Landscape Eaten by Literature

Winston Barclay is the Assistant Director for Arts Relations at the University if Iowa, and an amateur ironist.

Landscape inhabits and inspires literature, as setting, as complication and as metaphor, but literature also feeds back to transform the landscape, both literally and in our perceptions. This is an exchange fraught with ironies, though not usually as dramatic as the lethal clutch of ironies that transformed the landscape of New York City a couple of years ago. (Some argued, at the time, that 9/11 killed irony, but the extravagant extremities of that event actually only left irony temporarily exhausted.) More often the feedback results in improbably-located baseball fields, or touristy fast-food restaurants with options named for fictional characters—such I once encountered in Hannibal, Missouri, where, at the Mark Twain chicken carryout one could order Tom Sawyer, Huck Finn and Becky Thatcher portions.

Somewhere between those two extremes, recent news suggests that an arsonist in south central Iowa is intent on erasing a literary landmark from the state's landscape. When one of the historic covered bridges in Madison County burned last year, the connection with Robert James Waller's "slim" but profitable novel, The Bridges of Madison County, could have been dismissed as a coincidence. But the subsequent fire damage of another bridge featured in the novel, and more recently the torching of the house featured in the Clint Eastwood movie adaptation, just before the county's annual covered-bridge festival, make the destructive intent inescapable. The serial arson is fanned by some sort of perverse literary backdraft. There, as in Dyersville, literature is itself altering the landscape of Iowa.

But what could the criminal's specific motivation be? Could the arsonist be a reclusive resident of the Winterset area, annoyed by the tourism sparked by the best-selling hardback volume of literary fiction in publishing history—an event that transformed this once-sleepy rural backwater into a pilgrimage site for hordes of weepy middle-aged women? Perhaps these are the opening salvos in a coming wave of literature-criticism terrorism, in this case protesting the treacherous marketing genius that packaged a smarmy romance with the pretense of serious literature, disguising its brevity with the thick-textured stock, large type and wide margins that are taken to verify the depth and substance of writing? If so, the term "literary deconstruction" could take on new shades of meaning. Maybe the instant fame and fortune of a normal-school business professor's literary lark was enough to push over the edge some earnest author who actually writes more than one hasty draft, but keeps receiving form-letter rejections anyway? If you live in Iowa City, you probably could instantly identify a half-dozen suspects in this "Amadeus"-like scenario—one that, ironically again, keeps Waller's critically maligned novel in the spotlight.

Well, irony IS the stuff of literature, isn't it? Tragedy derives its punch from irony, and irony is one of comedy's teeth. Perhaps the ironies of this pointed destruction of Waller's literary setting will prove rich enough that some writer will be inspired to pen a whodunit filled with airily evocative local references, which will then be adapted for the screen, which will then prompt film crews to transport their gauzy lenses back to Madison County. Of course, as part of the production, they will be required to reconstruct a replica of the Cedar Bridge so that they can burn it down, again. A crowd will gather, just out of camera range, to witness the event, and in that crowd, inevitably, will be the real arsonist, returning metaphorically to the scene of his crime in the form of its artistic representation—the false bridge of art, standing in for the real one, which long preceded its literary representation, and now, because of its part in the landscape of romance, no longer exists.

The multiplied ironies of this landscape transformation seem entirely appropriate in Iowa, which in the popular cultural construction is a location virtually WITHOUT landscape -essentially one big, flat, bleak, featureless bean field, where children do well in school because there is nothing on the horizon to distract their attention.

The recent events of vandalism remind us that the persistence of that notion is a classic case of stereotype—a communal, cultural perception—trumping reality. Because, in fact, this supposedly non-existent landscape has inspired some most famous, and readily identifiable, landscapes in the artistic imagination—in both literature and the visual arts. And we can see their punch, again, down by Winterset.

To millions of people, throughout the world, images as simple as a note left on a rustic bridge in the pastoral countryside, or men in antique baseball uniforms emerging from a cornfield, are enough to provoke powerful responses. Because of the work of a certain professor of painting at the University of Iowa seven decades ago, the hilly agricultural terrain around Anamosa, just a short distance north of here, is one of the most instantly-recognizable landscapes in the world—one that feeds nostalgia for simpler times and simpler lives, which, of course, most people eagerly escaped as soon as they acquired to means to do so.

Writers write about where they are, and where they have been, and so we have Chris Offutt's wonderful memoir "The Same River Twice," which takes place intermittently in the woods that stand along the Iowa River, south of Iowa City, or at least did so until that big wind storm a few years back—THEIR destruction was not irony, but coincidence, although the loss is more keenly felt because of Chris' involving narrative. And because of the presence of the International Writing Program, the Iowa River has probably been described in as many languages as the Grand Canyon.

Pretty impressive credentials for the sort of place that is short on what most people think of as the primary aspects of inspirational landscape: towering mountains, vast forests, crashing oceans, limpid lakes—and even monumental skyscrapers. And a place where the citizens, in their habitual modesty, take an "aw-shucks" attitude toward their state's genuinely remarkable features, including the Loess Hills—a landscape feature unique on the continent—and the state's location, dramatically wedged between the two main forks of North America's grandest river system.

Which leads me to one further irony: The Iowa we know, both the "real" Iowa—the one with gentle beauty you can actually look at with your eyes and feel with your spirit—and the idyllic Iowa of the romantic communal imagination are, in fact, recent fabrications. Until the arrival less than 200 years ago of European settlers—who were impelled, in part, by literature-driven fantasies—Iowa was long-grass prairie. In fact, of all the current states in the US, Iowa is the only one that one once fully enclosed within the long-grass-prairie ecosystem. Despite the existence of a few, small, prairie preserves and untilled cemetaries, the long-grass-prairie ecosystem has been eradicated. Nothing exists in Iowa that could be described as wilderness, and most contemporary Iowans have never seen long-grass, other than plugs of ornamentals. Despite its rural character, Iowa is the most thoroughly domesticated landscape in the country—bucolic, but as utterly transformed as any urban grid. The landscape of Iowa, and the increasingly poisoned water beneath it, is the agricultural model of uncontrolled development—the antithesis of the Iowa of literary imagination. "Civilization" did a more thorough job than anyone in Winterset could even imagine doing with some lighter fluid and a book of matches. Now THERE is something you could write a book about.