“You really ought to give Iowa a try…”

Fireworks! Barbecues! The Fourth of July approacheth, and as Americans dwell on traditions, origins, and independence from the Old World, it’s a fine time to reconsider American Gothic. Everyone knows the painting, but few people really look at it—but when you do, you’ll find that Grant Wood uses serious medievalism to find humor in a 200-year identity crisis.

Wood based his painting around a modest house in Eldon, Iowa, whose only flourish was a Gothic window he found both delightful and pretentious. Wood’s sister and a local dentist posed as the sorts of people he imagined would live in such a house; most of the time, Wood insisted that his characters were father and daughter, not husband and wife. The painting was a smash at both a 1930 Art Institute of Chicago exhibition and the 1933 World’s Fair, and in 1934 the entire country saw American Gothic in full color in Time magazine.

Art historian Thomas Hoving has pointed out the painting’s clever composition: how the top of the middle pitchfork tine marks the center of the painting; how the three tines are echoed in the stitching of the man’s overalls and in the window tracery; how the bulb at the top of the lightning rod echoes the button on the man’s collar; and how the lines of the peaked roof point directly to the man and the woman. “The house and the couple are utterly unified, like the statues on thirteenth-century cathedrals,” Hoving writes—which is appropriate, because it’s remarkable how European American Gothic actually is.

Grant Wood’s name normally evokes the Midwest, not the Middle Ages. After a stint in France and a fling with Impressionism, Wood hurried back to his Iowa home and happily let the press turn him into the champion of a new regionalism in American art. He donned overalls, sought out local subjects, and created an icon of Americana that either enshrines or mocks its subjects, depending on your point of view. “The farther a critic lived from the Midwest, the more predisposed he or she was to read the painting as satire or social criticism,” one art historian quipped about American Gothic—but what if most viewers for 80-odd years have focused way too much on the “American” and not nearly enough on the “Gothic”?

Quoth Wood biographer R. Tripp Evans: “Wood’s attraction to the Arts and Crafts movement—which advocated hand craftsmanship, rural simplicity, and even the revival of the guild system—had led him from an early age to associate his work with that of medieval artisans.” Yes, but Wood didn’t just imitate the medieval past; he found humor in comparing the Middle Ages and modern America. Last year at the Cedar Rapids Art Museum, I got a kick out of Wood’s “Mourner’s Bench,” a medieval church pew that stood outside the principal’s office at the local junior high. (The tops of the posts are faces: two disciplinarians and a wailing student.)

“The lovely apparel and accessories of the Gothic period appealed to me so vitally,” Wood wrote, “that I longed to see pictorial and decorative possibilities in our contemporary clothes and articles.” One art historian points out that Wood was fascinated by late Northern Gothic painters, especially 15th-century German-born Flemish artist Hans Memling. When you put some Memling portraits alongside Woman with Plants, Wood’s painting of his mother, it’s clear what he was imitating—the landscape, the poses, the stark black clothing and cloudless blue skies—with humor implicit in the comparison.

Other art historians have listed Wood’s many medieval and early Renaissance influences. Biographer R. Tripp Evans finds that the tiny bathing figures in Arnold Comes of Age (below left) look like miniature depictions of Adam and Eve being expelled from Paradise in the backgrounds of Nativity and Crucifixion scenes on medieval altarpieces, and he points out that Wood’s huge Dinner for Threshers evokes the Last Supper and mimics a medieval triptych. In Adoration of the Home (below right), Wood expert Wanda Corn sees a medieval altarpiece with a Madonna and Child surrounded by saints.

After Wood died in 1942 at the age of 50, trendier critics condemned him as nationalistic and reactionary, and some ludicrously likened his work to Nazi art. The joke’s on them: They missed the centuries-old motifs that linked Wood’s “regionalism” to traditions more venerable than most of the century’s fads.

