American Impressions, Chapter 8: Indiana
My Hoosier Holiday
I realize I was on Interstate 65 in Indiana, not on some Levantine highway. But exit 140 didn’t say “ Lebanon” for nothing. Immigrant-settlers at one time must’ve thought the place a good enough likeness of the original—my original, which I left 20 years ago and haven’t seen since. This was as close as I’d get. So I took the exit.
Play along, now. Indiana was one of those states—there will be others—that initially left me blank. I saw it only as ripples of rich farmland cratered by hefty cities. Between Notre Dame football, the Indy 500 and Hoosier basketball, the state’s culture seemed disproportionately ordained by a sports junta, to which I feel no allegiance.
Then I was told that one of the first travel books ever conducted in the American road trip tradition was Theodore Dreiser’s “A Hoosier Holiday.” Made rich and famous by his depressing novels, Dreiser in 1913 decided to break from writing in New York and take a 2,000-mile trip back to his home state, with a friend and a chauffeur, in a “handsome 60-horsepower Pathfinder” which could, gee whiz, go 45.
I was due for a holiday. The book unblanked me. It would be my Michelin guide. But rather than be constrained to the trail of Dreiser’s memories, I would create my own. And so, on to Lebanon.
I was looking for a sign of the old country. Any sign. A shop named after the place would do. Or a falafel stand. Or two loud-mouthed drivers cussing at each other. But nostalgia for the old scents and chaos proved as anachronistic as the name of an antique store downtown—Cedars of Lebanon, so named not for those majestic trees that covered the Lebanese mountains a long time ago, but for the Lebanon High School’s mascot.
I headed down the street to the next anachronism, the county courthouse. My Lebanon was not the sort of place where courthouses functioned. This one had been proudly restored recently. I walked past an inactive metal detector and an active grandfather clock, past an immense bicentennial quilt that hangs beneath the cupola, past a few lawyers in suits and their more casual clients and up marble steps to the bailiff’s office. The week’s docket was a drone of batteries and misdemeanors, the sort of minor trouble any old Lebanese town would have killed for.
”We had a murder case last July—July ‘97,” said Lisa Funk, the bailiff. “That’s about it. We don’t have too much here. I think we’ve only had three or four murder cases since the courthouse has been here, ever.”
”I’ve never heard anybody make a connection between this place and the country,” David Grieger, the pastor at Lebanon’s First Baptist Church, told me when I stopped by. No wonder. Connections should be made the other way around, with Indiana’s Lebanon, a town of 13,000 that calls itself “The Friendly City,” as the model.
There are 14 towns named after Lebanon in the United States, probably all of them having at their origin an early town booster’s innocent misreading of scriptures. A 19 th century county commissioner had named the Indiana town Lebanon because the tall hickory trees there somehow made him think of the Bible’s references to Lebanon’s cedars, and because a creek that wound through town reminded him of the Jordan River (which doesn’t flow, when it flows at all, anywhere near Lebanon).
But charm shouldn’t be quibbled with. As I spoke to Iris Jean Hicks, the 73-year-old First Baptist Church secretary, she described a hometown the way I hear small towns described by virtually every person who’s lived in the same place for half a century or more: safe, wonderful, proud, and a vital part of America.
Hicks wasn’t kidding about the vital part. She had married the son of Earl Hicks, who in 1932 invented the mechanical, arm-like stop signal that still swings out from the side of every school bus in America.
”After one sees town after town for 800 or a thousand miles, all more or less alike,” Dreiser wrote half-way through his holiday, “one town must be different and possessed of some intrinsic merit not previously encountered to attract attention.”
For me, that town was Columbus, about 40 miles south of Indianapolis, one of those unique American experiments.
Indiana was once known for its experimental communities. Lutheran Rappites in 1815 founded the town of New Harmony on the Wabash River in the southwestern part of the state. They idealized hard work, an early form of communism and traditional faith, then sold the place in 1825 to Owenites, who idealized hard work, an early form of communism, and atheism. Within two years the frontier proved mightier than Owenite ideals and the commune disintegrated. Still, the small town to this day stands as a reminder of the communities’ legacies. It is there, under Robert Dale Owen’s reformist leadership, that the first pre-schools and free libraries took shape, just as it was Owen’s drive that, for the first time in the Union, incorporated tax support of public schools in a state constitution.
Columbus is a surviving experiment with an unusual ideal: architecture. The town takes seriously Winston Churchill’s motto that “we shape our buildings, and afterwards our buildings shape us.” Its public library was designed by I.M. Pei, one of its churches by the modernist Eliel Saarinen, its newspaper’s office building by Myron Goldsmith, its fire houses, schools and many businesses -- 60 structures in all—by other star architects who have found in Columbus the sort of commune that redefines, instead of behavior, space.
