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An American mirror of changing times


American Gothic: A Life of America's Most Famous Painting By Steven Biel. W.W. Norton & Co., 201 pages, $21.95.

Everyone has seen the picture: the dour Midwestern couple staring out from the front yard of their neat frame house with the pitched roof and pointed gothic window, the man in overalls holding a pitchfork and wearing an expression of exasperated forbearance, the woman thin-lipped and disapproving.

Grant Wood painted American Gothic in 1930, and in the three-quarters of a century since then, the picture has meant something different to each subsequent generation of Americans. Steven Biel, a gifted storyteller who directs the Program in History and Literature at Harvard University, has written a lively cultural history tracing the popular reception of Wood's masterpiece that suggests how thoroughly the work has taken on a life of its own in the national imagination. Wood insisted that his intent was merely to affirm the sturdy values of his Midwestern boyhood.

"I simply invented some American Gothic people to stand in front of a house of this type," he recalled. "The people in American Gothic are not farmers but small-town people, as the shirt on the man indicates. My sister posed as the woman. She is supposed to be the man's daughter, not his wife. I hate to be misunderstood as I am a loyal Iowan and love my state."

But that's not how the painting's first audiences interpreted it. They took it as an attack on rural provincialism, narrow-mindedness and conformity in the manner of H.L. Mencken's scathing denunciations of America's pleasure-hating, Puritan "boobocracy" in literary magazines like The American Mercury and The Smart Set. Later, as the Depression deepened in the 1930s, Wood's farm couple came to seem less a satire of American provincialism than a tribute to the values of endurance and self-reliance that enabled the nation to weather economic hardship. In the 1950s, it symbolized American wholesomeness and moral exceptionalism, but in the 1960s it again became an emblem of mass-culture kitsch.

Through extensive quotations from contemporary sources, Biel structures an entertaining narrative tracing American Gothic's changing critical fortunes -- in the 1940s, it was praised for portraying "the national character," but in the 1950s, intellectuals such as Clement Greenberg excoriated it as "cultural pap" -- and the changing meaning that it held for Americans. He points out that although it has been one of the most parodied images in American history, that could only have happened because, ultimately, the picture seemed to reflect an irreducible kernel of truth about the American experience. Biel argues persuasively that Wood's imaginative identification of Midwestern rectitude and repression with the American identity and character has become one of the work's most enduring legacies. If there's criticism to be made, it is Biel's propensity for artful digression, which can become maddening at times, to the point of confusing the narrative flow. But it is also the source of the book's rich, detailed portrait of a native masterpiece that is surely the most recognizable American artwork of the 20th century.

Glenn McNatt is The Sun's art critic.

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