It’s a mixed bag being the soul of America. You get to be a poem, a ballad even, but you’re also a depressing failure.

At least that’s how it goes for poor Denison, Iowa, the unfortunate subject of an unfortunate new book, Denison, Iowa: Searching for the Soul of America Through the Secrets of a Midwest Town. The authors, journalist Dale Maharidge and photographer Michael Williamson, won the Pulitzer Prize in 1990 for And Their Children After Them, about another writer-photographer team, James Agee and Walker Evans.

Maharidge and Williamson arrive in Denison—the birthplace of Donna Reed and where “It’s a Wonderful Life” is emblazoned on the water tower—with a burst of big-city condescension and purply, pompous prose:

“The town was a poem,” Maharidge writes, “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.”

One doesn’t know whether to worry more about Denison or the American soul.

Still, despite the “continuing rot,” Maharidge seems to love this town and resolves to use it as a microcosm for the nation “at this curious time in history.” Yet he is forever insisting on Denison’s anonymity, its blandness, its stopped-in-time-ness.

“While all heads were bowed, I glanced up,” he writes, as his dinner hosts say a prayer. “These were Americans sent straight from central casting to represent a prototypical Iowa/Nebraska family.”

Perhaps Maharidge is less interested in transporting his readers to a western Iowa meatpacking town than he is in driving them over to the local rent-a-video. Why else must all his descriptions come wrapped in Hollywood? The complex emotions of his quest, he says, can only be compared to a scene in North by Northwest;  the corn comes from Field of Dreams; the mayor is out of About Schmidt, the mayor’s chief rival out of a classic Western; streetscapes are courtesy of The Last Picture Show; Maharidge’s life prior to Denison is like Groundhog Day, whereas in Denison, he “was living a sudden inversion of Dorothy from the Wizard of Oz—dude, you’re no longer in New York or San Francisco.”

This is not a trivial complaint. Such lazy writing suggests that Maharidge has a stunted imagination when Denison cries out for just the opposite.


Denison, Iowa: Searching for the Soul of America Through the Secrets of a Midwest Town by Dale Maharidge, photographs by Michael Williamson (Free Press, 272 pages)
San Francisco Chronicle, Sept. 11, 2005