You’ve just written a history of America from Columbus to Clinton; what do you put on the cover?
For the last several years Douglas Brinkley has been working on a massive illustrated narrative, The American Heritage New History of the United States , to be published this month by Simon & Schuster. This essay is adapted from the introduction.
After considering literally hundreds of images for the dust jacket of my new American history, I selected Grant Wood’s fantasy farmscape Stone City . Although most Americans know Wood, a native of Iowa, for his famous 1930 painting American Gothic , permanently housed at the Art Institute of Chicago but regularly reproduced on everything from corn-flakes boxes to computer commercials, he was in fact a prolific student of the faces of America. The model for the stern, steely-eyed woman in American Gothic was Wood’s sister Nan; the overalls-clad gentleman with the pitchfork was his dentist, Dr. B. H. McKeeby. Exhibited in Chicago shortly after it was completed, the painting was declared a masterpiece and its creator recognized as one of the regionalists who—along with Thomas Hart Benton and John Steuart Curry—could lead the American Midwest out of its so-called provincial stupor. Yet Wood was also forced to explain to New York critics that American Gothic was never meant to be a realistic portrait of Iowa farmers. “The people in American Gothic are not farmers but are small-town, as the shirt on the man indicates,” he said. “They are American, however, and it is unfair to localize them to Iowa.”
Equally unfair is the way Grant has been treated by the highbrow art world since his death in 1942. In the October 1983 issue of The New Criterion , the periodical’s founder-editor Hilton Kramer attacked Wood as “phony,” calling his paintings “trashy” and his stock-in-trade “fakery.” Yet I believe it was Kramer who was removed from the lives of ordinary Americans—and thus failed to appreciate that Wood was actually conducting a sardonic revolt against the cities, stylizing farmscapes and Midwesterners to keep the American dream alive during the Great Depression; the painter was celebrating the agrarian myth and lampooning it at the same time. But Wood, who had himself lived in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, also agreed with Daniel Webster that “when tillage begins, other arts follow. The farmers, therefore, are the founders of human civilization.” Wood even painted a mural for the Iowa State University library titled When Tillage Begins, Other Arts Follow .
Using the agricultural landscape fantasy Stone City on the cover of the History of the United States is my revenge on Hilton Kramer for calling the ingenious Grant Wood a “shallow hapless artist.” Kramer would have had Wood paint angst-ridden realistic portraits of the misery of farm labor, all calloused hands and manure heaps, wretched droughts and insect plagues. Instead, in Stone City Wood offered a bucolic Midwestern dreamscape, and the working farmers of America embraced it with old-fashioned pragmatism, a nod, and a wink. Wood liked to tell the story of the time when Stone City was displayed at a state fair on the outskirts of Des Moines: Farmers viewing the painting inevitably commented on its deficiencies. They snickered, for example, that no farmer would plant corn on a steep hill like that or build a barn so close to a river that would likely flood. Wood liked to stand around incognito just to hear the critiques. “The farmer would get up close to the picture, inspect it and back away, shaking his head,” Wood recalled. “I went up and stood beside him, thinking he would say something about the painting, and sure enough he did. Pretty soon he shook his head more vigorously than ever and said: ‘I wouldn’t give thirty-five cents an acre for that land.’”
In his 1987 book Grant Wood: A Study in American Art and Culture , James Dennis provides a remarkable explication of Stone City : the bulbous trees, the modern bridge built over the Wapsipinicon River, the curlicuing roadways, descending sun, and toyland buildings in a churchless farm town. But whatever its technical merits and agrarian flaws, Stone City triggers the history-minded imagination in varied ways. Gazing at the painting makes me realize, for example, how different our roads are from those in Europe. The highways of America ribbon into an endless horizon, whereas in Europe they typically end—or begin—in an enclosed communal space: a piazza , a place , an agora , a forum . The adage “All roads lead to Rome” applies in every great European capital; whether in Paris, London, or Rome, all roads converge upon the city. But the American pattern is different, as Manifest Destiny dictates: The grid disperses population centers outward, which is perhaps not surprising in a nation born of the pioneering frontier spirit.
And so Grant Wood’s road still rolls on today, into the quiet suburbs and their industrial parks, on into the abundant countryside, through Nebraska’s wheat farms and Colorado’s Rocky Mountains, to Promontory Point in Utah, where the transcontinental railroad’s golden spike connected East to West, to the slot arcades of Reno and the domed capitol in Sacramento, to Silicon Valley and on to the Hawaiian Islands, to our military bases in South Korea and throughout Western Europe, whence our nation’s founders came. Wood’s road did not start in Iowa; it began on the Atlantic Coast when the first settlers hitched their wagons and started plowing westward. Now the American road spans the globe, and the vehicles of our progress keep driving on ever forward toward the next horizon. It is my hope that this book will inspire the pioneers of tomorrow to take a few moments from their rush to ponder the ways of our past, and to learn from them.