Magazine article The American Conservative

Iowa, Forget the Caucuses

Magazine article The American Conservative

Iowa, Forget the Caucuses

Article excerpt

Our daughter will be spending the snowy months rehearsing her role as Marian the Librarian in her high school's production of Meredith Willson's "The Music Man," that tuneful Iowa-placed warhorse--no, parade horse--of community theater. (The flaw in community theater is that while the actors are drawn from the community, the playwrights seldom are.)

It's been an autumn of imposture, as my wife played the lead in a sharply observed one-act, "Blind Date," by the late great Horton Foote of Wharton, Texas, whom a friend calls "the last straight man in American theater," by which she does not mean that he set up punch-lines for comics. The Internet, I learned, is not wholly useless: Lucine created her accent by watching Lady Bird Johnson clips on YouTube. You remember Lady Bird: the cuckquean who had the gall to scold Americans about the ugliness of highway billboards while her grotesque husband was ordering the murder of hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese and Americans in Southeast Asia. There are degrees of ugliness, Bird.

In 1966, LBJ appointed Meredith Willson to the National Council on the Humanities, but hey, everybody's imperfect. And that was the last time Mason City, Iowa, would ever have a voice in government-subsidized culture. Although Meredith had long since lit out for Southern California, the notes in his head were always Iowan. He was said to have been the largest baby (14 pounds, 6 ounces) born in Iowa, which perhaps justified that superfluous L in his surname. Meredith Willson's father, an attorney, had played baseball at Notre Dame, where he was taught to throw a curveball by the inventor of that pitch, Candy Cummings. Meredith's sister, Dixie, a literate Ziegfeld Follies chorine and silent-movie screenwriter, wrote the oft-anthologized poem that begins "I like the fall/The mist and all."

So the Willsons were one of those families of talented eccentrics, some grounded and some not, who grow like beautiful weeds whenever small-town America is left alone to develop in its own way, in its own time.

Mason City also gave us Hanford MacNider, national commander of the American Legion in the 1920s and a believer in "Iowa as the Promised Land." The Legion once was a potent lobbyist for loot, though veterans' benefits were meager recompense to those who came home legless or armless or blind or insane from the single-L Wilson's War to End All Wars. …

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