IN THE STICKS
By Laurence Lafore
Harper's Magazine, October 1971
The druggist, a notably oleaginous specimen in an uninteresting Philadelphia suburb, says, "Well, we haven't seen you around for a long time."
"No," I answer. "I'm only here on a visit. I've moved to Iowa."
The druggist stares in jocular incredulity, laughs, and says, "Well, you certainly are in the sticks."
An extremely distinguished British television personality asks me where I live. I tell him. "What a disaster for you," he affably answers.
A professor emeritus at an eastern college, a man who has written extensively on the flora and folk-lore of central New Jersey, tells me, "You've gone out there from sheer perverseness. Nobody from the East could like living in a place like that where it's absolutely flat."
"Have you ever been to Iowa?"
"No, I certainly haven't. I know nothing about it except that it's flat."
I consider, not for the first time, the advisability of carrying with me a pocket-sized reproduction of Grant Wood's Stone City, an Iowan version of the View of Toledo. But I have never come on one, so I merely turn away in search of a drink.
The cultivated lady in Bryn Mawr raises her sherry glass and stares speculatively at me over its rim. She is given to Quakerism, crusades against bigotry, and the conviction that subscriptions to the New York Times, the New Republic, and the New York Review of Books, keep her fully informed on everything worth knowing about any subject. "Of course," she says, "I couldn't bear it. I must have art and music and literature and the theater to live."
The clerk in Brooks writes down the address where the neckties are to be sent. He writes down "Ohio." I politely correct him. This is the third time in two days in New York that the same mistake has been made, and I have learned to watch what salespeople write down.
The Brooks clerk is not used to being corrected. He snarls. "Would they know how to spell Brooklyn?"
Visiting the East is like living in an old joke, the one about the hostess who tactfully observes to her houseguest, "My dear I think you ought to know that in Boston we pronounce it Idaho." In Iowa the joke is newer. I tell a young colleague of mine in Iowa City about these remarks. He says, "For God's sake don't try to change their minds. They might come here."
He is not speaking from provincial ignorance, though. (He describes himself, with perfect accuracy on all four points, as a nice Jewish boy from Milwaukee, but he has lived for a long time in both England and Germany.) He is really frightened by the idea that a wave of refugees may some day sweep in from the East. It is something other Iowans worry about. One of them, an anonymous "person of prominence" in the State Capitol, was quoted by the Des Moines Register as saying, "We ought to abolish the Iowa Development Commission. More than that, I think we should go around the country making speeches describing Iowa as a terrible place." At one time the Register conducted a contest for slogans that would discourage immigration. The first prize was won by Come to Iowa, Gateway to Nebraska.
The state government does not share this spirit of counter-booster-ism. It worries about declining population and, like all state governments, revenues, and the Development Commission is spending a lot of money advertising the virtues of Iowa as a "place to grow." It has not yet had much effect: a campaign to discourage immigration would be premature. But alarm is reasonable; someday the East may discover a land (which is not flat) where air and water are remarkably clean and a major traffic jam consists of two cars in front of you at a red light. Where the rate of violent crimes in 1970 was 69 per hundred thousand people, compared to 569.8 in New York state. An official Iowa brochure puts it this way: "Freedom from criminal action produces a type of psychic income which is very important but very difficult to assess." One thing Iowans are not free from is governmentese, but the point is well-taken.
The temptation to rebuke prejudice and correct ignorance is very strong, even at the risk of encouraging a wave of refugees. It is much more so, paradoxically, for a refugee than for an Iowan. The most instructive part of coming here, for me, has been not so much what I have learned about Iowa as what I have learned about the East, and therefore about myself. Everything Easterners take for granted about Iowa (including the assumption that it is a variant spelling of Ohio and Idaho) is wrong, and it follows that the assumptions I have grown up with about the definition and location of civilization are also probably wrong.
Provinciality is universal, but the provinciality of Easterners, which is mingled with unholy arrogance, looks to me now to have a special virulence. In the highly cultured Philadelphia suburb where I spent most of my life, the seat of a distinguished institution of higher learning, smugness is so potent that when I revisit the place now it takes on a tangible quality. The determination to believe, as a matter of necessary doctrine, that Iowa is perfectly flat is its most naive form. The dogma of the lady in Bryn Mawr that Iowa is a cultural desert is less easily disputed—one woman's culture is another's barbarism—but even by her standards there is plenty of material for disproof. Iowa is the only place I have every been, for example, where art shows are advertised on TV.
A list of events chosen at random from the calendar of Iowa City this week includes: four concerts, one by the Grateful Dead and three classical; four plays, one by Brecht, one by Duerrenmatt, one by Shakespeare, and and original one written by a local playwright; no fewer than seventeen screenings of old films judged to be of special historic or artistic interest (besides six current ones); twenty-three public lectures on topics such as "Microgrammars and Literary Analysis" and "Rediscovering the American Cinema;" two poetry readings by nationally known poets; and an exhibit of Etruscan Funerary Art.
Iowa City is not Iowa, since it is a university town. But it is the state's cultural capital, and Iowans patronize and are proud of its cultural attractions. And Easterners are beginning to be aware of them. At a party I met a Black novelist who had recently moved to Iowa from his home in Harlem. He told me that he was not at the Writers' Workshop and in fact had no connection at all with the university. When I asked why in that case he was here, he looked at me with perplexity and said, "Why man, everybody knows this is where it is." This is a large exaggeration, but a certain amount of publicity is beginning to be generated. There have been rather alluring articles in Holiday and the New York Times, and on a Today show about Rumania there was an interview with a distinguished Rumanian writer who had spent a year in Iowa City which, he said, was the most cosmopolitan place he'd ever been in. It was perhaps not much of a test of cosmopolitanism, but it made a deep impression on some Easterners who saw it. Three of them called me up the next day to tell me, in tones of amazement, about it (evidently under the impression that national TV is not visible in Iowa.) In CBS's weekly From Rome with Love, the lovable American family in Rome (who combined stereotyped wholesomeness with reasonable proficiency in Italian and a good deal of academic sophistication) came from Iowa City. I recently got a letter from a very charming and very elegant New York woman who wrote, "it was so clever of you to go to Iowa just before it became chic."
But the real danger that Iowa will attract an invasion does not arise from its cosmopolitan culture — from the fact that the Quaker lady is behind the times, that Carol Kennicott's dream for Gopher Prairie is belatedly coming true and Main Street now has a handsome contemporary Arts Center displaying original Matisses and providing weekly chamber music concerts. What really matters is an opposite fact, that Main Street has not really changed very much since Sinclair Lewis wrote. A culture universally disdained at a time when Montparnasse was the refuge for sensitive Americans fleeing from the barbaric Midwest has, merely by remaining the same, become a place that sensitive Americans may well be fleeing to. In the age of the exploding metropolis, a place that is visibly non-explosive seems to offer hope for salvation; or, since it is now judged by sensitive Americans to be too late for salvation, for salutary escape. In the age of strikes of garbage collectors, the provinces appear in a new light.
The provinciality of the rural Midwest has twists and ironies. The most famous painting of Iowa's most famous painter is generally taken as a rather grim satiric comment on the local scene, but an underlying respect for his subject is also apparent. Whichever way it is read — or if it is read both ways at once — it is particularly cherished in Iowa, and it is certainly part of Grant Wood's legacy that Iowa is so intensely art-conscious today, and has become a center for painters. The painters presumably come at least partly because of the values that Wood may have intended to convey in American Gothic, simplicity, dignity, honesty, reliability, symmetry, but many of them would see chiefly the satire and the bitterness of the painting. Cryptic, haunting and evocative, it suggests a culture that may be thought grim or appealing; but what is important is that it is a culture that produced Grant Wood.