It’s also a different sort of company town. Columbus is home to Cummins Engine, the $5.6 billion company that builds diesel engines, and that keeps Columbus the architectural experiment it has been. Its retired chairman, J. Irwin Miller, now 89, started it all when the city faced a deficit of classroom space after World War II. Miller proposed to the local school board that his company would pay architect fees if the school board hired architects from a short-list provided by Cummins. The program took off and expanded to include other public buildings. Architects from around the world then began to see Columbus as a place to build whether or not Cummins was behind the projects.
The city’s crown jewel is Saarinen’s First Christian Church on Fifth Street, a geometrically simple, bold structure of brick and limestone dominated by a 166-foot-high bell-tower that became a model of church architecture when completed in 1942. Across the street, past a plaza that features Henry Moore’s sculpted “Large Arch,” Pei’s library of long, linear brick walls and encased glass windows reflect, quite literally from some angles, the church’s sense of quiet purpose. Positioned in the plaza between the library and the church, the arch is like a passageway between sanctuaries.
Those who know anything about architecture stop and marvel at the beauty on Fifth Street, usually touring the rest of the city out of curiosity more than admiration. I know next to nothing about architecture, which is probably why I marveled most at the Commons, the block-long, glass-encased mall downtown that Robert Campbell, the Boston Globe’s architecture critic, has likened to a disastrous black hole.
I loved the black hole. With the Mall of America still causing me brief episodes of post-traumatic despair, I looked at the Commons as the most inviting, least aggravating mall I had ever known. It absolutely “violates every common sense principle of marketing you can think of,” as Campbell put it. Its glass panes let the outside world in, even if it distracts shoppers. Instead of using every square inch to the advantage of retail space, it uses every square inch to the advantage of—space, just space, leaving retail to fit in.
So what if it isn’t a trigger of consumption, as other malls are designed to be? Irwin Miller had just finished telling me that architecture should not be surrendered to conventions. “Another bad word to me is good taste,” he’d said, “because that means you’ve got your eye on what somebody else thinks of you, and you really ought not to do that. You ought to do what feels good to you.”
The feel inside the Commons was good, like that of a palatial den where milling about is more important than shopping. It is not a coincidence that the dominant anchor in the Commons is not Sears, but the huge, playful, clicking sculpture called “Chaos,” which rises out of a pool of water almost to the ceiling of the two-floor building.
The mall and downtown don’t “thrive.” At least not in the commercial sense. Community activities do thrive in Columbus, but those don’t pay the bills and keep stores in business. Like most American towns, Columbus’ life is drained by peripheral strip malls. So the town is so far a successful experiment only in the sense that it hasn’t died, and it hasn’t died, I think, only because Cummins has kept it alive, marrying idealism with cash.
And because it has J. Irwin Miller.
When I met him in his small, unadorned office downtown, across from the Commons, I was not aware that Esquire had put him on its cover in 1967 under the headline, “This man ought to be the next President of the United States,” or that Miller had helped organize the 1963 March on Washington, or that he was the first layman elected president of the National Council of Churches. Nor did Miller remind me, either in person or through the usual frames of self-applause that hang on executive office walls. “I don’t like that clutter,” he said.
Aside from small portraits of the Cummins founders, only one thing hung on the wall: His honorary certificate of membership in the Diesel Workers Union. The workers at Cummins gave it to him when he retired two years ago. It explains how Miller ran his company, and how his method has influenced the way things get done in Columbus.
”The process of making decisions is more important than the ultimate product because the process ought to be thoroughly democratic and participatory at every step,” Miller says. “Nothing should be shoved down anybody’s throat.”
The company has kept up its good works through most of the century, its subsidies of architecture only a small part of its contributions to the city’s fabric. But even though Miller’s son, Will, has inherited his father’s responsibilities and methods, Cummins stockholders recently asked that the company spend more time worrying about business and less time on philanthropy. Never mind that Cummins has logged six consecutive years of record sales.
What a shame it would be if Columbus lost its exceptionalism to the bottom line.
The night before I left Columbus I’d stood in front of a digital art work, as intrigued by its look of bluish, worm-like forms surrounding a hand that reaches out from a deep purple background, as by the work’s origin: Muncie. I was planning to end my Indiana holiday there because the place had been the site of Robert and Helen Lynd’s famous “ Middletown” studies in 1929 and 1935. The Lynds had chosen Muncie assuming that it was a typical American town, unaware, as they would become much later, that every town has its mysterious worms.
