Regional Stereotypes

Click to view larger illustration on DonkeyHotey's flickr photostream where you can tell him how great this is.Iowa is in a foment of mean-spirited gutter sniping as the Repugs dosey doe and bow to their corners in an ever-shifting square dance of both re-edited values statements and internecine allegiances. One big ole State-of-Iowa-shaped ballroom full of crinoline swinging crap-spewers, climbing over each other to get to the goodies tables in the front of the room, laden with power and piles of filthy lucre. Sigh. And all the while, we Iowanians must endure the usual repackaging of the state’s population from well-educated and sensible Lutherans into a pile ‘o’ ignorant white trash hayseed Evangelicals with our brains in our backsides. It is almost intolerable.

There hasn’t been such a mis-packaging of the truth in Iowa since the days back in the 60s when the rumor leaked out that marijuana grew wild in our state’s ditches. We’d be doing what Iowa kids did… driving the gravel roads and drinking beer and smoking our own imported Jamaican and Thai and sure ‘nuff, come across some hipsters in a VW with Cali plates slowly, slowly, slowly driving up and down our ditches looking for those five-fingered bandits in there amongst the chicory and wild roses.

Wild hemp does grow in our ditches, but it’s actually progeny of the hemp German POW’s during WWII were made to raise in our rich, black Iowa dirt back in the 40’s for rope and such like. The German POWs, and the hemp fields are gone but the botanical escapees still entice totally desperate kids to smoke a little and get a big headache hereabouts. We thought it only fair to giggle at the Californians who traveled so far thinking they were gonna get a good buzz for free… Seemed fair at the time, rather than petty, because back then, the California kids had all those advantages: actual beaches with oceans — as opposed to creeks or man-made lakes, like we had to endure at the end of our (trucked-in) sand — surfers, Beach Boys concerts OUTDOORS, and first shot at all the coolest fashions/music/vocabulary/drugs. By the time things worked their way into Iowa from either coast, those “things”—an d we Iowans — were already passé… kind of like how a new car immediately decreases in value as soon as you drive it off the lot, i.e., timing and location are everything.

Ok. Maybe we were just being petty. But it was funny coming across one of those psychedelic-painted vehicles with these cooler than snot hippeyeays in it, hair down to the knees and the mini-bus’s back end full to the paisley-painted roof of useless rope-making ingredients — known to us locals as “ditch weed” or “Iowajuana”, them thinking they were gonna clean it and bag it up and sell it for a fortune, us knowing that if they did so, they should include a couple of Bayer with each Baggie, cuz all the smokers of that junk were gonna get is a kickass headache.  Unless, of course, they actually wanted to make rope rather than get loaded or become pot entrepreneurs, and then the joke’s on us Iowanians, I guess. And we usually stopped them before too many tokes had been had, and filled them in on the haps and shared a joint of the good stuff with ‘em. Once we got done giggling. There may have even been a bottle of Bayer in the glove compartment of the big old Buick or Pontiac we were cruising around in with our friends.

Anyyywayyyy, I am going to some pains here to make certain you understand that Iowans, even teen-aged ones, were too nice to be really mean. S’true. Nicer folk never came from anywhere. We raise ‘em nice in Iowa. I am the one and only exception to that rule, and that is because this whole caucus idiocy and attendant Iowa-caricaturing has made me one mean, nasty Iowa native. Blame it on the fact that I LEFT Iowa for 40 years, rather than that I AM an Iowan. My meanness was developed during my sojourn outside of the state. It is not a native quality. That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.

Which naturally brings us around to how in the world the media has found all these hateful, Bible-toting, self-righteous prigs they keep interviewing on the TV. Imported? Pixeled?

Anywayyyyy, back to the political miasma which is my home state at the moment: A professor by the name of Stephen Bloom, from the University of Iowa, my beloved U of I, who hailed originally from Berkeley-or-at-least-San Francisco Californeyeay, donchaknow, just did a real hatchet job on Iowa and Iowans, in an essay or op/ed piece whatever, in The Atlantic, and he’s been here 20 years and knows better, AND he’s a professor of journalism so should not only know better, but should damn well be ashamed about the way he blatantly and with a complete lack of journalistic integrity extrapolated an all inclusive over-generalization about the population of an entire state from one colorful story that he just could not resist using. About a Labrador. Those aren’t his only ethical journalistic sins in this article, as far as I am concerned, but it’s a damn good place to start.  I understand how hard it is for a writer to resist the siren song of a good analogy or meaty metaphor, or just a damn good tale, but he’s a JOURNALISM PROFESSOR. I mean, really.