Some of the refugees' reactions may be pure nostalgia, and it is true that the air here reeks with the pleasant, sedative scents of Booth Tarkington's America. But there is more to Iowa's attraction than obsolescence, and there is more to it than a general re-evaluation of the simple life. The world of American Gothic is not a regional phenomena; it also is an Iowan one, and this is what is the hardest thing for an Easterner to realize. The State of Iowa is not a chunk of Midwest cut out by arbitrary lines from the enormous map of farmland that extends interminably through twelve states. It is a unit of consciousness, and it has a culture of its own. It exists in a way that Pennsylvania or New York do not. It is a state in the way that, say, Norway is a nation.
Habits of speech are indicative of a reality: people rarely refer to themselves as Pennsylvanians; New Yorkers are the residents of a city; and there is no word by which a citizen of Massachusetts can call himself. But Iowans always speak of themselves as Iowans.
It is hard to know where this fact, that the word Iowa has emotional and cultural meaning, comes from. It is not geography. The Missouri and the Mississippi give Iowa a certain cartographical logic, but rivers in fact unite rather than divide the people on their banks, and the northern and southern frontiers are surveyors' lines. The importance of state governments to early settlers must have something to do with it, and the state house in Des Moines has an immediacy that those in Harrisburg, Trenton, and Albany conspicuously lack. Iowa is one of the minority of states — and the only one in the Midwest except Indiana — whose capital is also its largest city. Des Moines is, in its small way, a real headquarters town. There is not much magnetic pull to metropolises beyond the border. Chicago, Minneapolis, and Saint Louis, each within fairly easy reach of some parts of Iowa, are still too far away to affect its self-image. It is not at all a regular thing for Iowans to take weekends in Chicago as Easterners take weekends in New York. The only considerable city near the border is Omaha. It has been unkindly said of Council Bluffs, Iowa, which lies across the Missouri, that it is Omaha's Jersey City, and Council Bluffs does have, uniquely among Iowa towns, a little of the unfocussed quality of a Gary, a Camden, or an East Saint Louis, but even there the pull is toward Des Moines.
Whatever their sources, self-sufficiency and self-consciousness are very strong. The Des Moines Register is read by everybody in the state — and, presumably, by no one outside it. To a really remarkable degree its news-coverage stops at the state line. Reports from Washington and the rest of the world get rather summary treatment on page 1, and then the Register gets down to business, which is the news of Iowa. A minor embezzlement in Lost Cause, Iowa, a mile from the Minnesota line, will be copiously covered; a mass murder in Gopherville, Minnesota, two miles north, will go unmentioned. State news is also very fully reported in local papers and on radio and television. The TV local newscasts are first-rate. One of the best, from WMT, the CBS channel in Cedar Rapids, is called Report to Iowa, and it is precisely that. The performances of college and high-school teams throughout the state are reported with exhausting thoroughness. The weatherman, also concerned with state lines, gives very detailed news of meteorological phenomena in all sections of Iowa (metereology is indeed likely to be phenomenal; weather is the most intemperate part of life here.) It is hard to imagine anyone in White Plains knowing or caring whether it is raining in Buffalo, but Davenport seems to have an inexhaustible interest in the weather of Sioux City.
This sort of thing vexes some of the newcomers who arrive with the certainty that all provinciality is by definition bad. But it is the reflection — and cause — of a very highly articulated sense of community, and this produces some salutary effects. The attitude toward the state government is the most conspicuous. Its affairs are very fully reported. Everyone knows the names of his representative and senator at Des Moines, and indeed is likely to know them personally. Everyone knows what bills are before the legislature. Everyone discusses state politics with a zeal reserved in the East for major sports events, something astonishing to a Philadelphian who is likely not to hear the affairs of his Commonwealth mentioned from one month to the next. Iowans are constantly ridiculing their legislature; such ridicule is the principal stock-in-trade of the very funny and perceptive columnist of the Register, Donald Kaul, whose opinions affect Iowa with the same sort of pervasive iconoclasm as the nation was once affected by the views of Mr. Drew Pearson. Seen day-to-day from close up, the legislators do look rustic, unenlightened, and sometimes sordid. But seen by an Easterner their achievements look almost miraculously prolific and progressive. State government operates under a floodlight, and despite — perhaps because of — the ridicule, it operates with an efficiency and a humanity impressive to an Easterner. A careful study by the Citizens Conference on State Legislatures produced the conclusion that Iowa's was the sixth best in the nation, in over-all effectiveness. (New York's ranked second, but no other Eastern state ranked better than nineteenth.)
Another of the several keys to Iowa's self-awareness and perhaps of the quality of its government, everyone realizes, is the absence of cities. Last year a legislator introduced a bill to prevent Iowa towns from growing. It never came to anything — it is difficult to know how to draft a law to achieve this purpose — but the legislator had what looks to most of us like the right idea. He observed, in the course of defending his proposal, that Cedar Rapids (pop. 109,111 in the last census) is already much too big. By traditional standards of sophistication this is comical, but the comedy might not be entirely evident to anyone who has spent a summer Sunday afternoon trapped on the Long Island Expressway.
Unity and focus of life are certainly related to the general sparseness of the population. But the problems raised by smallness are among the most urgent of those discussed. While some people believe that Cedar Rapids ought to be forcibly restrained from getting bigger, and while almost everyone thinks that the peculiar social steadiness of Iowa — its very Iowanness — is connected with smallness, stability is always hard to distinguish from stagnation, and dispersion of people is a costly luxury. Between 1960 and 1970, the population grew by only 30,000, to a total of just under 2,800,000. The state has lost one of its congressman, with the usual accompaniment of soul-searching and gerrymandering. Most of the small towns are shrinking; some of them have ceased to exist. There are fairly regular stories in the papers about general stores that serve a community of fifteen, or towns being put up for sale by their sole surviving citizen. One of them, a place named Podunk Center (a lot of things in Iowa seem too good to be true) has been bought by someone from out of state. (Its principal — if not its only — building, a general store, later burned down.) The age level of the population is mounting; young people depart in such numbers that the Register thinks it is worth reporting when a young person announces that he plans to stay. Mayors of shrinking towns are aware — to the point in several cases of suing the census-takers — that shrinkage means less federal money for a community whose tax revenues are already declining while its expenses remain fixed. The cost of maintaining in ninety-nine counties an apparatus of government that may serve fewer than seven thousand people is very high and much controverted. Roads are a problem in a land of scattered villages and farmhouses. It is said that the state has more miles of paved road, proportionate to area and population, than any other, it is also said that it has more miles of unpaved road. Both may possibly be true. It has a lot of roads, and has to; and the per capita cost of maintaining them is staggering. The surfaces seem acceptable to a newcomer, although often bordered by alarming ditches and visibly designed for narrower cars than today's, but an organization called the Iowa Good Roads Association broadcasts angry radio commercials. Other groups denounce all road improvement as a costly concession to the evils of the automobile culture. Iowans complain and argue about the problem, the way they argue about many matters, with a fervor surprising to an Easterner, accustomed to a much wider spectrum of highway controversies.
There are other costs; there are, for example, forty daily newspapers in the state, informing a population considerably smaller than that of greater Philadelphia, which is informed by four. Several of the forty are remarkably good, but this sort of dispersal of resources is both wasteful and hard to change. Consolidation—of counties, of schools, of courts, of prisons, of everything else—is urgently proposed and discussed and strongly resisted.
Dispersal is in fact the chief characteristic of the culture. The over-all statistics for the state are less important than the fact that the statistics are, as it were, evenly spread. Nonetheless, some of them are startling. Iowa ranks twenty-fifth among the fifty states in area; it also ranks twenty-fifth in population and twenty-fifth in per capita income. The population density is 49.2 per square mile; that of the United States as a whole is 50.6 (New York state's is over 350, New Jersey is over 800.) This is mid-America with a vengeance; with figures like this, averageness becomes uniqueness, the sort of gentle surprise that Iowa specializes in.