Then again, they were only doing what most of us do: obsessing over the American while ignoring the Gothic. Photographer Gordon Parks was the first to parody the painting in 1942, and since then it’s become a boon for lazy political cartoonists, ad agencies, movie-poster designers, and anyone who wants to suggest that a stuffy, old-fashioned sensibility is being tweaked, surpassed, desecrated, defied, or redefined. Nothing is more establishmentarian than parodying American Gothic.

…and while everyone looks at the people in the painting, no one considers that silly little window behind them.

According to his recent biographer, Wood focused on arched windows and doors in his early French paintings, and he specifically said that American Gothic was meant to feature “American Gothic people” whose features complemented architecture that emphasized vertical lines. “These particulars, of course, don’t really matter,” Wood wrote in a 1941 letter. “What does matter is whether or not these faces are true to American life and reveal something about it. It seemed to me that there was a significant relationship between the people and the false Gothic house with its ecclesiastical window.”

Wood toyed with the idea of a companion painting that would have put squat Americans in front of the horizontal lines of Mission architecture, but of course he never created it—because he was beguiled by the Gothic, as two generations before him had been.

By 1930, America was coming off a multi-decade Gothic Revival bender. Since the second half of the 19th century, architects across the country had been dreaming up American Gothic buildings: churches, cathedrals, college campuses, prep schools, factories, skyscrapers, courthouses, apartments, at least one synagogue, and even crummy “Carpenter Gothic” houses like the one in Eldon. Their neo-medieval look was sometimes democratic, sometimes aristocratic, sometimes religious, sometimes secular, old and European but American and new. It’s a fine, precarious ambivalence: Are we making a New World here, or not?

Wood’s painting is satiric, but it pokes fun at pretensions that weren’t (and still aren’t) confined to the Midwest. Sometimes, Americans aspire to be medieval; other times, we’re medieval by accident. What’s great about American Gothic is that Grant Wood, however fond he is of his subjects, exposes them to democratic judgment. Each of us gets to look over the heads of two imaginary Iowans and decide for ourselves whether our collective pretensions are noble or foolish, or if we really are late Gothic people just posing in latter-day garb.

“You’ve been in the pipeline, filling in time…”

No medievalism this week. Just some links and comments about the humanities, all of them hanging by a common thread.

* * *

From Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K Dick, 1968:

“You androids,” Rick said, “don’t exactly cover for each other in times of stress.”

Garland snapped. “I think you’re right: it would seem we lack a specific talent you humans possess. I believe it’s called empathy.”

* * *

From a Chronicle of Higher Education story about Google Glass:

[Assistant professor of journalism and communication] Mr. Littau said he hoped to see further application of Glass in the classroom, although he could not say for certain what else it could be used for.

“It’s a device made for the liberal arts,” he said. “The whole device is about putting you in the shoes of the wearer to experience the world through their eyes. An auto-ethnography in history could be an interesting thing to experience.”

Only in a visually obsessed age would we believe that literally seeing someone else’s point of view qualifies as an experience. If that’s true, We Are All Cops Cameramen Now.

What’s it like to view a work of art through filters other than your own? How does someone with a trained ear experience classical music? How does someone feel, from his forehead to his gut, when his daughter is born, his candidate loses an election, or his childhood home is torn down? God help liberal-arts faculty who need Google Glass to develop empathy. To make that imaginative leap, just find time for reading and thinking—which are analog, and not recent inventions.

 * * *

Here’s a more delightful melding of tech and the humanities: Last week, I found a pocket universe of clever people composing poetry in programming languages.

Experiments with computer-generated poetry aren’t new, but for creative works wrought from the human mind, Perl has apparently been the language of choice. You’ll find poems written about Perl, poetry generators for Perl, Perl poems as April Fool’s jokes, and translations such as “Jabberwocky” rendered in (non-functional) Perl. The go-to text in the field is writer and software tester Sharon Hopkins’ 1992 conference paper and mini-anthology “Camels and Needles: Computer Poetry Meets the Perl Programming Language.”

