Grant Wood's Road: You've Written a History of America from Columbus to Clinton; What Do You Put on the Cover?

By Brinkley, Douglas | American Heritage, November 1998 | Go to article overview

Grant Wood's Road: You've Written a History of America from Columbus to Clinton; What Do You Put on the Cover?


Brinkley, Douglas, American Heritage


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.

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Sign up now for a free, 1-day trial and receive full access to:

  • Questia's entire collection
  • Automatic bibliography creation
  • More helpful research tools like notes, citations, and highlights
  • Ad-free environment

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
One moment ...
Project items

Items saved from this article

This article has been saved
Highlights (0)
Some of your highlights are legacy items.

Highlights saved before July 30, 2012 will not be displayed on their respective source pages.

You can easily re-create the highlights by opening the book page or article, selecting the text, and clicking “Highlight.”

Citations (0)
Some of your citations are legacy items.

Any citation created before July 30, 2012 will labeled as a “Cited page.” New citations will be saved as cited passages, pages or articles.

We also added the ability to view new citations from your projects or the book or article where you created them.

Notes (0)
Bookmarks (0)

You have no saved items from this article

Project items include:
  • Saved book/article
  • Highlights
  • Quotes/citations
  • Notes
  • Bookmarks
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

(Einhorn, 1992, p. 25)

(Einhorn 25)

1

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited article

Grant Wood's Road: You've Written a History of America from Columbus to Clinton; What Do You Put on the Cover?
Settings

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

Full screen

matching results for page

Cited passage

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn, 1992, p. 25).

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences."1

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited passage

Welcome to the new Questia Reader

The Questia Reader has been updated to provide you with an even better online reading experience.  It is now 100% Responsive, which means you can read our books and articles on any sized device you wish.  All of your favorite tools like notes, highlights, and citations are still here, but the way you select text has been updated to be easier to use, especially on touchscreen devices.  Here's how:

1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
2. Click or tap the last word you want to select.

OK, got it!

Thanks for trying Questia!

Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

For full access in an ad-free environment, sign up now for a FREE, 1-day trial.

Already a member? Log in now.