American Gothic: A Life of America's Most Famous Painting by Steven Biel
When I first saw the painting, I was a child in Wilkes-Barre, PA. Although I couldn't identify the architectural style, I though the widow was pretty and was drawn it its exotic essence, for it was outside of my personal experience as far as private residences went. I didn't know then that it was an "an unstructural absurdity" or that a more schooled viewer would note "the false taste, the borrowed pretentiousness" of "a style originally copied from stone Gothic churches in Europe" and applied "to flimsy frame houses in America."
In the first chapter, I learned that
- the models were Grant Wood's sister and his dentist
- the artist asked his sister to make an apron trimmed with rickrack, "a trim that was out of style and unavailable in the stores" so she ripped some off of her mother's old dresses and "after the painting made its debut, rickrack made a comeback. Grant was responsible for a rickrack revival."
- a pitchfork has four tines and a hay fork has three times
- the house is now on the National Register of Historic Places and is behind a city maintainence building.
- the house is still a private residence and now has central air conditioning
The first chapter - one of four - factually discusses the house, the inspiration for the artist's concept, the models and the initial unfavorable reaction to the painting. It's factual but interesting and the writing style pulls you along for 28 pages. One might as well stop right there because the next two chapters string together footnoted quotes and references in the most boring fashion imaginable, rendering it almost impossible to remain engaged. The style brought to mind notes written on index cards, laid out in logical sequence. Once the author got the information together, it seems as though he was satisfied with that much and needn't bother developing any actual narrative.
The final chapter begins by listing some of the many parodies of the painting in comedy, advertising and pop culture commentary. Ten lengthy paragraphs are devoted to the TV shows Green Acres and The Beverly Hillbillies as related to the painting before things move on to Europe's opinion of "American middlebrow insipidness", the 2004 presidential campaign, "red-baiters", a direct insult to Ronald Regan and a positive mention of Bruce Springsteen.
The author is the director of the History and Literature Program at Harvard University.
Written in 2005, it was too soon to catch the the ironic comparison between the Depression and the looming Age of Obama. In a repetition of "a scathing scholarly assessment" of Wood's "sales appeal" and its link to "the substitution of Americanism (nationalism) for esthetic values", the reviewer, H.W. Janson, "perceptively located the source of Wood's amazing popularity during the 1930s":
"In a period of economic and political crisis he placed before the public a vision of stability and security, untouched by the depression or by the disquieting events abroad that were beginning to cast their shadows over this country. Nor is it surprising that his work should have appealed so tremendously to the urban population, whose need for 'substitute reality' was greatest."
This is the most common interpretation of and visceral reaction to the characters in the painting - that they "embody an enduring, essential American spirit ... They are upright and steadfast, determined to overcome hard times and fearlessly forge ahead into the future. Viewers do not look down on the man and woman; they look up to them, see their best selves in them."
If we recognize that much, then we must also ask ourselves if we really need a happy shiny presidency to save us from ourselves.
I still think the window is pretty.
The first chapter was good-to-very-good but the quality rapidly disintegrated from there. The sudden turn from story into into a list of references makes me think that the grad student who was working on this got married and had to go out and get a real job.