A Spanish engineer and software developer also put out a call in 2012 for contributors to code {poems}, an anthology of verse in such languages as C++, Python, DOS, Ruby, and HTML. The poems couldn’t just be goofs, though; they had to run or compile. An April 2013 Wired story showcases one of the entries: “Creation?”, a poem in Python by Kenny Brown.

I love this. There’s great creativity here—and a reminder that computers speak only the languages we give them.

* * *

In “Cryptogams and the NSA,” which I’m assuming is not fiction, John Sifton of Human Rights Watch recounts how he was indicted in 2011 after he tweaked the NSA by emailing himself snippets of James Joyce and Gerard Manley Hopkins from a proxy server in Peshawar:

“There are a lot of references to mushrooms and yeast in Joyce,” I said. My attorney touched my arm lightly, but I ran on.

“Look—” I took the book up, “There’s a part late in the book. . . Here, page 613. Halfway down the page.” I pushed it across to Fitzgerald:

A spathe of calyptrous glume involucrumines the perinanthean Amenta: fungoalgaceous muscafilicial graminopalmular planteon; of increasing, livivorous, feelful thinkamalinks; luxuriotiating everywhencewhithersoever among skullhullows and charnelcysts of a weedwastewoldwevild. . . 

“See? Fungoalgaceous muscafilicial,” I said. “It’s a portmanteau of different types of cryptogams.”

The stenographer interrupted here, her north Baltimore accent like a knitting needle stuck in my ear. “Are those words in that book?” she asked, “Because – otherwise you’re going to have to spell them.”

She was waved off by one of the US attorneys.

Fitzgerald read the text, or looked at the letters anyway, and then he looked at me again. A kind, blank, innocent look. Unaware of the fear he was instilling in me, not knowing what he was doing, he suddenly twisted the knife.

“And why would someone write like this?”

My silence now. “Why?” I repeated, meekly. I was devastated.

“Just your opinion. A short explanation.” Absolute innocence in asking the question.

My hands began trembling. One of his assistants looked at the clock.

“I don’t know, sir – honestly I don’t.”

“And why would someone write like this?” Because it’s fun; because it’s artful; because government exists not to perpetuate itself, but to protect these odd, wonderful flourishes of civilization. And because it helps us know who the androids are.

“Brand-new dandy, first-class scene-stealer…”

Civitas amoena, Wynlicburh—whatever faux-archaic nickname Baltimore deserves, the city has much of the medieval about it. The Walters Art Museum has a wide-ranging medieval collection, medieval Poles appear on an anti-Stalinist monument, countless neo-Gothic churches linger in varying states of neglect, and in Druid Hill Park, there’s a statue of a Scottish superstar.

That’s why it’s easy to miss the obvious example of Charm City’s ersatz medievalia: the Bromo-Seltzer Tower, a major downtown landmark. When he leads tours, the current manager of the place calls it “the world’s only novelty clock tower built to advertise a tranquilizer-laden hangover cure.” I don’t doubt him—but the Bromo-Seltzer Tower is also Bawlmer’s monument to America’s love for medieval-ish architectural follies.

Built in 1911, the Bromo-Seltzer Tower originally had a factory at its base. Now there’s a parking deck and a fire house, while the tower provides studio space for artists who invite the public to peek inside on Saturdays. Bromo-Seltzer founder “Captain” Isaac Emerson, a flamboyant and famously insufferable businessman, built the tower to advertise his wares: Until 1936, the tower supported a ludicrously huge and glowing blue bottle with a crown on top.

Emerson’s aesthetic was passing strange. A few years earlier in Florence, he’d seen the Palazzo Vecchio and apparently thought to himself, “I want one.” Architect Joseph Sperry, known for light eclecticism, did what he could to bring 13th-century Tuscany to the corner of Lombard and Eutaw Streets.

(Left: the Palazzo Vecchio, from Wikimedia Commons. Right: a photo I took this weekend.)

The Bromo-Seltzer Tower is clearly more of an omaggio to the Palazzo Vecchio than an exact replica, but it is closer to its source than the squat “Palace of Florence” Apartments built 13 years later in Tampa, Florida.