Another set of statistics, those that show how the population is distributed, is more substantially revealing. Des Moines has fewer than 200,000 inhabitants. There are six other towns of more than fifty thousand, symmetrically disposed around the capital, which is very near the geographical center. (The exact center is occupied by a town named, with uncompromising Iowan forthrightness, State Center.) There are eighty-three places of between twenty-five hundred and ten thousand population, very evenly spaced. Small villages, too, come at regular intervals. There are no huge empty spaces. Even in northwestern Iowa, where the almost treeless land slopes up toward the Great Plains in a rolling sweep like the swells of a frozen sea and the loneliness of the West begins to be felt, it is rare to be more than a few miles from a town or far from a farmhouse. Paradoxically, empty Iowa seems much less empty than many parts of the over-populated eastern seaboard; there is no wilderness or waste like the hills of northern Jersey or western Massachusetts.
The source of this extraordinarily even distribution is, of course, the deep source of everything else in Iowa, the fertility of its soil. It is said that only parts of Soviet Ukrainia are richer. Agronomists say that one quarter of the world's top-grade arable land is in Iowa. It certainly looks plausible. And to the home-gardener it feels plausible. Spading a garden is like digging in flour, and in my own small excavations for peonies and tarragon I have yet to encounter a rock. Things grow with incredible speed. Conservationists worry about erosion and the loss of top soil on high land and the growing dependence on fertilizers, but compared to most of the world the soil here is very rich indeed. This is, supremely the land of husbandry and the country displays almost palpably the rare harmony of man and nature.
It is not the harmony of obsolescence. Over 99% of Iowa farms are owned by the people who work them, not by absentee farm interests. They are rapidly being consolidated into larger units by purchase, a process loudly deplored by people moved by the forlorn sight of abandoned farmhouses. But consolidation is proof of adaptability, and it is what permits the family farm to survive here. Iowa farmers are notably hospitable to new methods, and they are able to finance imposing arrays of machinery. Thoughtful people lament their aversion to cooperatives— the machinery is duplicated on neighboring farms with an opulence that seems almost ostentatious—just as the heavy dependence on chemistry is deplored as a danger to the environment as well as to the ultimate fertility of the soil. Whatever the price, the profit is pride and prosperity in a rural society that saves the values and contours of an older America by invoking hybridization, tractors, and a rapidly increasing crop of soy beans.
Nor are the farmers themselves obsolete. A good many of them are university graduates who fly airplanes and spend winters in Europe. Their lives — and particularly, perhaps, those of their wives — are as hard are farmers' lives traditionally are. But survival of the Jeffersonian model for homo americanus in the age of technology and relative riches, has created a new breed of educated citizens. It is said, in answer to those who reflexively assert that farms are the home of political reaction, that the farmers are more likely to be Democrats than Republicans. It is the people of the small towns, the professional and commercial bourgeoisie, who are the typical conservatives.
There are mere people now engaged in manufacturing than in farming, and the number of farmers goes down each year. But Iowa is still the farming state. lowans claim that it leads the nation in the value of its agricultural output. California makes the same claim, but there is no other near rival; Texas is a poor third and no other state is in the same league at all. Considered merely as a matter of figures, the fact is surprising, since Iowa is hardly more than a third the size of California and a fifth the size of Texas. But when one sees it, it is easy to believe. Crossing it in any direction, it looks as if about nine-tenths of it was in crops or pasture. The farm dominates and overshadows everything; TV commercials, startlingly, are devoted to seed-corn.
The most surprising thing for someone from the East Coast is that the farms seem to press upon the towns rather than the reverse. There is no place in the state, even in the center of Des Moines, that is much more than fifteen minutes from open country. There are few suburbs in the Eastern sense, and except around the largest towns none of the wide and dismal reaches that runs like a system of diseased arteries through the East, where factories, filling stations, and empty lots commingle. Here, the towns abruptly end and the farms begin. What in the East are called "developments" exist, though not in profusion. In Iowa, as in much of mid-America, they are called "additions", which is precisely what they are. A section of open land is simply transferred to the town, as it were, without change in the character of either.
It is the country — and its accessibility — that most beguiles the new arrival from the vast, reptilian suburb that writhes along the Atlantic. The land is very beautiful, and the special quality of its beauty is coherence and order, which are provided by the union of riches and their use by humans. It is, in a way, a European sort of beauty, that appeals to the atavistic peasant in most Americans.
It has its own unmistakable aspect, whose most conspicuous trait is geometry. The roads run sternly to compass points, as they do throughout the Midwest, where the ground rules of civilization were laid out by engineers in advance of settlers. The ruler was sovereign here (like the ruler of the Roman armies; there are clinging affinities between the roads of Iowa and of France.) Even rivers were not permitted to interrupt the geometry. The roads run to them and then, often, since bridges are scarce in the country, they stop, to resume their course on the further shore. It is hard to get lost in a car if you take reasonable care to keep track of the right-angle turns. A pilot over Iowa finds his magnetic compass a less certain guide than the roads.
Geometry becomes a mystique. A few years ago the Iowa legislature, after much debate, repealed a law forbidding the highway commission to build what are called "diagonals." Later, a new bill was introduced to renew the ban. It was specifically aimed to prevent laying out a new interstate highway, from Des Moines to Minneapolis, on a straight line northeast-southwest. The sponsoring legislators were determined to preserve the tradition, even at the cost of several right-angle turns, several score of added miles, and several million dollars. A similar hassle, involving the hypotenuse at a vast right triangle, is delaying an interstate between Waterloo and Cedar Rapids. The avowed reason for these curious controversies is the violence the diagonals do to section lines. Since property lines are all rectilinear, a farmer through whose land the interstate would run at an angle would find his fields cut into separated triangles. It is a rational consideration, stemming from a belief — now in fashion again — that land is more important than highways. But it is not the only reason, not even, perhaps, the real one. So strong is the sense of order, the order of the compass, that there seems something deeply wrong about diagonal roads. They run against the laws of the gods of the Midwest.
Not even the ruler-gods can decree straight roads when topography gets in the way. Road-builders have been visibly reluctant to concede defeat. The straight lines run through quite improbably difficult terrain in many places, but when, at last, a curve is made necessary by the contour-map, it produces a surprising sense of drama. Even quite shallow curves suggest the protest of a whole society against land that cannot be sectioned and ploughed. The contrast magnifies the sinuosity and the slopes, like a whisper in a cave. The valleys and hills of Iowa are bigger, and the forest more primeval, for the agricultural geometry that surrounds them. And this is another key to the society: the spectrum of diversity is narrow, and so the perception of diversity is heightened.
Over prairies, which cover part of the state, the ruthless straightness is logical, aesthetically and economically. Over rolling land, the visual impact is very different. Straightness imposes its own order, another sort of coherence, of the nice union of man and nature. The arrangement of the farmhouses adds another dimension. They are often set facing each other, at intervals — in pairs, one supposes, for company, for before the coming of the automobile the isolation of the farms must have been awesome. The odd regularity of the houses, each with its village of outbuildings and its defensive girdle of trees, adds an almost eerie dimension to the order.
The land and the sky are very wide. The size of the sky, sufficiently publicized in Westerns, remains so striking that visitors from the coasts invariably comment on it. Sometimes they are unsettled by it, as a man freed from prison is unsettled. The colors are superb and surprising; the earth is dark and often black, so black that the visitors suppose that a field has been burned instead of newly plowed. In summer the crops make patterned monochromes of green. In winter the compositions are more handsome still, in grays and tans. The spectrum is, again, narrow; agriculture here has a subtle palette. But the colors are surprisingly clear. Even in the woodlands the whole aspect of the landscape is preeminently of clarity, of cleanness, matching the clarity and cleanness of the air. There is almost no undergrowth. There are no tangled hedgerows, no wastes of scrub and sumac, no jungles of honeysuckle or poison ivy. The shagginess of Eastern landscapes is exchanged for hard, square lines. Cleanness is partly purely a botanical fact, as the clarity of the air is a physical one; vegetation is simply less luxuriant, with the slightly lower rainfall and the greater cold, than it is east of the Appalachians. Things grow with an economy that almost suggests self-discipline. But the cleanness is also the result of time, money, and solicitude. The farmers and the highway authorities take it for granted that the good order of the land, like its fertility, must be seen too.
