Thursday, January 31, 2013

American Gothic couple is ‘Iowa Stubborn’

As mentioned here before, Steven Biel, in his book "American Gothic" hints the first exposure for many of a certain age to American Gothic was in a parody, specifically the ending credits in Green Acres when Oliver Wendell Douglas (Eddie Albert) sang to his wife, Lisa (Eva Gabor), “You are my wife.” To which she responds, “Goodbye city life.” If not that scene then it was the image of the stoic pair on a on a box of cornflakes that graced many tables in the 1960s.

Now I am of the age to remember that scene, as well as the corn flake box, and after reading Biel’s book, I had to agree one of the two many have been my first exposure also. But upon further reflection, my first time, or at least the most memorable, may have been in the 1962 movie the Music Man starring Robert Preston and Shirley Jones.

If anyone remembers, in the opening scene Prof. Harold Hill (Preston) comes to River City, Iowa and starts asking questions about the town in general, what townsfolk do for fun, etc. Hill is met with less than outstretched arms, as all are a bit way of a stranger asking questions. Finally, after continuously being met with indifference, the townsfolk break into song (after all it is a musical) in an attempt to explain to Hill their unresponsive attitude. The song is “Iowa Stubborn.”

The lyrics explain that Iowans, by nature, have a “chip-on-the-shoulder attitude/ we’ve never been without/ that we recall” and that Iowans are so “by gone stubborn/ we could stand touchin’ noses/ for a week at a time/ and never see eye-to-eye.” The song attest to Iowan’s stoic and indifferent demeanor but also hints at something beneath the flinty exterior, of an empathy lying hidden to the outsider: “but we’ll give you are shirt/ and a back to go with it/ if you crops should happen to die.” Which does sum up Iowans quite well: stoic, uncaring and cold, unless you are having a rough patch and then they (we) are more than willing to pitch in and help.

In the final scene of the number workmen are carrying the frame from the shipping box the town’s first pool table arrived in and ironically frames a couple resembling the man and woman in American Gothic. The farmer and his wife sum up how the townspeople, and by extension all Iowans, feel toward strangers: “so, what the heck, you’re welcome/ glad to have you with us/ even though we may not ever mention it again.”  In other words, you are here but not that important, so get over it.

Whoever thought to parody American Gothic for this scene obviously spent some time studying the painting, as the man and wife appear to embody this attitude, as opposed to earlier interpretations that portrayed the couple as resolute, determined folks that embodied Iowa spirit and values. Which I am sure is accurate but indifference, stubbornness, wariness of strangers or anything new can also be seen in their faces—as in many Iowans. In classic parody fashion something familiar is bent just a bit to provide another, perhaps more accurate, meaning. Click here to view the entire scene to see if you agree.

Perhaps because it was one of my first exposures to a musical, the Music Man has stuck with me all these years and I have revisited it many times. Many scenes are etched in my memory including “One Grecian Urn” that haunted me in a literary theories class in college. The subject was John Keats poem, “Ode to a Grecian Urn.” Throughout the class every time the professor approached Keats poem (which still makes little sense to me) the mental image of Eulalie Mackechne Shinn, wife of Mayor Shinn and played by Hermione Gingold, along with her ladies aid club, doing their “One Grecian Urn” sketch crowded out any serious study.  I passed the class but with no help from the Music Man.

My favorite scene—and a persistent fantasy—is when Hill is attempting to woo the librarian, Marian, played by Shirley Jones, by singing “Marian the Librarian.” For my entire life I have longed to enter a library and discover the librarian’s name is Marian. At that time I would launch into a spirited chorus of: “what can I do, my dear, to catch your ear/ I love you madly, madly madam librarian, Marian.” Ah, the stuff of dreams.

Till next time.

Brian Chambers
Media Coordinator
American Gothic House Center

The American Gothic House Center strives to become financially independent through gift shop revenue, sponsorships, and by establishing an endowment fund. Funds raised in this campaign will be used to match the Iowa Cultural Trust Endowment Challenge Grant and will become endowment funds to support the Center's annual operations. As a subscriber to the weekly newsletter, you have already shown support for the American Gothic House Center. I invite you to strengthen your role in the valuable experience we provide the community by making a contribution to our fund drive. Click here to give your tax deductible gift, or head to our website for more information. Thank you to all who have donated so far!
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