However, stepping inside on a summer day leads you not to medieval Italy, but back to the sweltering days of early 20th-century office life, while the timeworn interior of the clock tower looks like a cross between a Coen Brothers movie set and a vintage superhero lair. (I’ve always remembered the tower for its role as a sniper’s nest on a 1996 episode of “Homicide: Life on the Street.”)

When the Bromo-Seltzer Tower went up in 1911, H.L. Mencken was the first to hate it. “All Baltimoreans may be divided into two classes,” he wrote. “[T]hose who think that the Emerson Tower is beautiful, and those who know better.” Like Mark Twain, Mencken couldn’t see that something deeper was going on with America’s love of pseudo-medieval stuff—that we used this kind of architecture in our churches, colleges, prep schools, factories, and office buildings to brag, to be trendy, or to claim some link to the past.

Nostalgia later makes some aesthetics irresistible. Almost every brick or mechanism inside the clock tower is black, white, or gray, which makes the room seem art-directed and hyper-real. Like the tower itself, the huge, clattering, circa-1964 computer that still runs two tiny, nerve-wracking elevators is now a fascinating relic rather than an eyesore.

Facilities manager Joe Wall, a Baltimore native who’s full of great stories, told me that at some point, repair work on the tower’s rooftop cupola-thingie meant that someone added two levels of castellated ramparts that clearly weren’t there in 1911. As a result, the Bromo-Seltzer Tower is now less Italianate, more generically medieval, and a bit more like the palace-fortress that inspired it. No longer a monument to crass commercialism, it defends the notion that indulgent medievalism ages well—after the inevitable hangover.

“You should know, time’s tide will smother you…”

“You watch ‘Game of Thrones,’ right?” I often hear this question not only because people assume that medievalists are transfixed by pseudo-medieval fantasy, but also because everyone is weirdly hungry to talk about the show’s intense scenes of violence—a subject that medievalists eventually ought to confront.

Innocents nailed into spiked barrels and chucked off cliffs, prisoners of war with their eyes gouged out, tortured saints described in such awful detail by poets like Prudentius that some of my classmates got queasy—as a grad student, I couldn’t escape stuff like this, but our teachers laughed it off. One Penguin Classics edition of the Song of Roland showed a mounted knight chopping his adversary cleanly in half to expose his insides, a fate one of my professors dubbed “the bagel treatment.” We snickered at lurid maimings in the Historia Francorum and the wry post-dismemberment quips in Icelandic sagas. We were rarely invited to imagine how we’d feel if these horrors had happened to us.

All week, the Internet was abuzz over the blood-drenched “Red Wedding” episode of “Game of Thrones”; one YouTube compilation of audience reactions got more than 7 million hits in less than a week. Watch it and you’ll see ostensible adults sobbing over a TV show, a reaction I find harder to fathom as I get older and crankier and methodically work through my “bummer shelf,” which includes books about Maoist famine, Rwandan genocide, the Balkan wars—and, a few weeks ago, Jan Karski’s Story of a Secret State.

Karski was a relatively well-to-do Polish military officer who seemed destined for a bookish life—until the Germans invaded. After being taken prisoner by the Soviet army, Karski escaped and joined the well organized Polish Underground. He oversaw several key operations, survived capture and torture by the Nazis, and was smuggled into the Warsaw Ghetto so that he could describe it to the outside world. “These were still living people, if you could call them such,” Karski wrote. “For apart from their skin, eyes, and voice there was nothing human left in these palpitating figures. Everywhere there was hunger, misery, the atrocious stench of decomposing bodies, the pitiful moans of dying children, the desperate cries and gasps of a people struggling for life against impossible odds.”

