A Life of America's Most Famous Painting

By Steven Biel

Norton. 215 pp. $21.95

"American Gothic," Grant Wood's 1930 painting of a gaunt, bespectacled farmer and the wan-faced woman standing alongside him, has puzzled and provoked generations of Americans. Just who are these people? (Hint: They aren't necessarily husband and wife -- or farmers, as is commonly assumed. In fact, the models weren't rural types at all. The woman was Wood's sister; her dour companion was a dentist.) And is the painting kitsch or great art? Echt Americana or humbug? A satire on Middle American provincialism or an homage to all-American sturdiness and self-reliance? Or is "American Gothic" all of these at once?

These are but a few of the questions Steven Biel takes up in his new book -- a sometimes tedious study of the ways this iconic work has been read and riffed on. Published to coincide with the painting's 75th anniversary, Biel's book is the work of a cultural historian, not an art critic. As such, he is less concerned with formal analysis (although he does provide a brief, revealing account of the painting's genesis and Wood's artistic training) than with "reconnecting American Gothic to particular times and places, locating it in a variety of interpretive contexts, seeing it now from different and unfamiliar angles." For Biel, who directs a history and literature program at Harvard University, "American Gothic" is less a painting than a kind of fluctuating barometer of American cultural and social styles.

Biel's habit of mind is postmodern and academic. In other words, he can be downright elusive, if not contradictory. A close reading of the original -- or "the original," as he renders it in good postmodernist fashion -- is pointless, argues Biel, who then concedes, "Were it not for the painting's aesthetic richness, American Gothic would not have opened itself up to a variety of interpretive possibilities, to so much cultural work over the years." The torrent of cultural work has kept him hard at work, and the result is a slim but jam-packed record of critical reaction.

Through four detailed chapters brimming with quotation and citation, we see "American Gothic" batted around like a Wiffle ball, as critics and spectators ponder what Wood was getting at. From the very first, the painting caused a stir. To its first viewers, it appeared as "the visual equivalent of the revolt-against-the-provinces genre," a painterly echo of H.L. Mencken's war against Midwestern values and Sinclair Lewis's skewering of the Babbitts on Main Street. The little old ladies in Dubuque were not pleased; one told Wood he ought to have "his head bashed in." Another complained, "No Iowa couple that I've ever known (and I'm no spring chicken, myself) looks as sad as Wood's painting." For his part, Wood, an Iowa native, always claimed his intentions were sincere: "I tried to characterize them truthfully," he protested. "I had no intention of holding them up to ridicule."

Middlebrow critics concurred with Wood and saw more complex shades of meaning. Christopher Morley, who wrote an influential weekly column in the Saturday Review of Literature, called "American Gothic" "one of the most thrilling American paintings I had ever seen." Instead of satire, he saw in it a pointed reflection of American character: "In those sad yet fanatical faces," Morley argued, one might "read much both of what is Right and what is Wrong with America." During the climax of the Great Depression and the onset of World War II, others touted the painting as a subtle tribute to rural fortitude and a vital expression of the regionalist aesthetic. Consider Gilbert Seldes, one of the very first practitioners of cultural studies, who asked, "Do we feel that Grant Wood is calling us back to a simplicity, and even a hardness, which has disappeared?" With the rise of the postwar avant garde, Wood -- and "American Gothic" -- was ejected from the canon of serious art. Regionalism was out; abstraction was in. In a 1946 letter to the Nation magazine, Clement Greenberg, the arch-highbrow champion of Jackson Pollock, thundered that Wood was "among the notable vulgarizers of our period," offering us "an inferior product under the guise of high art." But if "American Gothic" no longer had a place in highfalutin discourse, it spun out into mass culture. The painting lived on as a national joke, provoking a riot of goofy riffs and clever appropriations in New Yorker cartoons, smart advertising campaigns and other pop culture ephemera. It became the perfect postmodern artifact.

Biel's point is elementary: "American Gothic" has meant different things to different people. Whether or not one agrees that it offers aesthetic riches, this is unassailably true. Above all, Biel argues, "it has not only reflected but helped create American identity."

Still, after sifting through all the critical dissections -- believe me, you'll know all the angles -- one still wonders just what to make of this hauntingly peculiar couple. Putting aside the he-said, she-said, they-said debates for a moment, Biel ventures his own opinion: "Maybe they do have conflicts, pleasures, torments, fancies, secrets. Maybe if we look at them as enigmas, let them confound and haunt us, we'll see them, strangely, as very much like us after all."

Given Biel's skepticism about what the actual canvas might offer us, this earnest plea comes as a bit of a surprise. But don't read his book if you want to gaze at "American Gothic" with anything like an unprejudiced eye. *

Matthew Price is a critic and freelance writer living in Brooklyn.

"American Gothic," by Grant Wood (1930)