“Do not the seas and the mountains and the prairies and the plains in some manner and to some extent transform men into their own likeness?”
—Cyrenus Cole

The America First cause of 1959-41 finds a powerful, if unusual and indirect, affirmation in E. Bradford Burns’ Kinship with the Land: Regionalist Thought in Iowa, 1894-1942. Better known for his histories of Latin America, Burns returns to his native Iowa to analyze its “most productive period of intellectual inquiry, cultural vitality, self-perception, and self-expression.” He describes a wide-ranging “revolt against cultural nationalism” led by an unlikely band of Iowa poets, novelists, and artists. They shaped “a vigorous, if not blatant, Midwestern patriotism,” and defended it against the cultural and political wiles of New York and The Continent, before succumbing to the “internationalization of the state during World War II.”

Notably, the author stresses the stability of Iowa’s material conditions during this period of artistic achievement. The state counted 222,000 family farms in 1894, and approximately the same number in 1940, with the average size holding at 155 acres. Panning technology remained relatively static over this period as well, with true horsepower still competitive with steam and the early two cylinder gasoline tractors. FACU the depression in agricultural prices after 1920 “turned attention inward” and “encouraged self reliance,” traits complementing a vital regionalism.

The task facing any historian of a “movement” is to transform isolated events and the ideas and actions of individuals into a coherent narrative of cause an d effect. In this. Burns largely succeeds. He traces the origins of the Iowa renaissance to the publication in 1894 of Hamlin Garland’s Crumbling Idols. Dismissing the literary tyrannies of the American East Coast and Europe, Garland called for a great Midwestern literature: “Write of those things of which you know, for which you care most. Bv doing so, you will be true to yourself, true to your locality, and true to your time.” The same year saw publication of Poets and Poetry of Iowa, an uneven but hefty anthology of verse, much of it penned by farmer-poets, and the founding of the state’s first literary journal, The Midland Monthly.

In 1899, Clarke Fisher, chairman of the English Department at the University of Iowa, organized the Writers Club, which soon became a center of regionalist enthusiasm. A few years later, the famed Harvard philosopher, Josiah Royce, journeyed to Iowa City, where in a widely celebrated lecture he praised “provincialism,” defining a province as a place “sufficiently unified to have a true consciousness of its own units” and “a pride in its own ideas and customs.” Regionalist sentiments sprang up among the faculties at Grinnell and Cornell colleges, as well.

“Firm novels” began to appear in profusion. Among the best was Herbert Quick’s Vandemark’s Folly, bearing the essential theme of the farmer and the soil in unity. As one passage had it, using the sensual imagery that would become common to the genre: “Prior to this time, I was courting the country; now I was to be united with it in that holy wedlock that binds the farmer to the soil he tills. Out of this black loam was to come my own flesh and blood, and the bodies, and I believe, in some measure, the souls of my children.”

The movement’s great efflorescence followed the founding of a new literary journal, The Midland, in 1915. Editor John T. Frederick described the Iowa City-based quarterly as “a modest attempt to encourage the making of literature m the Middle West.” Until its demise in 1933, The Midland introduced an impressive crop of new Iowa writers. These included Jay Sigmund and Ruth Suckow, and Burns makes a notable contribution by resurrecting attention to their lives and work.

Sigmund, born in the village of Waubeck on the banks of the Wapsipinicon River, moved at age 19 to nearby Cedar Rapids and eventually became an insurance executive. Yet he devoted his main energies to poetry, most of it focused on the flora, fauna, and folk of the Wapsipinicon valley. Following his untimely death in 1957, his fellow Cedar Rapids poet, Paul Engle, wrote an obituary that in many respects defined the regionalist vision:

Here is to me the most magnificent aspect of Jay Sigmund, that he helped to make a city and a country [side] not merely a good place to raise a family but to write a poem or paint a picture. He made art at home in a little area of the earth. This is a great destiny for any man. . . . Our national life must acquire this creative force, when artists walk on the street and talk naturally with all manner of men, and when the people with whom they live as neighbors recognize them for their craft, and take them into their homes.

The themes of soil and folk, and the mounting—if still quiet—crisis of Iowa’s “commonwealth of small towns” dominated the work of Ruth Suckow. First published in The Midland, where she served briefly as an editor, and then “discovered” and promoted nationally by n.L. Mencken, Suckow eschewed the romanticism of the “farm novels.” She portrayed, instead, the dislocation of Iowans as they lost direct connection with the land. Her best novel, The Folks (1930; now in print again, from Burr Oak Books), emphasized the decline of the church as an integrative social force, the decay of folk life and custom under a relentless commercial homogenization, and the rebellion of the town’s children, who left their natal home for Greenwich Village, Taos, and California.

