Tuesday, March 2, 2021

The #Midwessay: Brooke Juliet Wonders, The Iowan Essay as Grant Wood's AMERICAN GOTHIC

What is the #Midwessay? What is the Midwest? What are the characteristics, if any, of the #Midwessay (the Midwest essay)? What gathers us together? What pulls us apart? Springing from a twitter conversation, we started asking writers and readers what they imagine (or would like to reimagine) as the Midwest and the Midwessay. The #Midwessay is a series of reports from the Midwest (whatever that is) by and/or about Midwestern essay and essayists (whatever those are). Essay Daily will be publishing these, sorted (loosely) by state, in February 2021 and beyond.  These #Midwessays will be collected here and on a separate site at a later date. If you'd like to submit a report / essay, send it our way. Details and coordinators for each state are listed here. You can also ping Ander (link at the upper right) if we don't list a coordinator yet for your state. —The Editors                


The Iowan Essay as Grant Wood’s American Gothic (1930)

Brooke Juliet Wonders

Grant Wood’s most famous painting, American Gothic, was based on a frame-house in Eldon, Iowa, with an improbable gothic window at its apex. This incongruity spoke to Wood, who sketched the home and its imposing lancet window on the back of an envelope.
     The Iowan essay, when baroqued, calls attention only to the plainness and simplicity its audience expects, the one effect ironizing the other.
In general I have found, the people who resent the painting are those who feel that they themselves resemble the portrayal. —Grant Wood, commenting on the reception of his painting.
     The hysteria surrounding American Gothic included an Iowan farm wife who threatened to bite Wood’s ear off. Why this Van Gogh-esque punishment struck her as fitting, who can say. 
     I have just moved to Cedar Falls, Iowa, from Chicago. I sit in the picture window of Singlespeed Brewery, drinking a beer and people-watching. An elderly man and his wife ask if I mind sharing my trestle table. They sit down beside me. This is God’s country, the man says, unprompted. Welcome to God’s country. He means this land is fertile and blooming growth is its strength. He also means, I hope you believe in my god. If not, get out.
     The popularity of American Gothic ushered in the naturalist and explicitly antimodernist style of American Scene painting. 
     Common shapes of the Iowan essay: A story told chronologically, each paragraph a rectangle, its forward motion plodding but inexorable. A story told in seasons. A story told by the fire on a cold night, one speaker to another, intimate and vulnerable; a story all in quotes, a monologue. A story told in fragments, like the clouds that pass overhead, an endless expanse of blue possibility marked by scenic pauses. The essay as psalm, or maybe confession. At sundown, that Iowa sky: the essay turns deep crimson, then purple, then fades to night.
     I moved to Iowa with two dressers too heavy to unload. I tried to hire help but struggled to find someone willing to do such a small task in small-town Cedar Falls. I arrived at my rental apartment and unloaded everything except the dressers, then loitered around the Penske truck. What to do? Out of nowhere, three burly, white young men bounded out of the apartment complex. They lifted my dressers and my troubles with ease. Iowa nice is real.
     A common misperception of American Gothic: that it pictures a farmer and his wife. In fact, Wood’s model for the farmer was his family dentist. The wife was supposed to be Wood’s mother but he replaced her last minute with his sister. There is what we expect to see, and beneath that, the idiosyncrasies of happenstance and providence.
     Some common genres of the Iowan essay: My father was taciturn and loved hunting, here is how I overcame a childhood of toxic masculinity. My parents immigrated here because there was work, but the community I grew up in judged me for the color of my skin, and when my mother was deported, I understood that Iowa sees itself as white. The white students in my classes think my ordinary Black neighborhood is dangerous. God made my close-knit family reject me when I stopped believing in Him. I was sexually assaulted on campus and the administration did nothing. This culture is fatphobic; my mother passed on to me both her physique and her shame. Here’s a food essay of cheap casseroles made from canned goods, salty and delicious. The weather is trying to kill me. 
     The Iowan essay takes its time, unless it’s a college student’s workshop essay, in which case it moves at a breathless pace, has no ending, and is haunted by the desire to escape. 
     I first encountered American Gothic at the Art Institute of Chicago while I was a PhD student at the University of Illinois. I resented the crowds that thronged around it. 
