Archive for ‘Iowa’


“The walls are white, and in the night…”

“Perhaps I have created a medieval study,” wondered Flannery O’Connor in 1960 after a professor of medieval literature penned a piece in a Catholic magazine that likened her novel The Violent Bear It Away to the movie The Seventh Seal. Sharing the essay with a friend, O’Connor was bemused: “Which reminds me, have you seen any films by this man Ingmar Bergman? People tell me they are mighty fine & that I would like them. They too are apparently medieval.”

I wonder, then, what O’Connor, a rigorous Catholic, would have made of the news that the Episcopalians just made her a literary saint:

This week, Flannery O’Connor was inducted into the American Poets Corner at St. John the Divine, the “only shrine to American literature in the country” (or so a church representative told me). Upon entering the cathedral for the small induction ceremony, attendees were greeted by two gigantic, sparkling sculptures suspended from the ceiling—they are phoenixes, part of an installation by the Chinese artist Xu Bing, but at first glance you might mistake them for peacocks, like the ones that O’Connor raised on her family’s Georgia farm, Andalusia . . . Those who spoke during the ceremony stood in front of a shining cross, towering choir stalls, and giant pillars illuminated with glowing yellow lights. A booming echo made them sound like somewhat unintelligible voices from beyond. The effect was fitting, evoking simultaneously O’Connor’s keen sense of the ominous, the numinous, and the ironic.

I don’t know if O’Connor visited the magnificent cathedral when she lived in New York City for a while in 1949. As a Catholic, she might have found modern Protestant cathedral-building a marvelous, misguided quest for transcendence, but the vast Gothic interior also might have engaged her intellect and gladdened her soul. After all, O’Connor grew up across the street from a gargoyle-festooned cathedral in Savannah and later lived on a farm called Andalusia, a name she encouraged her mother to restore. It’s been a while since she was seen only as a “Southern Gothic” writer; she also deserves to be remembered as a committed American medievalist.

By the time O’Connor attended college in 1942, her medievalism was apparent. She wrote poetry only briefly, but her later dismissal of her own juvenalia is knowing and sly. “All of my poems sounded like ‘Miniver Cheevy,'” she quipped, recalling the pathetic drunk in E.A. Robinson’s 1910 poem who wishes he’d been born in an age of chivalry. As an adult, she had little interest in romance and legend: Her philosophy professor would recall how much she hated the irreligious dismissal of the Middle Ages in the textbook he assigned, how passionately she studied the work of St. Thomas Aquinas, and how keen she was to debate with him when he argued, from an anthropological perspective, that medieval Christianity was polytheistic.

“She knew Aquinas in detail, was amazingly well read in earlier philosophy, and developed into a first-rate ‘intellectual’ along with her other accomplishments,” George Beiswanger later wrote. “It soon became clear to me that she was a ‘born’ writer and that she was going that way.” Beiswanger took such pleasure in their sparring that he recommended her to his alma mater, the University of Iowa, and helped her land a scholarship for graduate school.

In 1948, while wandering the grounds of Yaddo, O’Connor described herself to other artists at the colony as “thirteenth century” as she immersed herself in a book on scholasticism and medieval art by French Thomist Jacques Maritain. “Do not make the absurd attempt to sever in yourself the artist and the Christian”—she underlined that passage in Maritain’s book, and when she visited the Cloisters during her stint in New York City the following year, she was amazed to find support for Maritain’s exhortation in a Virgin and Child statue that showed both figures laughing—”not smiling,” she emphasized to a friend, “laughing.”

While writing her first novel, O’Connor read the lives of three female saints—Catherine of Siena, Catherine of Genoa, and Teresa of Avila—and was irked when the public found the resulting book pessimistic rather than comic. “Everybody who has read Wise Blood thinks I’m a hillbilly nihilist,” she told a friend, “whereas I would like to create the impression over the television that I’m a hillbilly Thomist.” Fascinated and challenged by the prolific saint, she joked about applying Thomist principles to the least events in daily life, including her mother scolding her to go to bed during her nightly readings:

If my mother were to come in during this process and say, “Turn off that light. It’s late,” I with lifted finger and broad bland beatific expression, would reply, “On the contrary, I answer that the light, being external and limitless, cannot be turned off. Shut your eyes,” or some such thing.

Soon after she was diagnosed with the lupus that would destroy her kidneys, O’Connor made two commitments: the first, to write like mad; the second, less formally, to St. Thomas Aquinas himself. In 1953, O’Connor purchased the 690-page Modern Library volume of selections from his work—and settled in for the rest of her life.

