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Evolving a beauty born of the earth

All too often, in my experience, an artist's illustrations for a book do not faithfully represent the writer's description. It's as if the artist has not read the writer's words carefully, or had chosen to look the other way. On the other hand, although done quite independently, a painting and a written description can fit each other perfectly.

A case in point is Grant Wood's panoramic Iowa landscape, "Spring Turning," painted in 1936, and Ruth Suckow's first novel,Country People,m publsihed in 1924 . The farmer with his team of horses which accent the foreground of the painting might have been her fictional Iowa farmer, August Kaetterhenry, out early on a spring morning to plow his lush field. The red barn and windmill in the upper left corner might have belonged to August's farm, and the flowering tree nestled beside the barn, his apple tree.

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Ruth Suckow was widely recognized in the 1920s and 1930s as a writer in the stream of the realistic-regional school of American fiction of which Theodore Dreiser, Edgar Lee Masters and Sinclair Lewis were the leaders. She shared with Grant Wood, whose "American gothic" has become an American trademark, an eye for the minutiae of everyday life as well as a deep love for the beauty of the Iowa farm land.

As for "Spring Turning," it's more than a realistic picture of a farmer plowing his field. Over the painting is a lyric quality of sunlight and shadow over rolling hills, with a country road winding through the fields and disappearing on the far horizon. As with roads in all Grant Wood landscapes, this one gives an air of expectancy -- what lies beyond, a country church, another farm? A miniature windmill rises against the sky like a beacon. For off, in an adjoining field, another farmer is out plowing -- a neighbor, or perhaps one of August's sons?

August's neighbors spoke well of him, "One of the best workers around." The fields in "Spring Turning" are weed free, plowed with straight furrows and square corners, bespeaking a good farmer, a steward of the rich Iowa soil that had been unbroken prairie a generation before. His neighbors said that August's farm was in "some of the best land in the country," and it is plain to the reader that farmers like August valued their land more for its price than its beauty.

But, just as Grant Wood's landscape has a mythic, transcendent quality, so Ruth Suckow's description of the land around August's farm has a lyric quality, what she liked to call "the poetery of place." She wrote, "The land spread out rich and rolling, in smooth, tilted vistas of square fields, green, yellow and earth-brown, trees growing in full-leaved clusters . . . or standing lone and slanting, on the crests of low rounded hills. In the distance the groves of farms were softened, blurred together; the far-off rising land was swathed in blue, a faint milky tinge in which the dim figures of Trees were swimming."

The colors she evokes in words are so like the colors of the fields in the painting that one feels the writer and painter must have looked at the very same scene, in the same light of a spring morning. This is not altogether impossible , because Ruth Suckow wrote Country Peoplem while living in "Grant Wood country," that unglaciated region of northeastern Iowa with its hills and river valleys and rich soil for pastures and cornfields. Both Ruth Suckow and Grant Wood broke with tradition when they began to write and paint in a new style, using new subjects. Both natives of Iowa, born within a year of each other in the early 1890s, they struggled quite independently to free themselves of early cultural traditions. She had aspired to become a poet in the British-New England literary tradition. It was only after her return to Iowa, having studied and worked in Boston and Denver, that she discovered the rich literary material in the lives of just such German-American farmers as her own grandfather Suckow, the prototype of her fictional August Kaetterhenry. This account, spanning three generations of a family on an Iowa farm, was as realistic in its way as Sinclair Lewis's Main Street.m Her novel stirred up as much controversy in Iowa as Lewis's novel had in his native Minnesota -- and it put her in the mainstream of the American literary movement of the 1920s. Her sponsor was H. L. Mencken, who published her first short stories in this Smart Setm and American Mercury.m

Grant Wood, in a similar way, had imitated the French Barbizon-Impressionist school of art in his struggle to find his metier. It was only after he came home to Iowa after his third trip to Paris that he discovered that his material lay right at his doorstep. His first portrait in the style that would make him famous was a portrait of his mother in "Woman with Plants." His figure of a strong, self-possessed Iowa farm woman, with the neatly pinned collar and rickrack-trimmed apron, foreshadowed his "American Gothic," which catapulted him into fame when it won a medal in an exhibition at the Chicago Art Institute in 1930. Both the farm woman in "Woman with Plants" and the farm couple of "American Gothic" could have stepped out of a Suckow novel or short story.Ruth Suckow was quick to admire Grant Wood's paintings of Iowa people on farms and in small towns. He in turn read and was influenced by her realistic, regional fiction. In the 1930s they became acquainted when he founded his summer art colony at Stone City and later directed a workshop at the University of Iowa for young artists, and she took part in an Iowa writers' workshop.

Grant Wood never illustrated a Ruth Suckow novel, as he did for a special edition of Sinclair Lewis's Main Street,m but there are any number of his paintings which illustrate Ruth Suckow's fiction to my entire satisfaction.

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