It is possible to drive for hours without seeing anything that is not the direct product of the uses to which man has put the land, and man's awareness of his responsibility to it. In most parts of Iowa there is no visual flawing of the picture. There are no sudden outcroppings of suburbia, just as there are no outcroppings of rock — suburbs and rocks both being rare here. No unexpected clusters of ranch-type houses, no isolated filling stations, or roadside stands, or used car dealers, suddenly scar the horizon. Iowans complain, and legislate, about billboards, but again the spectrum is narrow. This year an act was passed outlawing billboards. For years speeches have been made in the legislature deploring the fact that along the three hundred miles of Interstate 80 there is a score of billboards illegally visible to the traveler. There are several thousand miles of road from which no billboard at all is visible.
In a few places, (very few, and all lost on unpaved back roads) the rustic idyll breaks down badly. They are the places that cannot be farmed. In river flood plains dismal colonies of shacks, sometimes made of tar paper, break out like boils, reminders of a chronic disfiguring disease that is easy to forget. Worse still, decaying houses in woods are often surrounded by private automobile graveyards. Often enough that they come like a series of blows on the cheek struck inexplicably by an old friend. There is a melancholy mystery about them: they can hardly be commercial — there are far too many of them to be explained by random enterprises in cannibalism. It may merely be that abandoners of cars pay for the privilege of dumping them on land that cannot be used for crops or pasture, but the contrast to the majestic sweep of ordered farmland everywhere else is so strong as to suggest that the owners of the sterile land are performing some species of agronomical Black Mass, that the rusting corpses of cars express a morbid hatred of the dominant cult of earth-worship.
For the rest of Iowa is pure farmland, in several senses of purity. The only buildings, for mile after mile, are the farmers' houses and barns and corncribs and silos; the only other signs of human presence are the cultivated fields and the roads themselves. The mundane fact is, of course, that traffic is too light to make spoliation by slurb profitable except on the fringes of the towns, but the effect is not an economic but a spiritual one.
There is, at first sight, a strong family resemblance among the towns and villages — also geometric — that may be construed, according to the temperament of the visitor, as either monotony or order. The gridiron is, expectably, universal, and a sort of race-memory of New England abides in the square white wooden houses and the wide streets still sometimes shaded, navelike, by great, doomed elms. In season there is an astonishing opulence of lilacs — the only display of opulence that Iowa allows itself — to soften the geometric austerity. At intervals, one of the county seats (sometimes called "capitals" in Iowa) adds a sort of exclamation mark. They have larger houses, impressive with tentatively lavish details and many turrets, and central squares, with courthouses that often owe a perceptible debt to the fecund muse of Henry Hobson Richardson. A Louisianan who worked in Massachusetts, he strangely combined creole romance with Puritanism, a massive preoccupation with Rhenish romanesque architecture with germinal functionalism and extreme technical ingenuity. His work was admired and imitated throughout the Midwest, and its progeny sit uncommonly well on the courthouse squares of Iowa. The courthouses, logically, dominate a civilization where counties still matter; they form a suitable architectural center not only for the capital towns but for the villages around them. Few people in Iowa seem to realize how fine the courthouses are, but the very unawareness gives a naturalness, a vitality, almost a reality to them which the denatured beauties of, say, Independence or Fanueil Hall unhappily lack. Occasionally the county towns will have a modern factory or two at the edges or will be corseted with some ranch-type houses, but most of them remain what they were fifty years ago, centers for a prosperous farming civilization, each with its square or shopping street of brick Victorian shop fronts, its deserted depot — a sort of dead womb that brought the town to life and then atrophied — its grain elevator, its churches and its parks.
Monotonous the towns and villages may look, and in winter desolate and forlorn, with none of the elegance and not much of the charm of their New England prototypes. But some of them have immense dignity and repose, and very frequently the architecture is not merely solid but impressive. It is only now beginning to be possible to appreciate the real merits of Victorian design (as distinct from appreciating it as a bizarre curiosity or patronizing it as camp), and the fact that Victorians had a much better grasp of how to build a residential street than anyone has had before or since. Iowa towns like Maquoketa, Vinton, and Manchester, county seats with a large measure of stable prosperity, need yield nothing to Litchfield or Peterborough in their enveloping air of stately amenity.
Order, in the towns as in the country, is the most striking quality of Iowa, even in villages where the architecture is what might be called "people's modular." Compared to the straggling and disheveled small towns in most of the East their most notable quality is compactness, disciplined, tight, well-groomed, as if compressed into good order by the surrounding farms.
The outward monotony of Iowa is misleading. There is a good deal of diversity. Again, the range is narrow and subtle, but when the cultural focus is adjusted, variety is very noticeable. There is, for example, the town of Decorah, which has been visited by the King of Norway. It is said that in Norway there are people who know the names of only two places in the United States, New York and Decorah, which they imagine to be of about equal importance. It is the metropolis (population 7,392) of Norwegian-America, with a Norwegian-American Museum and, in the library of Luther College, the only complete run in the western hemisphere of the transactions of the Norwegian parliament. Decorah is spectacularly handsome, built on a series of steep hills along the Upper Iowa river, a San Franciscan topography here heavily wooded, freshly painted, impeccably tended. In the last ten years its population has been perfectly stable, a growth of 1,500 being entirely accounted for by the Luther faculty and student body. The effect is not of obsolescence but rather of tranquility, and a conspicuous absence of blight. What might a generation ago have been called stagnation now looks like paradise.
Decorah lies at the northern edge of what is called The Switzerland of Iowa (one may reasonably smile, but by comparison with prairies the impression really is, almost, alpine, and in Pennsylvania there is Carbon County, which is called the Switzerland of Pennsylvania with somewhat less warrant by standards of comparative Swissness.) On its eastern edge is Guttenberg, whose streets are named for Goethe and Schiller, built at the bottom of bluffs. Its main street is bordered on one side by freshly painted Victorian shopfronts and on the other by a tree-girt river wall, the lordly Mississippi, and the Wisconsin hills beyond. On an afternoon in Iowa's golden autumn when the bluffs are lowering dark and the hills shining with their jewelled leaves, Guttenberg is an enchanted place, dreaming in tranquil nostalgia. The only evidence that it exists in the age of gasoline and gift-shoppes is a store where, behind an inconspicuous facade, is accumulated a stupefying selection — surely ones of the largest such selections in the world — of objects of art and virtue representing the contemporary bad taste of several score foreign countries.
There is Spillville. Spillville lies lost on a back road in the idyllic wooded valley of the Turkey river. It is where Anton Dvorak conceived and partly composed the New World Symphony. Oddly, it seems the least New World of Iowa towns. Stagnation, not to say dereliction, is marked in Spillville; half the brick commercial buildings on the main street are in ruins. The house where the composer lived is now, more oddly still, a clock museum. It is said to be one of the largest clock museums in the world, but the visitor receives very strongly the impression that neither clocks nor Dvorak attract many sightseers. Certainly Spillville is tenanted neither by a pressing sense of time nor by consciousness of its touristic claims. There is no sign announcing it to be a shrine, nor any civic energy to organize a Dvorak Festival.
There is What Cheer, which owes its name, apparently, to the habitual greetings of Welsh miners who settled the valley where it lies. It was once an important coal-mining town; today the coal is gone and What Cheer has no remnants of industrial prosperity, but it still has a thousand inhabitants and a large opera house. The opera house has recently been restored in gilded splendor. Rock bands perform there, and high-school plays are presented, but like the clock museum it is little publicized. In What Cheer itself there is no sign, in either the literal or figurative sense, to indicate the presence of the opera house.