As she hobbled around Andalusia on the crutches she called “flying buttresses” and immersed herself nightly in Thomistic theology, O’Connor did what other medievalists do, from malevolent nationalists to benign reenactors: She redacted the Middle Ages down to the aspects that gave her full purpose and strength.

As for being enshrined as a poet by Episcopalians in an unfinished Gothic cathedral in Manhattan, O’Connor was too Southern to have told them that she was anything but flattered but also too Catholic not to have issued gleeful theological challenges to priests who would have stammered and sought for rejoinders in vain. Then, in private, mindful of her favorite statues, she would have laughed, and let her amusement linger long after the light went out.

“You really ought to give Iowa a try…”

Fireworks! Barbecues! The Fourth of July approacheth, and as Americans dwell on traditions, origins, and independence from the Old World, it’s a fine time to reconsider American Gothic. Everyone knows the painting, but few people really look at it—but when you do, you’ll find that Grant Wood uses serious medievalism to find humor in a 200-year identity crisis.

Wood based his painting around a modest house in Eldon, Iowa, whose only flourish was a Gothic window he found both delightful and pretentious. Wood’s sister and a local dentist posed as the sorts of people he imagined would live in such a house; most of the time, Wood insisted that his characters were father and daughter, not husband and wife. The painting was a smash at both a 1930 Art Institute of Chicago exhibition and the 1933 World’s Fair, and in 1934 the entire country saw American Gothic in full color in Time magazine.

Art historian Thomas Hoving has pointed out the painting’s clever composition: how the top of the middle pitchfork tine marks the center of the painting; how the three tines are echoed in the stitching of the man’s overalls and in the window tracery; how the bulb at the top of the lightning rod echoes the button on the man’s collar; and how the lines of the peaked roof point directly to the man and the woman. “The house and the couple are utterly unified, like the statues on thirteenth-century cathedrals,” Hoving writes—which is appropriate, because it’s remarkable how European American Gothic actually is.

Grant Wood’s name normally evokes the Midwest, not the Middle Ages. After a stint in France and a fling with Impressionism, Wood hurried back to his Iowa home and happily let the press turn him into the champion of a new regionalism in American art. He donned overalls, sought out local subjects, and created an icon of Americana that either enshrines or mocks its subjects, depending on your point of view. “The farther a critic lived from the Midwest, the more predisposed he or she was to read the painting as satire or social criticism,” one art historian quipped about American Gothic—but what if most viewers for 80-odd years have focused way too much on the “American” and not nearly enough on the “Gothic”?

Quoth Wood biographer R. Tripp Evans: “Wood’s attraction to the Arts and Crafts movement—which advocated hand craftsmanship, rural simplicity, and even the revival of the guild system—had led him from an early age to associate his work with that of medieval artisans.” Yes, but Wood didn’t just imitate the medieval past; he found humor in comparing the Middle Ages and modern America. Last year at the Cedar Rapids Art Museum, I got a kick out of Wood’s “Mourner’s Bench,” a medieval church pew that stood outside the principal’s office at the local junior high. (The tops of the posts are faces: two disciplinarians and a wailing student.)

“The lovely apparel and accessories of the Gothic period appealed to me so vitally,” Wood wrote, “that I longed to see pictorial and decorative possibilities in our contemporary clothes and articles.” One art historian points out that Wood was fascinated by late Northern Gothic painters, especially 15th-century German-born Flemish artist Hans Memling. When you put some Memling portraits alongside Woman with Plants, Wood’s painting of his mother, it’s clear what he was imitating—the landscape, the poses, the stark black clothing and cloudless blue skies—with humor implicit in the comparison.

Other art historians have listed Wood’s many medieval and early Renaissance influences. Biographer R. Tripp Evans finds that the tiny bathing figures in Arnold Comes of Age (below left) look like miniature depictions of Adam and Eve being expelled from Paradise in the backgrounds of Nativity and Crucifixion scenes on medieval altarpieces, and he points out that Wood’s huge Dinner for Threshers evokes the Last Supper and mimics a medieval triptych. In Adoration of the Home (below right), Wood expert Wanda Corn sees a medieval altarpiece with a Madonna and Child surrounded by saints.

