Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Who counts as an Iowa writer?

(Printed in the Iowa City Press-Citizen, June 26, 2009)

As a poet, essayist, scholar and anthologist, Zachary Michael Jack has been prolific. The multi-generation Iowan has written or edited at least 14 books in the 16 years since he graduated from City High. But Jack's identity as a teacher is what animates his newest anthology, "Iowa: The Definitive Collection."

The book contains more than 90 selections of "Classic and Contemporary Readings by Iowans, about Iowa." The list of writers stretches from Chief Black Hawk in 1831 to recent musings of Mary Swander and Ted Kooser.

Although the collection includes only prose, Jack brings a poetic sensibility to the project.

"There's that old Mark Twain quote that history doesn't repeat itself, but history rhymes," Jack told me Tuesday. "Within my own family history, I could hear the rhymes. For generations, my family has been farmers, teachers and writers. I ended up being all three."

Brain rhymes with drain

Jack's collection also attempts to counteract one of most repeatedly rhymed challenges of the past 177 years: Iowa's brain drain. The New Deal writers who published "The WPA Guide to Iowa," for example, observed in 1938, "An Iowan is as likely to be found in any other of the forty-eight states as in his native one, if the term be taken simply to mean a person who was born in Iowa." The writers then quickly changed their focus to describe the "Iowan who remains."

Jack offers a similar dynamic: He celebrates the Iowans who stay while he simultaneously tries to woo back the Iowans who have moved away. But Jack also wants his anthology to serve as an "introductory letter" to people who move into the state.

"Yes, we do export a lot of our people," he said, "but we also import many of them to do specialized work. Many of these people come to Iowa with the idea that it's a tabula rasa. That's part of its charm and allure."

Unfortunately, in trying to reach audiences both inside and outside Iowa, Jack keeps reminding those new Iowans that they have been grafted on to the grand Iowan tradition. That although they are the people his collection is for, they are not the people his collection is "by" or "about."

For example, Jack doesn't consider Writers' Workshop professor Marilynne Robinson to be Iowan. Despite her decades living in the state, despite her novels set in Iowa, Jack excludes Robinson because of her out-of-state birth.

"These are phenomenally gifted writers ... but they are not Iowans in the strictest sense," Jack writes in the introduction. "They know our values, perhaps understand them better and more objectively than we ever will, but they are not of our values."

Iowa's personality

By drawing so stark a line between "Iowan" and "not-Iowan," Jack risks coming across as jingoistic to the very people he's trying to win over. But that, too, is part of the Iowa tradition.

"We're probably the most welcoming state," Jack said, "but sometimes we forget that Iowa doesn't have its own identity until it begins importing people."

Jack is merely putting into practice the regionalist lessons offered by Grant Wood in "Revolt from the City" (1935):

"Let me try to state the basic idea of the regional movement," Wood wrote "Each section has a personality of its own, in physiography, industry, psychology. Thinking painters and writers who have passed their formative years in these regions will, by caretaking analysis, work out and interpret in their productions these varying personalities. When the different regions develop characteristics of their own, they will come into competition with each other; and out of this competition a rich American culture will grow."

The exclusiveness of that Iowa personality, however, sometimes comes across more comically than Wood suggests.

Although Jack doesn't anthologize anything by Mason City-born Meredith Willson, the process described by Wood and put into practice by Jack is summarized nicely and parodied lovingly in Willson's song, "Iowa Stubborn":

"But what the heck, you're welcome, / Join us at the picnic. / You can eat your fill / Of all the food you bring yourself. / You really ought to give Iowa a try."

Anyone interested in Iowa history -- especially as complied by a thoroughly authentic Iowan -- really ought to give "Iowa: The Definitive Collection" a try.

Opinion editor Jeff Charis-Carlson -- who has lived in Iowa for 13 of his nearly 39 years -- can be contacted at 319-887-5435 or

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