Grant Wood, "Stone City, Iowa," 1930 (Joslyn Art Museum, Omaha, Nebraska)
The Mythical Heartland
Here’s a brief description of two very different parts of the country.
The first is Ridgewood Avenue, that segment of U.S. 1 that links Holly Hill (one of Florida's many towns without a center, a soul or a purpose) to Daytona Beach. Like most of U.S. 1’s 2,500 miles— America’s original highway hymn to ugliness—it isn’t pretty. It ruts and wears its way through rutted and wearied storefronts, pawn shops and porn shops, cash loan joints and used car lots, seedy delis and seedier motels, a few churches to spruce up hope and a television station’s steeple, higher than any other, to remind the faithful of what matters most. The place hasn’t changed that much from what it was in 1938 when Life magazine featured the highway as a mess of “hot-dog stands, signs, shacks, dumps and shoddy gas stations.”
The other place is Hill City, Kansas, a Census Bureau blip in the Great Plains’ wheat seas. Barely a town of two avenues and fewer than 2,000 people at the junction of U.S. 24 and U.S. 283, Hill City’s biggest claim to fame is a small oil museum (you let yourself in by getting the key from the motel across the road) and its Pomeroy Inn, a bed & breakfast run by Don and Mary Worcester out of a turn-of-the-century saloon, and where the cinnamon buns taste of Eden. Otherwise the place is an ode to the uneventful. The lead story in the weekly Hill City Times recently was about Gwen and Roger Cooper’s continuing progress on their soon-to-be-opened Gwen’s Hometown Cafe downtown, where shuttered storefronts are the main fare.
Now, which of the two, Ridgewood Avenue or Hill City, rates as the best illustration of the “heartland”? It would naturally be Hill City, and in purely geographic terms, it would have to be. But geography is the least of the word’s connotations anymore. The word is an ideological euphemism, a warm and fuzzy fabrication of that place that supposedly represents America’s hard-working, self-reliant, honest, friendly, God-fearing, and of course supremely white, supremely heterosexual core.
The myth of the heartland is so potent that it has become the conservative ideologue’s El Dorado, a geopolitical fiction without which Republicans since Ronald Reagan would have had no crutch on which to build their all-business, all-righteousness, no-tax, no-regulation America. It is to that El Dorado that George W. Bush retreats when the bloodier and more fraudulent realities of his presidency claim the headlines, every time “blue-state” liberalism appears to breach his party’s claim to the “Real America.” Because only in El Dorado can he make his fictions sound believable.
By posing against “heartland” backdrops such as Midwestern state fairs, Mount Rushmore or his beloved ranch in Texas, as he once did with a “Home to the Heartland Tour”—or as he did on May 9 in Greensburg, the Kansas town leveled by tornadoe—Bush is saying something simple and appealing to those “red states” that gave his candidacy just enough legitimacy to become, with that Supreme Court nudge, a presidency: He is saying that a place like Hill City is the real America. A place like Ridgewood Avenue isn’t, or at least not as much. (“I am struck by the strength of the character of the people who live here in the Plains,” were his heartlandish words in Greensburg, “And the people here will be -- will find they're blessed to have neighbors who care, a total stranger who will come and help them.” Because, as we all know, they wouldn't if this was, say, Daytona Beach or Newark, right?
And yet that version of the heartland has never really existed any more than George Washington’s cherry tree or Jack Kennedy’s virtue. The true heartland is closer to the kind of Kansas Truman Capote portrayed in “In Cold Blood” (the true story of a family murdered by drifters), the kind of Texas John Steinbeck called “a military nation,” not just because capital punishment is a conveyor belt entertainment there, the kind of Oklahoma where whitebread, blue-eyed American fanatics blow up government buildings, the kind of heartland where Willa Cather’s proud pioneers homesteaded an acre for every buried memory of America’s Indian holocaust.
Economically, the “heartland” is the nation’s least productive, least self-reliant, most anemic segment of the economy, the biggest gobbler of government welfare in the form of farm subsidies, the most rapacious abuser, at taxpayers’ expense, of mining rights, grazing rights and water rights. As Paul Krugman once noted, “blue America subsidizes red America to the tune of $90 billion or so each year.” To top it off, those heartland states’ murder, divorce, depression and suicide rates are higher than in “blue” states. Red-blooded conservatism has never seemed so grim, so hungry for hand-outs, so capably deluding.
But so many comparisons ultimately expose the idiocy of judging one part of America truer, or more American, than another. Hill City’s wholesome, if deserted, sidewalks aren’t any more American than Ridgewood Avenue’s prostitute-addled corners, nor is Manhattan, N.Y., any less of a heartland than Manhattan, Kansas. It would be nice if the president quit making such distinctions in his subtle ways. But he believes in those distinctions as honestly as he believes his own fictions. It isn’t up to him to make him realize that America is every square inch a heartland, or that it beats for a lot more hearts than his compassion has room for.