After Wood died in 1942 at the age of 50, trendier critics condemned him as nationalistic and reactionary, and some ludicrously likened his work to Nazi art. The joke’s on them: They missed the centuries-old motifs that linked Wood’s “regionalism” to traditions more venerable than most of the century’s fads.

Then again, they were only doing what most of us do: obsessing over the American while ignoring the Gothic. Photographer Gordon Parks was the first to parody the painting in 1942, and since then it’s become a boon for lazy political cartoonists, ad agencies, movie-poster designers, and anyone who wants to suggest that a stuffy, old-fashioned sensibility is being tweaked, surpassed, desecrated, defied, or redefined. Nothing is more establishmentarian than parodying American Gothic.

…and while everyone looks at the people in the painting, no one considers that silly little window behind them.

According to his recent biographer, Wood focused on arched windows and doors in his early French paintings, and he specifically said that American Gothic was meant to feature “American Gothic people” whose features complemented architecture that emphasized vertical lines. “These particulars, of course, don’t really matter,” Wood wrote in a 1941 letter. “What does matter is whether or not these faces are true to American life and reveal something about it. It seemed to me that there was a significant relationship between the people and the false Gothic house with its ecclesiastical window.”

Wood toyed with the idea of a companion painting that would have put squat Americans in front of the horizontal lines of Mission architecture, but of course he never created it—because he was beguiled by the Gothic, as two generations before him had been.

By 1930, America was coming off a multi-decade Gothic Revival bender. Since the second half of the 19th century, architects across the country had been dreaming up American Gothic buildings: churches, cathedrals, college campuses, prep schools, factories, skyscrapers, courthouses, apartments, at least one synagogue, and even crummy “Carpenter Gothic” houses like the one in Eldon. Their neo-medieval look was sometimes democratic, sometimes aristocratic, sometimes religious, sometimes secular, old and European but American and new. It’s a fine, precarious ambivalence: Are we making a New World here, or not?

Wood’s painting is satiric, but it pokes fun at pretensions that weren’t (and still aren’t) confined to the Midwest. Sometimes, Americans aspire to be medieval; other times, we’re medieval by accident. What’s great about American Gothic is that Grant Wood, however fond he is of his subjects, exposes them to democratic judgment. Each of us gets to look over the heads of two imaginary Iowans and decide for ourselves whether our collective pretensions are noble or foolish, or if we really are late Gothic people just posing in latter-day garb.

“…at a place where you can walk across, with five steps down…”

Starting today, more than 3,000 scholars, profs, and students will flock to Kalamazoo, Michigan, for the annual International Congress on Medieval Studies, an event that often prompts yuksters to claim it’s peculiar that medievalists should convene in a small city in the Midwest, as if the coasts, or bigger cities, are inherently more hospitable to historical musings.

…which, of course, is silly. Having just rolled back into D.C. after a 3,600-mile roadtrip, I’m pleased to share a few postcards from the medievalist Midwest, evidence that the Middle Ages wind also through the prairies and plains—if not as vitally as the Mississippi, then at least with the same circuitous certainty.

“The hammer of the gods will drive our ship to new lands….” You’ll find a Smithsonian-funded scale replica of a Viking knarr in Alexandria, Minnesota, a town with a gigantic Viking statue and a thriving spurious-runestone-based economy.

In downtown Minneapolis, look up to spot these funny, blockheaded grotesques on the spire at Central Lutheran Church, which just completed its neo-Gothic bell tower after nearly 80 years.

At the Cedar Rapids Museum of Art, you can see how Iowa’s own Grant Wood (painter of America’s great medievalist icon) combined his usual humor with a designer’s eye for medieval church pews to create this early-1920s “mourner’s bench” for the principal’s office at the local junior high.

At the Plaza in Kansas City, Missouri, you can’t miss this gawkworthy replica of La Giralda, a minaret-turned-cathedral-tower in Seville. The Kansas City Giralda (shown here artlessly photographed from a moving car) represents the tower after its adornment with post-medieval doodads. (To the best of my knowledge, the one in Seville never had a Cheesecake Factory on the ground floor.)

On North 18th Street in Kansas City, Kansas, look up to see this grotesque on all four sides of the tower at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, designed by an artistic medievalist rector. According to a friendly parish worker we met, the church plans to sell reproductions of this mascot; he’s known as “the Grinning Gargoyle.”

Whether you’re en route to Kalamazoo or writing and teaching in what some would consider a far-flung place, look up and gaze around. Chances are, a deliberate reworking of something medieval is craving a chance to leer back.