Karski also recounts his 1942 infiltration of a Nazi transportation hub. Disguised in an Estonian uniform, he was there to bear witness to atrocities before smuggling himself westward to report to the (largely skeptical or dismissive) Allies. The mass execution he saw—a train car lined with quicklime, packed with Jews, and then ignited—is so horrifying that I won’t excerpt his description. After fleeing from guards who cracked jokes and took pleasure in slowly burning people alive, Karski vomited blood and bile all night, but never purged the memory:

The images of what I saw in the death camp are, I am afraid, my permanent possessions. I would like nothing better than to purge my mind of these memories. For one thing, the recollection of those events invariably brings on a recurrence of the nausea. But more than that, I would like simply to be free of them, to obliterate the very thought that such things ever occurred.

For all the horror Karski records, he also shows heroism: not only his own, implicitly, but also that of his countrymen and colleagues who endured torture, braced for arbitrary mass executions, and were ready to commit suicide to help defeat the Nazis. What shines through isn’t some Spielbergian triumph-of-the-human-spirit baloney, but the real, disquieting knowledge that although heroism arises naturally, it’s agonizing, often unremembered, and overshadowed by murder on an unimaginable scale.

When you close a book like Story of a Secret State, if you’ve spent even a little time thinking about the victims as people—not as abstractions or actors or flickering images, but as individuals like you, except that they felt every minute of burning and choking to death over several days—how do you then turn to “Red Wedding” for mere entertainment?

I won’t argue that “Game of Thrones” or shows like it “glorify violence,” an Orwellian cliché, even if I believe they do something strange to our relationship with the real thing. I’m not arguing that anyone ought to shut down violent entertainment, or that the industry should police itself or cater to my sensitivities, or that violence isn’t a vital part of literature, art, entertainment, and games. Often it’s purgative to read or write about violence, and my favorite book of the past year involves two scenes of unnerving brutality. This isn’t a call to action or a political jeremiad. I am not a pacifist.

I marvel, though, that audiences are so bound up in the selective realism of fantasy that they’ll accept the existence of dragons but will obsess, along with a forensic expert from the O.J. Simpson trial, over whether the blood spurting during the throat-slitting scenes was accurate. When an audience cares that much, is it still entertainment, or a stand-in for something else?

Last week, “Game of Thrones” author George R.R. Martin spoke sensibly about “Red Wedding” to Entertainment Weekly:

 People read books for different reasons. I respect that. Some read for comfort. And some of my former readers have said their life is hard, their mother is sick, their dog died, and they read fiction to escape. They don’t want to get hit in the mouth with something horrible. And you read that certain kind of fiction where the guy will always get the girl and the good guys win and it reaffirms to you that life is fair. We all want that at times. There’s a certain vicarious release to that. So I’m not dismissive of people who want that. But that’s not the kind of fiction I write, in most cases. It’s certainly not what Ice and Fire is. It tries to be more realistic about what life is. It has joy, but it also had pain and fear. I think the best fiction captures life in all its light and darkness.

I like Martin’s thinking—but it seems to me that the largely comfortable, middle-class viewers who can’t stop talking about his show’s violence find the darkness more beguiling than the light.

When I chat with friends about “Game of Thrones,” they speculate that the series offers a rare and refreshing sense of what the Middle Ages must have really felt like. Martin is arguably the most popular fantasist of the moment, taking up the banners of earlier authors like Sir Walter Scott and Sidney Lanier, who also served up the precise flavor of medievalism their cultures craved. They and their readers believed they had taken laudable steps toward re-creating the “real” Middle Ages, when in fact they were picking through the medieval past according to their own notions of virtue and vice—as we still do.

“No matter how much I make up,” Martin says, “there’s stuff in history that’s just as bad, or worse.” He’s right, but there’s no urgent reason to elevate fantasy by highlighting its historical echoes, and no need to absolve Martin’s work of the most grave accusation leveled at fantasy: escapism. Martin’s readers and viewers are guilty as charged only if they turn away from humanity’s pervasive worst, whether the immediate evils in the daily news or the horrors Jan Karski could never forget. Many obviously do just that, but I’ll give Martin credit for intending his books to accomplish what good fantasy should: not distancing us with flattering amusements from the way life supposedly used to be, but providing a stark, imaginative look at the way it invariably is.