There is Grandview, population about 300. Place names in Iowa are not always very accurate (the town of Hills is in one of the flattest stretches in the state) but the view from the neighborhood is indeed grand, of the Mississippi here flowing among marshes, islands, and lagoons. In outward appearance there is nothing except the view to set it apart. The flavor of sleepy farm life is as strong as possible. There are only four stores on the main street. One of them, festooned with faded crepe paper, is a very good Mexican restaurant called Rowe's Cafe. Its unexpected presence is explained by an itinerant Mexican worker who stopped there to rest and remained to cook. The patrons are mostly local people in overalls who eat tamales in stolid unsurprise, but the curiosity has not, this time, gone altogether unnoticed. Out-of-town patrons are requested to sign a guest-book, and the names above mine were of people who lived in Los Angeles and Providence, Rhode Island.
Such small surprises are pleasant. Some of the larger forms of muted diversity are impressive. The most important of them are associated with the varied origins of the population. For so compact a social unit, the variety of ethnic and religious sub-cultures is staggering. There are whole sections of the state that are solidly Methodist and Calvinist. There are Dutch counties, one of them with Orange City as its capital. There are Amish in their characteristic costumes to be seen in the streets of half a dozen towns in southeast Iowa. Around the town of Kalona the highway authorities provide an extra lane, of gravel, on main roads, to accomodate the needs of a sect whose rules forbid the use of cars. There are The Amanas, a collection of villages founded by a communistic sect of German Lutherans. They ended up in prosperity in the twentieth century, manufacturing not only excellent cheese, summer sausage, and furniture, but refrigerators and toasters as well. Now the very neat, very European, villages are filled with gift shops and restaurants. But the waitresses still speak, sometimes, with German accents, and the chaste charm of their brick houses is, if overpublicized, also undoubtedly overpowering. Several parts of the state were settled by German Catholics. Dubuque is a very Catholic town and the smallest archdiocese in the nation. In the Catholic northeast there are more powerful reminiscences of Europe in towns that bear names like New Vienna and Luxemburg. From the streets they look exactly like other Iowa towns, but from a distance they are seen to be overshadowed by huge churches with majestic spires, recalling with tolerable accuracy the landscapes of a medieval homeland.
It is all perfectly delightful, and it all looks like a Jeffersonian Utopia relieved by small, harmonious variations. The face of Iowa bespeaks, to a remarkable extent, a serene and preeminently a classless society. And so it is, at least for anyone guilty of "social relativism", as a sense of proportion is called by people who think it enfeebles the will to correct nearby social evils if one recognizes the existence of much greater ones far away. The absence of social relativism is marked in Iowa, as much among those who have never heard the term as among those who venomously spit it at anyone who observes that living conditions are worse in Calcutta than in Cedar Rapids. It is, once again, the phenomenon of the narrow spectrum—mingled perhaps with a slight impulse to flagellation. Low hills seem alpine here. Shallow curves become hairpin turns. Rivers that can be safely swum in are deplored as brimming sewers. What is likely to seem to someone who has lived in London or Washington as about the most satisfactory climate in the world—with its sparkling, crystalline winter sun and long series of flawless spring and autumn days, with summers cool and dry by eastern standards—is bitterly excoriated by residents for its occasional aberrations: occasional extreme cold, occasional hailstorms in May, occasional tornados and high winds. And social conditions that look idyllic take on for natives a more than Oriental squalor.
There are certainly limitations to the idyll. A social worker I know was called upon to handle the difficult case of a small town high-school girl whose father, in the girl's phrase, "bothered" her. He had been bothering her, and her sisters, since they became nubile, and no one in the family seemed to think this unusual or even undesirable. But now the girl wanted to get married, and her father, insisting on his right to go on bothering her, objected. While incest is presumably not a specially pressing problem, rural communities notoriously generate certain special social difficulties, and some of the urban problems are surprisingly widespread too. It is noteworthy that, while Iowa's rate for crimes of violence is sensationally low, ten out of every hundred of those crimes are cases of rape—compared to fewer than three out of every hundred in New York. Even in tiny towns of the most tranquil and benign aspect, high-school drug addiction is common and sometimes critical.
There are Iowan versions, much muted, of almost all national problems. The surviving red men of the Mesquakie tribe are said tb be degraded and oppressed, although the Tama Pow-Wow is a celebrated and good-natured show, and at the approach to Sac City there is a large billboard announcing "Welcome to the home of friendly Indians. You'll like them without reservations". Until recently, anyway, the extremely varied national and religious groups who make up the mosaic of Iowan population, subsisted in a well-defined pecking order. "Bohemians", Czechs whose subculture flourished around Cedar Rapids, were once subjected to condescension and even persecution. An undergraduate girl, one of the large population of Iowa Quakers, once complained to me about the inferior social position of the Friends, a problem that is to a Philadelphian so unexpected as to be at first unbelievable. At the other end of the scale there are the vestiges of magnificent Ambersons, fine old families of Des Moines or Dubuque who sent their sons to Princeton and practiced law, although to someone accustomed to reigning dynasties whose pedigree is measured in centuries instead of decades, the pretensions of the Ambersons seem modest indeed. Certainly millionaires are scarce and very inconspicuous. A sort of clandestine plutocracy exists. Hitherto unknown and impressive private art collections are willed to public galleries. Millionaires are identified when they make huge public benefactions. One dowager in Cedar Rapids is reported to get along with a household staff of seventeen.
Both kinds of inequality loom large in the minds of conscientious Iowans. Concerned citizens organize protest movements, and state commissions consider the ghettos of Waterloo and Davenport, but nowhere in Iowa is there a slum anything like those of Chicago or Washington. And there is nothing even remotely resembling the suburbs of Philadelphia, through which one can drive for fifty miles without ever seeing a house that cost less than a hundred thousand dollars. Most houses, those of the poor and of the comparatively rich, have the outward aspect of what in the East would be a lower middle class suburb. There are some old buildings that might merit the name of mansions, mostly now boarding houses, and there are a few examples of relatively lavish contemporary architecture, but like all houses in Iowa towns they are on small lots, lost in long stretches of simplicity.
In the country, the farmhouses seem even more forceful monuments to social equality. There is nothing, outside of the few shanty villages here and there in uncultivable land, like the awful dereliction of farms in northern New York, or the awful juxtaposition of rural slums of the most desperate decay with gentlemen's manor houses in eastern Pennsylvania. It is said that in some places there is not merely spread of incomes but a hierarchy among farmers: the cattlemen are richer and prouder than the hogmen, and the hogmen are richer and prouder than the crop farmers. But none of this is outwardly apparent; farmhouses occasionally are unpainted, and their yards slovenly, but the huge majority of them rise from their clustered evergreens with the white, square tidiness of monuments in a vast, well-tended public park.
People like bank directors are regarded by some with respect, if not with awe, and resented by others. But the bank directors live in the same kind of houses as everyone else, and there is no way of telling, from their clothes or their manners or—most noticeable of all—their accents, that they are not like everyone else in every other way as well. Whatever the hidden inwardnesses of the hierarchy, it translates itself into no palpable variation of manner. Friendliness and equality are matters of pride, just as reserve and self-differentiation are matters of pride in Eastern cities. Class, as measured in money, of course exists, although the spread is by national standards very narrow. But class as measured by bearing and attitude simply does not.
Social evil, however, abounds in an abundance sufficient to suggest crisis for those who read the constant exposes in the newspapers or listen to the infinity of concerns of militant youth and middle-aged intellectual liberals. The Register specializes in uncovering social evil, and tries valiantly to do something about it. Series of articles on the unnerving ease with which members of families can have annoying relatives committed to loony bins alternate with newsstories about fiery crosses burned on the lawns of civil rights leaders, with a regularity that would be familiar in Newark. Avaricious landlords mulct students who rent, at absurd prices, their drastically substandard premises. Women and blacks are discriminated against here, as in the rest of the country. Homosexuals paint on blank walls the message that "Gay pride is gay power," and a school teacher in Iowa City was fired when he brought several members of the Gay Power movement to explain their problems to his class. The corrupting prevalence of automobiles is chronically denounced, and the Attorney General of the State, a man not famous for sympathy with advanced ideas, rode a bicycle to work one day to publicize the merits of wholesome and pollution-free transport. Poverty is much discussed.
