Don’t Have a Cow, Iowa

State's reaction to Atlantic piece forgets its ironic tradition

Oh, there’s nothing halfway
About the Iowa way to treat you,
When we treat you
Which we may not do at all.
There’s an Iowa kind of special
Chip-on-the-shoulder attitude.
We’ve never been without.
That we recall.

“Iowa Stubborn,” The Music Man

Music Man Iowa Stubborn - watch more funny videos

When Meredith Wilson wrote his musical, The Music Man, he considered it a gift to his native Iowa—“an Iowan’s attempt to pay tribute to his home state.” Beyond the “Iowa Stubborn” lyrics, the musical is rich with Iowa ribbing and caricatures of the severe and moralizing folk who are so zealous to ward off vice (billiards! pool! horserace gambling!) that they fall under the spell of a huckster who sells them visions of River City boys dressed in band uniforms.

Grant Wood, the regionalist painter, gave a similar gift to his home state with “American Gothic,” the much-parodied image of joyless father, daughter, and pitchfork that has become the iconic symbol of the American Midwest. This is Iowa, Wood—who spent periods in Chicago, Paris, and Munich but always returned to Iowa—was saying with a wink.

I’ve also always assumed it’s with a wink that Iowa has life-sized cows sculpted of butter at its state fair.

Being Iowan myself—I haven’t lived there for 12 years, but would never consider myself anything but—I’ve long thought the state’s ability to parody itself (or, really, itself in the guise of the nation’s stereotypes) was one of its nicest traditions. The joke’s not us of course, because we get it.

So then, what to make of the brouhaha that has erupted this week—with exactly the sort of Iowan fury and indignation that the Music Man lampooned—over “Observations from 20 years of Iowa life,” the 5,600-word essay that Stephen Bloom—a journalism professor at the University of Iowa and a New Jersey native—posted last Friday on The Atlantic’s website?

The essay, which I assumed to be less than earnest when I first read it (that clinical title for one), was also less than kind:

Those who stay in rural Iowa are often the elderly waiting to die, those too timid (or lacking in educated) to peer around the bend for better opportunities, an assortment of waste-toids and meth addicts with pale skin and rotted teeth, or those who quixotically believe, like Little Orphan Annie, that “The sun’ll come out tomorrow.”

Iowans did not take kindly to such generalization, and Bloom’s story, which would have otherwise been lost to the Atlantic’s vast trove of online content, quickly became the story. (It is now, a full week later, the most popular story on The Atlantic’s website).

“For squawking at Iowa, University of Iowa Professor now has to duck,” wrote Des Moines Register columnist Kyle Munson. My hometown paper, the Cedar Rapids Gazette, gave the subject two front page stories yesterday and a few more earlier in the week. The Iowa Press-Citizen (Iowa City), The Muscatine Journal, The Daily Freeman Journal (Webster City), and Vinton Today have also all reported—or opined in favor of—the “uproar.” The story crept into the Minnesota press, when a “Hawkeye in Gopher country” criticized Bloom, his former masters advisor, for bad journalism (a number of Bloom’s other students have as well, including Kirsten Scharnberg Hampton in a piece posted by CJR). The din of angry Iowans finally grew loud enough to warrant an AP story yesterday, making it national news.

Bloom, who is lucky to be on leave at the University of Michigan right now, is officially a bad guy in Iowa. (Don’t let those fan letters on Romenesko fool you.) The state’s most outraged have taken to online comment boards calling for Bloom, who they dutifully note earns $105,593 in state taxpayer money as a professor at the University of Iowa, to be fired.

Sally Mason, the president of the University of Iowa, officially disowned Bloom’s article. Iowa politicians have expressed bipartisan disdain for it. And Governor Terry Branstad has stated publicly that it was a “nasty, negative piece.”

As if no one has ever said an unkind word about Iowa before.

To be sure, Bloom’s essay is a long sneer. When I read it last Friday, I thought some of Bloom’s observations were spot-on and funny (collecting, casseroles, Iowa City at spring break); I thought others were tired stereotypes and wrong (tractor pulls on a Friday night?). The essay lacked balance (“Why does he still live in Iowa?” my mildly peeved mom asked) and I assumed Bloom exaggerated things for comic effect and literary flair. It was an essay, a picture of Stephen Bloom’s Iowa.

But however flawed his picture may be, I’ve been more alarmed by my state’s shrill and almost completely humorless (over)reaction to it—save for the efforts of Raygun, an Iowa store which is cranking out “You’ve survived” Iowa t-shirts.

Over the past week, Bloom-bashing has become a great and giddy sport in the state, with the most fastidious of Iowans going online to fact-check even the most trivial of Bloom’s statements:

“We hunt deer with shotguns in IA, not rifles.”

“I’ve never seen my dad or uncles carry a penknife.”

I feel better about my state already.

It should be noted that Bloom also raises a few issues in his essay (“those dark corners”) that Iowans should probably think about. In squabbling about the finer points of turkey hunting, they might be missing some bigger, important ones like declining opportunities in rural areas and the state’s immigration issues. That said, Bloom, in his zeal to deride the state paints an unbalanced picture. Iowa is a place like any other—with all sorts of people, a good number of whom are educated professionals. The state also comes with—among other things—fine universities, hospitals, and public schools. Iowa City, Stephen Bloom’s hometown, is home to perhaps the most esteemed writing program in the country.

I’m not sure whether Iowa has lost its sense of humor, or it just doesn’t have one when getting roasted by someone from New Jersey (granted one that has lived in Iowa for decades).

Or maybe it just takes time. Though the state embraces Grant Wood’s iconic image now, Iowans were initially livid with the artist when “American Gothic” debuted in the Cedar Rapids Gazette in 1930s. One farmwife even threatened to bite Wood’s ear off. Hopefully it hasn’t come to that for Bloom.

Bloom could certainly have been less harsh and more fair, but Iowa, it’s a single piece of online opinion journalism: lighten up!

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Erika Fry is a former assistant editor at CJR.