Still staring at the digital thing called “Lace,” I called Muncie Information and asked for the number of the artist, Mark Sawrie. Two days later I was in his studio-home, looking at his “Personal Belongings,” a digital picture of four years’ worth of Sawrie’s fingernail clippings arranged in the form of a cross on top of a newspaper’s personal ads, at a piece called “Dove” that recreates the universal peace sign out of a collection of birds’ feet, and a very funny picture of a crucifix made out of Prozac pills, with a wall of cookie-cut rabbits for background. I would have loved to see Sawrie’s conceptualized Middletown. He promised to work on it.
There is, of course, no such thing as Middletown anymore than there is such a thing as a “Heartland,” as Indiana and a few other states like to think of themselves. Indiana’s geography may beg for marketing of the sort, but a gravel-voiced subway conductor beneath Manhattan is no less furrowing in the heart of a land than the forthright Hoosier furrowing his fields, or the egomaniacal Hollywood actor furrowing his fame. Stereotypes, all, but so are notions such as “ Middle Land” or “Last Frontier” or “Heart of Dixie.” Dreiser’s description of Hoosiers by the end of his journey in 1913 -- their “innocence, complete and enduring,” their “faith in ideals and the Republic,” their “optimism or buoyancy of soul”—sounds just like “America the O.K.,” as a New Republic cover story dubbed the whole nation just last January.
Somewhere, generalizations stop and true national or state character begin. I’m just not sure where. I’d projected personal memories on the sidewalks of Lebanon the way Dreiser had looked at all Indiana through his “rose window of the west.” I’d been moved by the singular, pragmatic idealism of Columbus. I’d hunted down Mark Sawrie’s ironies in that alleged Middletown. Yet I was leaving Indiana no wiser about the state’s character than when I’d arrived, although I was leaving it much happier to have known it. It had felt like the Commons: good to be in.
”The fact that there is no distinguishing characteristic in Indiana is its distinguishing characteristic,” Joe Trimmer, a professor of English at Ball State, told me as we walked through campus. Trimmer was among the writers of the six-part “ Middletown” television series that aired on PBS in 1982, adapting the Lynds’ myth to the age of irony. He’d never bought into the myth, but he was taking me to the last thing I wanted to see before leaving Indiana, the one Muncie thing that can be termed absolutely American, absolutely average, and contemporary for all the nation’s ages. It’s just a small bronze plaque that hangs in a dull hallway of the School of Broadcasting. It was a gift from an alumni that simply says, “Dedicated to all ‘C’ students.”
Signed: David Letterman.
INDIANA IN BRIEF
Total area: 36,420 sq. miles (rank: 38).
Population (1997): 5,864,108 (rank: 14).
Economy: Services, agriculture, manufacturing, government, wholesale trade.
Nickname & Motto: Hoosier State; Crossroads of America.
Entered union: Dec. 11, 1816.
Notable facts: The U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service predicts that in the 1990s the U.S. will receive the largest number of immigrants in the nation’s history -- 10 million people, almost twice the population of Indiana. Foreign-born people represent 9 percent of the American population. Indiana, although calling itself America’s crossroads, ranks among states with fewest immigrants. Legal and illegal immigrants are only about 1 percent of the state’s population, with a smaller percentage in Southern Indiana .
The state in quotes: “We are ac- customed to revelations born atop some mountain. It is to the high places we make our pilgrimages. But the rich Indiana soil boasts no glorious peaks poking into the ethereal heavens. Viewing Indianapolis from an airplane is like opening one of those popup children’s books. On an otherwise monotonous flat surface, a three-dimensional scene suddenly unfolds. So it is that the center of the city just out of a flat plain that extends for miles.” Sandy Eisenberg Sasso in “Pilgrimage on the Flat Land,” from “Falling Toward Grace,” an essay collection on Indiana.
RESOURCES Books: Theodore Dreiser’s “A Hoo- sier Holiday” has just been reissued by Indiana University Press. It is Dreiser’s most informal book, sometimes too enamored of its own tangents, almost always entertaining and a keen look back at roadside America at the dawn of the car age. The books of Indiana writer Susan Neville were my most helpful visa into the local culture. The books qualify as story collections or personal essays and include “In the House of Blue Lights” ( University of Notre Dame Press) and “Indiana Winter” (Indiana University Press). Neville has also co-edited, with J. Kent Calder, an elegant essay collection called “Falling Toward Grace: Images of Religion and Culture from the Heartland” (Indiana/Purdue).
* Columbus: columbus.in.us
* Cummins Engine Co.: www.cummins.com
* Tapes of the Middletown series produced for PBS are available at: www.echonyc.com/~frif/ cat97/k-o/middleto.html
* Indiana Guide: www.indyguide.com
* Indiana government: www.state.in.us
* Indianapolis links: www.indylinks.com