Any institution, any situation perhaps, reveals itself on intimate acquaintance as a whited sepulchre. In anything from the Church of Rome to the local garden club, a close observer will find a dominance of triviality, avarice, and faction. Overemphasis on them may mean a loss of perspective, but it is the only possible way to control or cure them. It would be absurd for a newcomer to Iowa to suggest that the preoccupation with what are, objectively considered, very small problems is in any way misplaced. What is more likely to trouble him is the feeling that their smallness is the product of unreality, and that in worrying about them Iowans are forgetting more basic ones. A due concern for the undoubted injustice suffered by black people in Iowa is tempered, for the Easterner, by such facts that the citizens of a very small, wholly white town in the center of the state made available a house and lot, and the guarantee of dignified employment, as a gift for a family from the Chicago ghetto. But it should be even more affected by the much larger fact that the black population of the state is less than one percent of the total. Similarly, concern for rural poverty must be affected by the knowledge that rural prosperity is being paid for by the Eastern shoppers and taxpayers. He is tempted to see the whole of Iowan society, and the attempts to improve it, as a sort of amiable fiction accidentally conserved by the peculiarities of the federal system and national politics. There is a massive failure both of understanding of orders of magnitude and of conditions and causes. Seen from this angle, "social relativism" becomes a civic imperative and not an invitation to inaction.
But whatever its flaws, and however precarious its underpinnings, the outward show is very impressive. At first, equality may appear to the Easterner in the guise of vulgarity, and friendliness as intrusion: the boys in gas stations look at your credit card, and the girls in drive-in banks look at your check, and call you by your first name. But mostly the symptoms are agreeable, if confusing. Except in restaurants, tipping is quite unknown, and offering a dollar to the man who laboriously installs a television set or a washing machine produces not gratitude by puzzlement, and a refusal sometimes tinged with resentment. Cleaning women are usually either matrons of the community, happy to pick up a supplemental income by practicing a perfectly dignified profession, or, in Iowa City, graduate students. Either way one is likely to meet them at cocktail parties. The reciprocating system of subordination and superiority upon which the East is constructed is wholly absent. Nobody has any sense of being anybody's social inferior, and Iowa doctors behave toward their patients exactly the same way that salesgirls in dime stores behave to their customers, with easy, breezy intimacy.
Extravagant equality is, one supposes, at the root of the well-publicized friendliness. In shops the salespeople rush forward with glad cries to serve you. To an Easterner, raised with a breed of clerks who often seem to have devoted long years of job-training in academies of malicious obstruction, the blatant desire to please gives rise to suspicion if not of duplicity, then of simple-mindedness. Casual social relationships develop in entirely different ways as a result. A sort of intimacy seems to flower instantly from rootless plants. The only background information that is ever deemed important is occupation and place of birth. The most important experience of my Iowa education arose from precisely this fact; I discovered something I hadn't known before, that all my life I had been playing the exhausting and unpleasant game of placing people. In Eastern cities it is an imperative, perhaps a compulsion, to discover, by circuitous conversational routes, whom you are talking to. The "whom" involves not only where a person comes from and what he does—although those are important contributory data—but more cogently where he fits into a complicated social order whose individuals define themselves by membership in sub-groups. The process begins with the first spoken words; they may not realize it but, hardly less than Englishmen, educated Easterners are trained to register accents and what they mean. I was appalled to discover how highly trained my reflexes are in this matter, that I felt something like a need, upon meeting a stranger, to find out whether we have any acquaintances or experiences in common. In their absence, in the East, he will remain a stranger forever. In the Midwest he will cease to be a stranger as soon as you learn his first name (it is not necessary to learn his last).
Coming to Iowa is like taking off tight shoes; after the first elation of comfort has faded, you forget how great the discomfort was. But sometimes you are reminded. At a dinner party I was introduced to a woman whose voice and appearance triggered the reflexes I had temporarily forgotten. There was a gleam of mutual recognition, of the fact that we were both rapidly and tacitly making the same reflexive calculations. And when she had inevitably asked me where I came from and I had told her, she said, in a tone of mixed interrogation and appraisal, that she had only once visited Philadelphia, to attend her college roommate's party in Chestnut Hill. Her phrasing, which would have seemed innocent enough, if a little confusing, to an Iowan, conveyed a great deal of slightly sinister information to a Philadelphian; indeed it defined with considerable precision all the essentials of her past and present. Later, when the evening had matured, I rebuked her, and she apologized. Such lapses, we agreed, are more than simply out of place in Iowa; they are dangerous, furtive attacks upon a whole series of moral values.
Another thing an Easterner must get used to is the attitude toward money. A sense of money, and what it may properly and prudently be spent on, is one useful guide to the inner reality of a society. The Easterner, perhaps unaware that he had any characteristic attitude at all toward money, is likely to find the difference in Iowa instructive. For one thing, a great many people here discuss money with a frequency and a candor which in most circles in the East would constitute a serious solecism. Something like it is likely to strike Easterners when they go to California or anywhere else in the West; what sets Iowa off from California is that it is not boasting but rather frugality that is involved. People seem to pride themselves on how little money they spend and how little they have paid for things, even on how little they have, to the point where frugality itself becomes a matter of ostentation, as it does sometimes among New Englanders and Frenchmen and, in myth anyway, Scots and Jews. Bargain-hunting and poor-mouthing are common in a lot of places, of course, and in recent years they have become ideological imperatives for some people, but the first impression in Iowa is of a very general and quite intense dedication to this form of reverse ostentation. There is very little here of the rigid middle-class etiquette in which I was raised, in which wealth or lack of it were facts as unmentionable as urination.
The Iowan etiquette is not quite what it first seems, though. Frugality may be a form of ostentation, but it by no means excludes extravagance. Iowa is a reasonably rich state, and the proportion of people who live in reasonable comfort is larger than most, but they are nouveaux riches living in a world where there are no vieux riches to set standards, either of genteel abstention from talking about money or of hierarchical kinds of extravagance. The inherited accoutrements of a privileged class seem exotic and awesome here; but gadgetry, however expensive, does not. It may be deplored by the intellectual few as representing false values, or it may be wallowed in by the boobish many, but domestic technology, unlike formal gardens or silver tea services, is accepted, much more widely than in the East, as a reasonable thing to spend money on.
Contrary to what might be expected, however, displays of the privileged-class kind do not seem to evoke disapproval or resentment but, rather, wildly disproportionate estimates of wealth. Once I gave a lift to two university students who devoted the ride to a long technical discussion of their parents' snowmobiles, speed-boats, guns, fishing gear, power-mowers, and tractors. The investment they unconsciously described must have been staggering. Then we passed a house which happens to belong to friends of mine, a couple, both of whom are distinguished professional people with important but not munificent academic positions. They employ a housekeeper who lives with them. One of the boys knew about this, in the disconcerting way in which small-town people know everything, and he said to the other, "You know, those people have a woman working for them who lives there. She doesn't do anything except clean and cook for them." And the second answered, "Wow, they must be millionaires."
The Frugality Ethic, then, is not the same as avarice. Rather the reverse. People give, and expect others to give, generously of time, and energy and goods. And even about money they are, if not spendthrift, strangely careless. A New York woman told me her most serious complaint about Iowa is that she is always being undercharged. "I'm used to poor addition in shops and restaurants, of course," she said with some annoyance, "but here the mistakes are always in the customer's favor. It's unfair to put that kind of moral burden on the customer."