BUT hey, he wanted to publish, so like a politician, he will apparently say or write whatever is necessary to see his name in lights… or print, whichever is apt… I am contemplating a night trip to IC in order to deposit either shit or sugar (I haven’t decided which yet) into his vehicle’s gas tank as his righteous comeuppance for the ludicrous scene he described –and supposedly participated in — on the streets of Iowa City when he, Stephen Bloom, was innocently out walking the family Labrador and was serially accosted by passing guys in pickup trucks wearing gimme caps leaning out the window and shoutin’ stuff at him like  “whereja hunt her?” and “I bet that bitch kin hunt!” and suchshit.  Not saying such a thing couldn’t happen SOMEPLACE in Iowa, but it defies believability that such a scene could, serially, occur in my Iowa City.  Iowa City is a pretty awesome place, full of writers from all over the world, and not just writers, but Pulitzer Prizers and future PP’ers, due to the “World Renowned Writers Workshop”* where people like Kurt Vonnegut and Flannery O’Connor and Jane Smiley and John Irving and T.C. Boyle, and P.J. O’Rourke, and …well… here is Wiki’s partial list:


The University of Iowa’s Writers’ Workshop has 28 affiliated Pulitzer Prizes earned by various faculty and graduates, and over 40 attributed to graduates and faculty of The University of Iowa.
 Writers’ Workshop graduates have produced 16 Pulitzer Prizes since 1947.

Fiction

  • Robert Penn Warren, 1947 Pulitzer for All the King’s Men, former faculty member.
  • Wallace Stegner, 1972 Pulitzer for Angle of Repose, MA, 1932; PhD, English, 1935.
  • James Alan McPherson, 1977 Pulitzer for Elbow Room, MFA, 1969; current faculty member.
  • John Cheever, 1979 Pulitzer for The Stories of John Cheever, former faculty member.
  • Jane Smiley, 1992 Pulitzer for A Thousand Acres, MA, 1975; MFA, English, 1976; PhD, English, 1978.
  • Philip Roth, 1998 Pulitzer for American Pastoral, former faculty member.
  • Michael Cunningham, 1999 Pulitzer for The Hours, MFA, English, 1980.
  • Marilynne Robinson, 2005 Pulitzer for Gilead, current faculty member.
  • Paul Harding, 2010 Pulitzer for Tinkers

Journalistic

  • Tracy Kidder, 1982 Pulitzer in general nonfiction for The Soul of a New Machine, MFA, 1974.

Poetry

  • Karl Shapiro, 1945 Pulitzer for V-Letter and Other Poems, former faculty member.
  • Robert Lowell, 1947 Pulitzer for Lord Weary’s Castle, 1974 Pulitzer for The Dolphin, former faculty member.
  • Robert Penn Warren, 1958 Pulitzer for Poems 1954-56, Now and Then, 1980 Pulitzer for Poems 1976-78, former faculty member.
  • W.D. Snodgrass, 1960 Pulitzer for Heart’s Needle, BA, 1949; MA, 1951; MFA, 1953.
  • John Berryman, 1965 Pulitzer for 77 Dream Songs, former faculty member.
  • Anthony Hecht, 1968 Pulitzer for The Hard Hours, attended Workshop but did not graduate.
  • Donald Justice, 1980 Pulitzer for Selected Poems, alumnus and former faculty member.
  • Carolyn Kizer, 1985 Pulitzer for Yin, former faculty member.
  • Rita Dove, 1987 Pulitzer for Thomas and Beulah, MFA, 1977.
  • Mona Van Duyn, 1991 Pulitzer Prize for Near Changes, MA, English, 1943.
  • James Tate, 1992 Pulitzer for Selected Poems, MFA, 1967.
  • Louise Glück, 1993 Pulitzer for The Wild Iris, former faculty member.
  • Philip Levine, 1995 Pulitzer for The Simple Truth, MFA, 1957; former faculty member.
  • Jorie Graham, 1996 Pulitzer for The Dream of the Unified Field, MFA, English, 1978; former faculty member.
  • Charles Wright, 1998 Pulitzer for Black Zodiac, MFA, 1963.
  • Mark Strand, 1999 Pulitzer for Blizzard of One, MA, 1962; former faculty member.
  • Robert Hass, 2008 Pulitzer for Time and Materials, frequent visiting faculty member.
  • Philip Schultz, 2008 Pulitzer for Failure, MFA, English, 1971