Suckow also wrote a series of essays under the titles “Iowa,” “The Folk Idea in American Life,” and “Middle Western Literature,” striving to define the Iowa mythos. “At its best,” she wrote, “it is innocently ingenuous, fresh and sincere, unpretentious, and essentially ample, with a certain quality of pure loveliness—held together and strengthened by the simplicity and severity of its hardworking farmer people.”

The better-known leaders of the Iowa renaissance—Engle and Grant Wood—also draw fair analysis from Burns. As an Iowa child of the late 1950’s, I knew Engle as the aging “poet laureate” of my state, famed for his verses about “corn.” An adult might better appreciate his wondrous celebration of fertility:

Iowa, river rounded.

Fields that rise and fall like a woman walking . . .

For always. There is the great pulse beat of moon and sun,

The mother giving of plow-broken earth

When the fat bellies of autumnal barns,

Grow big with harvest.

Grant Wood took center place in the movement during the 1930’s, striving—perhaps with a sense of foreboding—to give it institutional form. Born of Iowa Quaker stock, and a full or part-time farmer most of his life, Wood modeled his early paintings on the French Impressionists. Yet he spent the summers of 1927 and 1928 with Jay Sigmund, in the latter’s Waubeck cottage, and also befriended Ruth Suckow. These bonds stimulated his own artistic rebellion. As he later wrote: “Painting has declared its independence from Europe, and is retreating from the cities to the more American village and country life.” Early results were American Gothic (1930), which quickly propelled Wood to national fame, and a series of landscapes in which he captured the color and bounteous roll of the Iowa countryside.

In 1932-33, Wood established an art colony at Stone City, actually a small village along the Wapsipinicon. According to Burns, the days of conversation, classes, painting, and personal encounters which took place there “marked a kind of apogee of regionalist art.” In 1935, Wood published the essay Revolt Against the City (ghost-written, Burns suggests, by Frank Luther Mott of the University of Iowa’s journalism school), which called on “thinking painters and writers” in all American regions to discover their own locales, and craft a national renaissance: “When the different regions develop characteristics of their own, they will come into competition with each other, and out of the competition a rich American culture will grow.”

A charming expression of regionalist cooperation came in 1935, with the founding of the Prairie Press in Muscatine. Inspired by Grant Wood, the young printer Carroll Coleman resolved “to follow, in publishing, the regionalism which he [Wood] advocated in painting. I envisioned writers, artists, and printers working together to produce beautiful books which would embody the life and thought of the heart of this great Mississippi Valley region.” Striking volumes, in handset type, followed, including Contemporary Iowa Poets (1935) and Country Men (1938).

But the Iowa literary and artistic movement, still so brilliant in the late 1930’s, died suddenly. “World War II administered the coup de grace,” Burns writes soberly. “Iowans lifted their sights to global horizons, and they, thus far, have found it difficult to focus internally again.” On every side, national and international purposes took priority over local ones, as the more prescient America Firsters had feared. Tens of thousands of Iowans were mobilized for war or war work and scattered across the nation and globe. Labor shortages on the land accelerated the introduction of heavy farm machines, marking the long deferred triumph of capital over human and animal labor. Mechanized Iowa farmers. Burns notes, no longer directly touched the soil, weakening the sacred relationship between folk and nature—the very theme which had animated the Iowa writers and artists. Symbolically, the University of Iowa’s writing seminar, once a hotbed of regionalist fervor, became the International Writing Program of the postwar years.

Grant Wood died, providentially it seems, on February 12, 1942, barely two months after the events at Pearl Harbor. Ruth Suckow’s last “Iowa” book appeared the same year, as she moved to California for reasons of health. “Academic” Iowa writers such as John T. Frederick and Frank Luther Mott moved on to teaching jobs in Indiana and Minnesota. A vibrant literary and artistic episode so came to an end, victim of a nation marching off to global war, cultural integration, and empire. Fortunately, E. Bradford Burns’ splendid Kinship with the Land stands, along with the Iowa renaissance itself, as a “rich legacy . . . to encourage or to taunt,” a vision of what was, what might have been, and—less clearly—of what might be again.


[Kinship with the Land: Regionalist Thought in Iowa, 1894-1942 by E. Bradford Burns (Iowa City: University of Iowa Press) 195 pp., $27.95]