My sister lives in Hawaii, and yesterday it was raining. It has rained there, she said, for forty days and forty nights. Yesterday in our little slice of Iowa, it only threatened rain. The sky turned gray and green and purple and yellow. The wind howled, setting off a neighborhood full of porch chimes, and then went dangerously still. In a field across from our house, a pair of giant hawks rode the currents, circling around and around, low to the ground, like kites. They were clearly agitated. Just south of us was a tornado; to the north, golf ball-sized hail. We were in the eye of the storm.
We don't like to make our passions other people's concern,
And we walk in the world of safe people,
And at night we walk into our houses and burn.
Really, an all-and-out storm would have been rude. Terry Teachout made the point the other day in a post about negative reactions to his criticism: “Alas, I’ve found over the years that many people (especially Midwesterners, who are trained to say ‘sir’ and ‘ma’am’ and be polite to strangers) become uncomfortable whenever they’re confronted with strongly expressed opinions on any subject whatsoever—even positive ones.”
This is undoubtedly true, but why? In the most recent Colorado Review, Trevor Jackson writes eloquently on the Midwest’s “religion of Courtesy,” “a light suppression of one’s own thoughts, emotions, or desires.” He then wondered “whether this peculiar Midwest religion springs from the large physical spaces between people.”
I had never thought of this before, but it immediately made me think of a comic book called Korea Unmasked by Rhie Won-bok, in which the author attempts to explain the Japanese tradition of rigidly enforced courtesy.
Which means you had no choice but to be nice. So how does it work for a place with room to spare? The recurring image of Iowa is a place of unsettled emotions, restless spirits. Here’s Dar Williams again:
For tonight I went running through the screen doors of discretion,
For I woke up from a nightmare that I could not stand to see,
You were a-wandering out on the hills of Iowa and you were not thinking of me.
Courtesy, of course, is a kind of evasion, in which case Iowa is the perfect place to hide (prime example here). That’s the idea behind the song “Way Down in Iowa,” recorded way back in 1917 by Billy Murray:
I'm going to hide away
On a little farm in Eye-oh-way
I'm going to ride away
On the road that leads to yesterday
(By the way, if you haven’t checked out UC Santa Barbara’s restoration of acoustic cylinder recordings, do so now. It’s easy to browse & search, and Mp3’s can be downloaded for free.)
Everybody being so goddamned nice all the time means conflicts never get resolved, which inevitably leads to a kind of stasis. Time stops or, as in “Way Down in Iowa,” actually moves backwards. That’s another common image of Iowa, as witnessed in this excruciatingly condescending passage from last year’s Denison, Iowa: Searching for the Soul of America Through the Secrets of a Midwest Town by Dale Maharidge:
The town was a poem, a ballad in brick and mortar and slate and concrete and faded paint. But it was an anonymous poem to me, no different from a hundred other Midwest burgs I'd passed through that were monuments to a time gone, the cinematic reel stopped and held freeze-frame at the moment of my visit, then released in a march of continuing rot and crumble and failed aspirations.
The town, of course, isn’t a poem. Poems move. They have rhythm. And anyway, it takes me back to Trevor’s piece, in which he notes “that this Midwest characteristic is usually more overlooked in fiction.” Which is true. In fact, for all the writers in Iowa, who really writes about the place?
[April 3, 2006]
images: Young Corn by Grant Wood (1931); a page from Korea Unmasked by Rhie Won-bok