And them’s just the PP winners. There are other notable locals who won other notable writing prizes, as well as people like my former American Novel prof, then a struggling writer, having not yet published the book (First Blood) from which the movie RAMBO was to be made, David Morrell. (Actually, don’t think he was associated directly with the World Renowned Writers Workshop, but he used to tell us stories in class about his communications with pal John Barth, how JB encouraged him not to give up his writing, and some short time later, RAMBO and complete and total financial, if not actual “literary” success. Ain’t life a serendiptitious sumabitch? As Mason Williams said/sang “isn’t life wonderful, isn’t life gay… isn’t life the perfect thing to pass the time away… And there are scads and scads more writers who’ve come through the U of I and become successful. My point being that Iowa City, is much more a literary — rather than a Labradorian — kind of place.

Hell. I grew up in a town of 8,000 people in the middle of corn and bean fields, Iowa, the kind of town where it is less of a stretch to imagine some Bubba leaning out his pickup truck window and hollering chit about huntin dogs… but my little town of Webster City has TWO Pulitzer prize winners among our hometown crop (MacKinley Kantor and Clark Mollenhoff) and five or six more published writers, including my brother, that I can think of right off the top of my head: Elizabeth Evans for one. And there’s a child’s literature writer, too, whose name escapes me. And summore, too. But I think my point is made, or at least heading in that direction.

Iowans have historically scored high in all things educational. Some of us may be provincial in outlook, some of us may be a little too close-minded (remember the lyrics from Music Man about Iowans “We can be cold as a falling thermometer in December if you ask about our weather in July, but what the heck, you’re welcome, join us at the picnic, you can have your fill of all the food you bring yourself, you really ought to give Iowa a try!) And God knows we are each and every one stubborn as shit, but goodness gracious sakes, we’re not IGNORANT. Our schools have historically been rated as some of the very best in the country. And we READ BOOKS. Libraries are a big thing here. In my hometown we actually REVERE our library. Former town members get teary-eyed when talking about the Kendall Young Library of Webster City, Iowa. THE VERY FIRST THING I DID after moving to a new place for my entire life (San Francisco, Boulder, Portland, Tampa, Houston, Dublin, Ireland; San Jose, Denver, South Royalton, VT (law school, like I had time to read anything but law…) was to get my library card. I got my card sometimes before I got my living space, which was tricky, cuz you need proof of residence to get a damn card, but I did it, by God, and I don’t think I am the only Iowan who feels that way about libraries/reading/literature… Remember all those miles of cornfields? In the 50s and 60s in Iowa, ‘bout the only way to escape them was a good book) SO, to portray Iowa City, Iowa, home of the WRWW as Hickville just rubs me the wrong damn way. Harrumph. And it was a specious trick on the part of Stephen Bloom to do so.

I remember one day cutting through one of the buildings (MacBride Hall?) on the Pentacrest and accidentally happening on a lecture from visiting poet Jorge Luis Borges. THAT’s the kind of place Iowa City is.

Of course, I was never a member of the World Renowned Writers Workshop. Perhaps that is one reason why I am so obsessed. The kid with her face pressed against the glass at the candy store. Drooling. Idol-worshipping. Envying…. Protective.

But I dated someone who was. I attended a cocktail party to welcome the new crop of International Writers Workshop participants for the year back in the mid-70s, held by Paul Engle and his lovely wife in their hillside home, his wife and her daughter, Chinese refugees who fled the commies when they took over, and where I met the Nigerian writer and Black Wizard, Obi Egbuna when I heard him say loudly and furiously, to Mrs. Engle, at this very same cocktail party that she deserved to have her tongue cut from her mouth!! Guess he felt she wasn’t PC-radical enough, she being whatever the Chinese equivalent of a White Russian is (not the drink, the political refugee), and him being a complete fucking psychopath but also a cause celebre for radical politics in England, where he’d fooled Vanessa Redgrave into rallying behind his cause and helping to get his ass out of prison. Obi later called her a white cunt. Vanessa Redgrave. Or was it her sister? Time passes. I get my stories blurred.  Obi hired me to type his current manuscript for him at that party. You’d a thought I’d gotten a clue after hearing him screaming at the gloriously beautiful and totally gracious Mrs. Engle, but nope, I was young and aching for adventure. Got it! Obi later wrote a short story about murdering me titled “Murder in the Mayflower” (The Mayflower being the name of the tall, ugly, modern buildings of the same name on Dubuque St where the writers participating in the “WR International WW” were stashed each year). Don’t think much happened with it. (Either the short story or the planned murder of me…) And since he never got around to actually murdering me, although he clearly wanted to, I am here to share his secrets.