     I ask my friend Chris Bryson, who’s spent a decade theorizing the Midwestern novel, to help me with this essay. He writes me an essay of his own. A pull quote: “The Midwest can be boiled down to an order of resentments pertaining to economics or race. The last several years, those two have been running neck and neck.”
     The fail state of the Iowan essay is resentment, the aggrieved stance that drives Iowan voters to Trump, Chuck Grassley, Steve King, and Joni Ernst. Etymologically, aggrieve comes from the Middle French aggrever, “to bring grief or trouble,” “to make something burdensome,” “to make something worse,” or, finally, “to make more grave, to exaggerate.” The exaggerated sense of white resentment shapes the Iowan essay. Students write essays about the fake news media’s maltreatment of a blameless Trump. Students write essays about how their professors mock their religious convictions, where mock is a synonym for challenge, and religious convictions just means how I was raised. My favorite kind of Iowan essay interrogates the toxic masculinity and racial resentment the Midwest produces in bulk.
     Everyone in Cedar Falls has dogs and babies. Everyone I meet has lived here their whole lives. Their families go back generations. They know the names of every small town in a hundred-mile radius and will give you a look of disdain when you mispronounce Traer or put the accent on the wrong syllable of Waterloo (it goes on the loo).
     I am writing the failed Iowan essay, the essay of resentment. 
     Resentment is the memory of an injury; contentment, its opposite, is a sort of bare satisfaction. Pleased is the antonym of aggrieved. To please has similar Middle French roots, but it is etymologically linked to the word place as well as the word pleasure. The successful Iowan essay revels in the pleasures of place. 
     Look into the faces of the sister and dentist. The emotion there could be called bare satisfaction.
     I bought a house in Cedar Falls, a small brick one-story a fifteen-minute walk to Main Street. Beyond that, the Hartman Reserve, 340 acres of wooded nature. My first summer in Iowa, I biked the eight miles from Cedar Falls to Waterloo almost every day. In the heart of the Reserve, the trail runs beside a length of downed telephone wires no longer connected to anything. The metal world shuts off; the green world overgrows it. I’ve biked alongside deer, spotted foxes and, once, a wobbly raccoon. The Reserve itself contains dozens of small lakes nestled in thickets of cattails and orange daylilies. I rent a canoe and paddle from lake to lake, following the Canada geese and green-tailed ducks about their business. I plant my front yard with daylilies.
     Another Chris Bryson pull quote:
The Midwest was reduced to a space to facilitate commerce through the arbitrary dispensation of forty-acre plots. The grid system through which its cities were designed represent a distillation of this idea. Midwestern writers are always trying to navigate the hypocrisies of the capitalist space by trying to create a place out of it. I believe it’s why most Midwestern writers use the realist mode since the reproduction of the space is necessary to find the place within.
     Grant Wood never returned to Eldon, Iowa, after scribbling the sketch that would make him famous. I empathize with taciturn, reticent Iowa. Outsiders come in and take what they want, paint it over with their misperceptions, then leave.
     I grew up in Arizona; I’m a transplant. Iowa nice is at me, not of me; I will never belong. I’m not sure I’m allowed to write an Iowan essay. Have I lived here long enough? When I do, it will be about looking for the Iowan essay, and the pleasures of this place. 
     If you can make it to the Art Institute of Chicago, I 100% recommend it. In person, American Gothic haunts. The two figures—their faces, their expressions—writhe between irony and sincerity. The direct gaze of the farmer challenges me to judge him. The sister stares at her brother with what could be respect, submission, tenacity, or hopelessness. The pitchfork between them is the devil, but also a farm tool for baling hay to keep animals fit and fat. Righteous regionalism or overflowing bounty? Resentment or pleasure? Aggrievedness or contentment?
     My daughter will grow up Iowan. I hope she’s Iowa nice, but not too nice. I hope she can appreciate the beauty of this place, whatever she thinks of god.

Many thanks to Chris Bryson for the conversation that inspired this essay.


Brooke Juliet Wonders is an Associate Professor at the University of Northern Iowa. Her work has appeared in The Rupture, Brevity, and Black Warrior Review, among others. She is a founding editor of feminist witch magazine Grimoire and also serves as nonfiction editor at the North American Review.

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