Time like money has different dimensions in Iowa. Most Easterners have, I now think, an unconscious belief that antiquity is a good thing, that no one can live a good life without deep cultural roots, the deeper the better, and that depth can be vicariously acquired by membership in an ancient social order. An almost obsessive preoccupation with Europe, common to most educated Easterners of my own and earlier generations, a blend of creeping inferiority with gasping infatuation, is a notable symptom of this pathological attachment to elapsed time. Father Europe hovers over the horizon just east of the Jersey shore; the conflicts arising from this presence, inescapable, fascinating, threatening, have been frequently analyzed by literary critics and others. They are absent here. Iowans are great travelers, but they are as likely to face west as east; their orientation becomes occidentation. It is not that they dislike or disregard Europe, but instead of seeing it as a tyrannical father they see it as a charming stranger encountered on a bus.
But the past, a different past, is notably present. There are many kinds of cultural time, not all of them products of chronology. In some ways Iowa is a good deal older than Pennsylvania.
I do not mean this in any literal sense, although in some literal senses it is true: there were Europeans in Dubuque before there were in Philadelphia, for example. The fact, while it startles Philadelphians, is only a curiosity. (The fact that the East Coast was once ruled by the Stuarts has some living importance; the fact that Iowa was once ruled by the Bourbons has none.) A related curiosity is that the antique business flourishes so prolifically. The first social mistake I made in Iowa, at least the first one that first called forth open annoyance, occurred when I was listening to a discussion about the relative merits of various antique shops. Involuntarily I interrupted with the rude question, "Antiques? Here?" and was told in emphatic terms that Iowa is a collector's paradise. The early settlers brought their furniture with them. It turns out, actually, that the meaning of "antique" has changed here (as it has nationally) and applies to anything more than fifty years old. The availability of early settlers' furniture does not contribute very substantially to the flavor of antiquity in Iowa.
What is substantial is that so much of the state has changed, visually at least, so little since the settlers built their farms and towns. They date from the second half of the nineteenth century, of course, not from the seventeenth or eighteenth, but an absence of change, general change in the landscape, far more than perfect eighteenth-century houses subsisting among skyscrapers, or perfect eighteenth-century villages surrounded by motels, provides an enveloping sense of a living past. The oppressive odor of restless movement is absent. A high percentage of people seem to live in houses built by their ancestors. Places that were settled by Czechs or Irish or Germans or Dutch or Norwegians or Swedes, by Catholics or any of several kinds of Lutherans, or by Quakers or Amish or Mormons, are still their strongholds. A friend of mine who is professionally interested in the history of Iowa tells me that if you study election returns in any of hundreds of townships for 1855, you can infallibly predict what party those townships would vote for in every election through 1952. The Civil War is almost as intensely present here as in the South; Iowans are very proud of their Civil War effort, and undergraduates at the University can (and do) eagerly detail their great-grandfather's civil war activities—and then, in the next sentence, detail their own plans for escaping the draft.
If the state is conservative in the literal sense, it is not necessarily so in the political sense. Populist traditions are strong, and what was radicalism at the turn of the century survives, like the farmhouses of the radicals, almost unchanged. While Herbert Hoover was Iowa's most celebrated son, John L. Lewis and Henry Wallace were rather more representative. And the traditional political slant looks a good deal less reactionary than it did twenty years ago. In some striking ways it has come into fashion again. The current of ideas of a Bryan or a Borah, concern for the poor, for debtors, resentment of wealth, dislike of Wall Street and of large corporations and their manipulations of ordinary people, aversion to foreign responsibilities, all things that seemed obsolete to progressive people a generation ago, were in the 1960's diverted back into a main stream. The stalwart Midwestern farmer, however obscurantist his views might seem on Morningside Heights, or the banks of the Charles, is intelligible to the new left. He is as likely to vote for a McGovern, a Harold Hughes or a Eugene McCarthy as his father was to vote for George Norris or Robert LaFollette. In some political ways, Iowans have a kind of pioneering flexibility. In 1971 one small town chose a teen-ager, and Davenport a woman, for mayors. Without alarm, they abolished justices of the peace and lowered the age of majority of eighteen.
Iowa's peculiarities sometimes induce culture-shock in immigrants. Recuperation is often slow, and convalescent Easterners make the adjustment, if at all, in different ways. Observing them in Iowa City is an instructive occupation. They tend to fall into categories, some of them fairly definite. There are Exurbanites—poets, painters, potters, for the most part, devotees of the stricter creeds of the environmental cult—who atavistically set out to build Bucks County in Iowa's green and pleasant land. They live on farms where Thoreau is much read, kilns abound, sheep are raised, and operational spinning wheels are not unknown. There are occasional Patricians who resolutely, if figuratively, dress for dinner in the egalitarian jungle — but their problem is not so much regional as ecumenical, since they know that wherever they are they must live out their lives in embattled fortresses of graciousness. There are quite a lot of Exiles, generally New Yorkers, who hang expressionist paintings on their walls and complain about the extreme difficulty of procuring truffles in Iowa. They sound remarkably like Midwesterners in Paris complaining about the hamburgers and wondering whether the water is safe to drink. There are Name-droppers, who rather pathetically go on referring to their acquaintance with people whom no one in Iowa has ever heard of.
Almost all the exiles from metropolises, Eastern, Californian, European, or just Chicagoan, show some traces of the symptoms of the syndrome even when they do not fall into a clear category. A very widespread symptom is an intense preoccupation with shopping, a variant on the Truffle Tropism. Shops in Iowa for the most part reflect the egalitarianism. There is a general level of poor-to-medium quality goods and generally the only high-quality items are the gadgets. Sears and Wards rank as deluxe emporia. People who can mend oriental rugs, say, are hard to find, and certain commodities that Easterners do not ordinarily think of as luxuries, like linen dishcloths, rarely appear. It takes a certain amount of research to find good writing paper, with name and address imprinted, that does not have crinkled edges, or pictures of daffodils, or funny inscriptions. There is, in short, on the surface not only restriction but standardization of a sort that offends sophisticates.
But again there are subtle variations. It is not simply complaint but also joy in esoteric discovery that figure in to the incessant conversation about shopping. The absence of Hammacher Schlemmer, or Sloane, or Jensen, or Mark Cross, is mitigated by the presence of craftsmanship and by an almost secretive commerce in luxuries. The goods and services are there, but they are hidden in farmhouses, basements, and back streets. The invaluable Little Man who upholsters in imported brocade or repairs ormolu or makes inlaid escritoires is actually more common here than in most Eastern towns. He is competent, inexpensive, and hard to find; and he exists in surprising numbers. Craftsmanship is still alive. You don't walk into Hammacher Schlemmer or Sloane in Iowa, but you learn about their fragmented counterparts from old residents, and track them to earth in unmarked cellars.
The most urgent topic among immigrants is food. The supermarkets seem to most of them banal, with seventy brands of breakfast food prominently displayed, and new arrivals from New York tend to wring their hands. Some supermarkets, however, provide an admirable assortment of very fresh vegetables, of a sort that only farmers' markets sell in the East—things like kohlrabi, celery root, superb leaf lettuce, shallots, and mysterious varieties of peppers—and there are pleasant oddities, such as Amish ladies in native costumes who, in season, sell home-picked morels at tables set up in front of the detergents. (Morels are Iowa's only claim to culinary greatness. They make other mushrooms seem flat and tasteless by comparison. Unfortunately their season lasts only a few weeks.) There are good Midwestern cheeses unavailable in New York, and Illinois Camembert and Brie are admirable. But it is hard to find good lamb and almost impossible to find veal or, of course, fresh sea fish. (The lack of a seacoast is deeply felt and bitterly criticized by some immigrants, as if, with better management, Iowa could have arranged to secure one.) There is frozen fish, to be sure, but—logically enough—most of it is frozen freshwater fish from local streams. Table-talk at the recondite dinner parties in Iowa City tends to revolve around lamb and veal and fish. The cognoscenti are in a position to supply themselves with things like white asparagus and paté and puree of chestnuts, foodstuffs probably unknown to more than one of a thousand Iowans which turn up—as good lamb or tripe sometimes turn up—in little shops on obscure corners. And a surprising amount of the food consumed in Iowa is not bought in stores at all. Friends of the fisherman, the hunter, and the farmer are those who eat best.