Then there are all those potters and sculptors and painters and musicians around. Not to mention the Van Allens, James, who has that belt named after him, and Maurice, the other brother, a noted Neurologist who has a syndrome named after him, and the highly respected medical and law schools themselves, none of which are people, or places from which people, are likely to shout out pickup truck windows about huntin’ dawgs. The point is that Iowa City is ALOT of things way way way way way before you get to a point on the list where anyone would ever describe it as the kind of place where Bubbas get hysterical about Labradors and gun gauges and such shit. (Do guns come in gauges or is that the ammunition? Or shotgun shells? I need to make a quick call to Bubba.

When I was staying temporarily in Iowa City and helping my sister-in-law with her broken shoulder last winter/spring, I used to haunt the Goodwill Store because the high quality of literature (the DISCARDED books of the Iowa City population) they sold for 50 cents apiece was vastly superior to the offerings of the high end bookstores anywhere else in the fucking world. Annnnnd, international in scope…

But no. Iowa City, my beloved Iowa City, and the entire rest of the state, is being reduced to a cartoon-like image of a trailer-living, hunting dog discussing, meth-shooting, tobacco-chewing caricature from a Berkeley Breathed cartoon. Who, I might note, is ALSO a former Iowa City guy. Ever read any of the pop thriller fiction by John Sandford? (I do,  I confess…) His main character, Lucas Davenport, is named for the corner of Lucas St. And Davenport St. in Iowa City… the place the author lived when HE was in the WRWW (World Renowned Writers Workshop)…. I could go on and on, but sometime when you want to read about a fascinating place, Google “Black’s Gaslight Village,” an eccentric, overgrown complex of student housing where I lived for a while in Iowa City, THE bohemian/hippie place for all the “free thinkers” and writers and artists and actors — and unofficial/official favorite residency for members of the WRWW — to live while at U of I, a gathering of mostly tiny, all odd, mostly hand built, buildings, all completely original since they evolved organically from whatever Henry Black had scavenged and had available to build from, and from which wafted music and marijuana smoke in equal amounts, A-frames, and “the chalet” and “the lodge” (my place, which I think was actually original to the property, was known as the Carriage House, and I believe actually had  been the carriage house for the  mansion that Henry Black and his family lived in, the property’s original structure,  back in the early/mid-1800s–a tiny, stone two-story structure with a fireplace that didn’t work, a HUGE dark old antique bed and armoire and not much else in it, always icy cold…) set among a jungle of plants and overgrown winding paths, each apartment or small house furnished with heavy, massive Victorian antique furniture, and under the ownership of a crazy old man named Henry Black, who fought the city for 50 years over zoning and city ordinances and always won because that crazy place was so beloved by people who were then just students but are now famous and successful “in their craft”. Hell, at one time Kurt Vonnegut lived in the house east of Black’s and Gene Wilder lived in the house west. In between was Black’s Gaslight Village… a fucking carnival! What a place. What a time. (“time” used quite loosely here because it’s been quite a “time” continuously since just after WWII when it first became student housing for returning war vets and hasn’t stopped evolving, or being eccentric and original and fantastical ever since). When the city told Henry to mow his lawn, he refused and planted sunflowers instead and also roses everywhere and told the city council “Now make me mow it!”.  Dense patches of swaying, towering, sunflowers between all the little funky buildings, it was so magical! It really was like a Where’s Waldo Wonderland, only instead of Waldo, you were trying to find, well…whatever you could find, including one’s own self, because you just never knew what you would happen on to, or who you would happen on to, or what would happen to you, on that property. It was rich soil, and not just in the Iowa Black Dirt sense. Getting stoned and just standing around in your own doorway resulted in one of the most interesting afternoons of your lifetime, (repeatedly) because SOMEONE would come by and invite you over to their place to share a doobie, or listen to the song/poem/screenplay they were working on, or whatever. And soon another writer/artist/crackpot/drug dealer/whatever would drop in, and then another… There were peacocks and rare breed chickens running wild everywhere among the sunflowers and jasmine and roses and trees and odd little garden structures and rock piles on ever ongoing construction and berry patches. Trees towering over everything. One peacock used to chase me through the place when I came home from classes. One little  place had a tree growing right up through the middle of it. One place had a wall made out of tombstones. One place had a pile of bowling balls in the middle of it. One place had a waterfall in it. They were funky little cobbled together houses, one made all of doors, one with a wall of windows all set every which way … it was FANTASTIC and magic (sometimes black magic)  and full of creative (and sometimes a kind of black diabolical) power. Mystery. Color. Wonder. Drug overdoses, suicides, master works completed, lifetime friendships formed between creative geniuses, hearts sliced into chunks, parties!!! Parties!!!

