of my favorite examples can be found on the opening pages of the first full-length biography of Davenport, Iowa-native Bix Beiderbecke. “Although the majority of its citizens might falter if taxed for the reason,” the authors wrote back in 1958, “Davenport does, in fact, claim a modest degree of fame.” The writers were Brits, it should be noted, and pipe-smokingly stuck up, too. They had never actually set foot in the United States, let alone Davenport.
Not much has changed over the years. Check out Ted Gioia’s otherwise fine History of Jazz, published in 1997: “If New Orleans was a city immersed in music, Davenport was a community steeped in—what else?—corn fields.” Or, for a slightly more political twist on Iowa, check out this Washington Post headline or Sarah Vowell in the New York Times. (I ask you to take for granted that Iowa is not, was not, this hick caricature. That may be a lot to ask …)
Back, then, to Smertenko, who wrote that “Iowa appealed more than any other State to the cautious, prosaic, industrious, and mediocre.” The optimistic among us might get hung up on “industrious,” but then we read on:
He who has met the pathetic, puttering creatures known as retired Iowa farmers, or retired Iowa anything, with their tool sheds and truck gardens, their bees and their Fords, their incompleted real-estate deals and their worthless auction bargains, will thereafter find cosmic disturbance in the flutter of a leaf and universal significance in the movements of an ant. Yet this is all the leisure they know in ‘Ioway,’ and even this is reserved by public opinion for those who are on the grayer side of sixty.
The result has been justly called a dull, gray monotone. With the exception of a thinly disguised immorality and a spiritless church affiliation, rural Iowa—more than a million souls—has no interests beyond bread and butter.
I give you Smertenko:
[Iowans] confuse literacy with education—witness their extensive primary-school system and their privately endowed, undernourished, and mendicant academies styled colleges. They mistake the social activities of a few liberated housewives for the cultural expression of a people—thus they visualize art as a half-dozen much-mispronounced, expensive, and authenticated masters; they understand poetry in terms of syndicated “people’s bards” and leather-bound sets of undying and uncomprehended “classics”; they make the acquaintance of music in an annual enthusiastic meeting with an operatic banality. Their best theater is a child of the drama league of Chicago; their folk-songs are creations of Broadway; their epic theme is a misguided cyclone.
The next time anyone finds ignorance in one of my book reviews, I suppose I can take comfort in the fact that it’s not me so much as it is Iowa. Meanwhile, as an aside, Smertenko blames “the South … and all the backwardness that the word connotes … for the Iowaness of Iowa.”
And then, in one final blinding flash of irony, he scoffs that “Iowans manifest an unmistakable inferiority complex.”
I wonder why.
[October 2, 2007]