The mainstay of Iowa cooking is naturally pork, which is available in quality and diversity unknown in the East. The cognoscenti rejoice in fine components for a choucroute garnie. But alien palates and digestive systems are unaccustomed to a steady diet of pork products, even when varied by good beef. And no Eastern newcomer is likely to hear without horrified condescension the story (probably mythical) of a local butcher who, when asked if it would be possible to order veal, regretted that this would be very difficult indeed and added, as a rider, that while he had never tasted veal himself his wife's cousin had once eaten it and reported that it was no worse than horse-meat.
A related subject that is not much discussed among immigrants is restaurants. There is not much to discuss. This is a country where Howard Johnsons are regarded as providing gourmet treats. There is a sprinkling of the kind of restaurant, all too familiar throughout America, where high prices are charged for a glamorous atmosphere of Mediterranean Décor concealed in almost total darkness, for abominable service, and for the awful liturgy of roast beef sliced an inch thick, broiled spring chicken, frozen lobster tails, and five kinds of juicy steak, each preceded by salad and accompanied by a baked potato loathesomely wrapped in foil. There is an even smaller sprinkling of places that affect a certain culinary pretension, offering sauerbraten and even snails. A few have menus in bad French. There are some fair Chinese restaurants, and here and there a quite good Mexican one. But it is necessary to report that American restaurant cooking, which is not, God knows, to be boasted of in any region, here is of surpassing dullness punctuated on occasion, by inedibility. Some of the raw materials are very good; but as anyone who has ever lived in England can testify, good raw materials are easily ruined by a culture that distrusts gastronomic imagination. And serving frozen vegetables in the middle of this enormous garden argues a failure not only of imagination but of nerve.
Complaints about restaurants may be partly a result of snobbery. At its best Midwestern cooking is not bad — simple and direct, plain, and hearty—although its best is rarely found in restaurants. And, what is hard for Eastern snobs to keep in mind, there are cultivated people who genuinely dislike dry wine and blanquette de veau and find a highly educated satisfaction in roast loin of pork. As in most things, lines between deficient education and understanding on the one hand and unfamiliar cultural values on the other are vague and very confusing, and Eastern smugness is likely to overlook them.
Most of the Easterners I know here, whatever their form of response and the volume of their complaint, like Iowa. A surprising number of them love it. There recurs in their conversation a curious and significant theme: from the moment I arrived in Iowa I knew that this was what I had been waiting for all my life. In a shop, I recently fell into conversation with a stranger who, it turned out, was a painter who had lived in France before he came to Iowa ten years ago. He went back to Paris for a visit last year and found it dead and debased, and he told me Iowa City has, for artists, the same kind of excitement and stimulation that the Latin Quarter had in his youth. "When I got back here," he said, "I kissed the ground." For the academic people there are measurable attractions—excellent libraries, distinguished colleagues, easy, pleasant and relatively inexpensive living, and perhaps most of all a hospitality to new educational methods and experiments which, common to most of the big Midwestern universities, make them more congenial homes for scholars than the Eastern ones. But there are also, for almost all of us, traces of an impapable attraction that is neither wholesome nor creditable. There remains the sense of being an expatriate, which has its own psychological satisfactions. One of them, faintly diagnosable, is a comfortable feeling that one is surrounded by picturesque natives. It is a malady that has afflicted, and been enjoyed by, peregrine intellectuals of every age—I read with a shudder of recognition, for example, of the Fitzgeralds in France, with their refusal to learn French and their behavior as self-appointed demi-gods above the law. But, however unwarranted and unattractive, the expatriate outlook is one of the things that can open to path to a better knowledge of oneself and of the world.
I have repeatedly been taken on the basis of my accent to be English. This makes my good red American blood boil, but for reasons I am forced to confess arise from regional hauteur: in the East an English accent is a sign of the worst kind of affectation. When the mistake is made here, it condemns no affectation; it is merely a mistake. And there is a further complexity, which inculpates me of a sin very like that whose imputation is so annoying. I am led to try to learn Iowan. I have become a tolerably adept master of the foreshortened vowel and the denticulated consonant, of phrases like "Thank you much" and "Real good." I have learned to pronounce the noun permit as if it were a verb, route as if it were a military disaster, and creek as if it were an affliction of the neck. But it is, after all, regional snobbery that makes me feel it a sign of genial adaptability to affect an Iowa accent while it would be putting on airs to affect an English one.
On the other hand, there are some genuine linguistic novelties which have to be learned; as always the line between hauteur and adaptability is hard to draw. A young bride, out of New York and Bryn Mawr had to be hastily instructed by her husband that the most common decorations of Iowa fields are not pig-sties but hog-houses, that hog is pronounced almost (not quite) to rhyme with dog, and that a hog is not the same as a pig although it may be the same as a sow or a boar. Land is not subdivided but platted, and when title to it is transferred there is no settlement but rather a closing. (You can buy land in a matter of hours here; title searches and insurance are unnecessary.)
Still, it is hard for us to get used to the fact that many things in the East seem from this angle not only unbearable (which most of us are prepared to admit) but ridiculous. One of Donald Kaul's highly literate and astringent columns in the Register dealt humorously with a change-of-address notice he had gotten from a business executive he knew in Pennsylvania. The new address was something like "The Pastor Farm, Old Poor House Lane, Bethlehem Pike, Micklebury." It seemed to me a natural sort of address, and I was genuinely baffled by the fact that Iowa's leading columnist had devoted an entire column to deriding it. I consulted a native, who was as puzzled by my reaction as I was by Kaul's. To him it was obvious that it should give rise to hilarity and revulsion, but he couldn't tell me exactly why, and I still don't find it either contemptible or funny.
The incident provoked the first real feelings of affronted regional vanity I had experienced. But I am beginning to understand the difficulty. Kaul thought the address must have been invented out of snobbery, while I assumed it was inherited from honest folk who had evolved it several centuries before. In a society whose entire past is not only still alive but whose origins are barely beyond living memory, the tangle of an older world is mysterious, and its complexities are judged to have been deliberately and mistakenly made up.
This kind of reaction has, for the immigrant, a strange flavor of innocence. There keeps coming to my mind, the more often the longer I stay here, a familiar scheme of stereotypes: the Iowans' relations with the East have a good deal in common with American relations with Europe as it presented itself in the time of Henry James. There is the same innocence, along with a conviction that its converse is dark decay. The Easterner appears even to very cultivated Iowans in somewhat the same light that depraved Italian noblemen appeared to Americans in 1890's, degenerate heirs of an evil tradition of social privilege. The Easterner in Iowa begins, in time, to perceive a certain plausibility, or at least consistency, in this. Chesterton's couplet about Reformation Europe,
The North is full of tangled things, and texts, and aching eyes,
And gone is all the innocence of anger and surprise,
becomes, with a change of direction, apposite.
Stereotypes, always false, are not always misleading. There is perhaps some inner truth in the assumption of depravity; and innocence verging on simplicity is, despite all exceptions and all qualifications, in some way a quality of Iowa. The important part of the immigrant's education is that he begins to measure the two sterotypes against two sets of realities. It seems to me now that the specific detail, not the general truth, matters. Exceptions provide perspectives. Any society defined in generalities looks rigid, unattractive, perhaps evil, but the generalities always, on close view, break down in complications and gradations. Iowa City, the seat of a great university, Athens in the Cornfields, as the immigrants call it, is sometimes seen as depraved by other Iowans. Parents from the small towns worry about its corrupting influence on their children. Everything, fortunately, is unrepresentative. New York is not America; Iowa City is not Iowa. The sticks are a few miles west of where you stand.