Ok. Stop. STOP! Beth, STOP! It’s just that for an entire country to see this state and Iowa City in particular, in the light of the current media slant, just fucking makes me NUTS. Iowa City, one of the most fertile and creative places on the fucking globe described in terms of … well… Labradors. . And the media justa keeps on playin’ us natives up as unsophisticated neo-cons, just as the cartoons of our childhood made black folk out to be bone-through-the-nose savages. Can’t wait for the whole buncha ‘em to pack up their busses and head on home, the ignorant assed hate mongers.

The best part of the last few weeks of Iowassassination has been the comical and stomach-lurching ups and downs of the Repugs’ political standings. Dinnya just LUV it when Bachman’s (especially dislike her and Palin….to me it’s always so much more despicable when a woman goes over to the dark side, perhaps because it strikes me as the ULTIMATE failure of a woman to understand that it is not necessary to “out man” the men to compete or excel in life) campaign manager endorsed Ron Paul? When she was interviewed about the “desertion”  I  loved watching her eyes dart back and forth as she inwardly enumerated in her mind the points she just HAD to hit to establish her lie, and then the careful setup she built as she established that in a private conversation  that only SHE AND HER CAMPAIGN MANAGER were privy to (thereby establishing that there were no witnesses to said conversation, so she was free to spew whatever kind of made-up crap she wanted) he had confessed that he had been offered a large amount of money to endorse Ron Paul. What a slippery bitch. So, anyyywayyy, later they interview the former campaign manager who Michelle is attempting to libel/slander (even with some law school, I can NEVER keep those two straight, and really, who cares) and he is a COMPLETE class act, refuses to stoop to Bachman’s level, is even, calm, respectful of her (how DOES he do THAT?!) measured in his comments, and thereby makes her look even MORE like a crazed, cracked, corrupt slippery bitch (ok, maybe I SHOULD tone it down a little) by contrast. Loved it. What a bunch of clowns.

Yes, it’s true, I’m trapped in a town of fewer than 200 people in the middle of Cornfields, Iowa (some of them media-driven generalizations about Iowanians would find their poster child in Renwick, Iowa) and yes, it’s true that businesses just keep going belly up, and my beloved hometown has just lost its’ biggest industry, the factory which under different management has, for over 50 years, supplied the town its’ economic sustenance. Yes it’s true that things are getting jest a tad skeery, but that is no reason to be HATEFUL, small-minded, and nasty, like the Iowans portrayed in the media currently. Good lord…

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*For some reason, the World Renowned Writers Workshop is always referred to as the World Renowned Writers Workshop, or something damn near the same, such as the World Famous Writers Workshop, and it has become something of an inside joke to refer to it that way, in a wry manner, thereby indicating one’s being party to the inside joke. Ahem. Which I not only do in this piece, but do pretty much shamelessly, hoping to appear to be an insider, which I’m not. I aspire, though. (Of course, perhaps this is only my perception, in which case I am something of a joke all by my own self, but shhhhh, don’t tell me. I have dreams.) From now on, should the reader ever run across a reference to the Iowa Writers Workshop, I betcha ten bucks it is written as the World Renowned Writers Workshop.

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Illustration by DonkeyHotey used with Creative Commons license.
Beth Ostlund

Beth Ostlund

Beth Ostlund lives in a town of fewer than 200 people in Iowa, and wants the reader to take note that she just used "fewer" correctly, unlike at least three currently running commercials on TV all of which incorrectly use "fewer" instead of "less" or vice versa which absolutely drives her crazy, because before moving away from her home state of Iowa at age 18 and living alot of different places and doing alot of different things, she first got herself a damn good Iowa Education, and having once been an advertising copywriter for a large firm in Houston, bad grammar in tv commercials is one of her pet peeves. And where the hell did the word "peeves" comes from, anyway? That's all I have to say about this because it's caucus day in Iowa and I canNOT wait to watch this bullshit, and besides, I haven't had my coffee yet. Carry on.