A Dot of Iowa Blue

Art Cullen: "Storm Lake: A Chronicle of Change, Resilience, and Hope From a Heartland Newspaper" (Viking, 317 pp.)

Storm Lake is a northwest Iowa town of 10,000 whence Art Cullen won a 2017 Pulitzer Prize for deeply reported editorials on water pollution that took on both the Koch brothers and a de facto agribusiness consortium. Cullen is a scion of one of the town’s most prominent families turned editor and (with his older brother) co-owner of the barely profitable twice-weekly Storm Lake Times, where he not only writes editorials but turns out a weekly column that can bust his ass. How much of the episodic book his Pulitzer generated he adapted from his newspaper writing I don’t know. But I also don’t care, because 300 fast-moving pages later I’d learned more about meat processing, sustainable agriculture, and immigrant labor than I’d ever thought to ask as well as getting the lowdown on Iowa politics from Republican evildoers like son of Storm Lake Steve King and six-term governor Terry Branstad to left populists like FDR veep turned fourth-party presidential candidate Henry Wallace and 40-year Congressional stalwart Tom Harkin. But mostly I learned about Storm Lake. As a depiction of the factionalism, frustration, surprising variety, and neighborly give-and-take of small-town life, this isn’t Willa Cather because nothing is. But it’s more up-to-date.

The despicable King was born in Storm Lake, which is still in his district. The town itself, however, is “a dot of political blue” in a sea of rural red. Cullen argues that this pattern has parallels in Wisconsin, Ohio, and even Pennsylvania, and thus holds a key to future presidential elections. His account of Bill and then Hillary Clinton’s refusal to venture beyond the Des Moines airport is as chilling as he means it to be in the wake of Trump’s 2016 WI-MI-PA-(IA) sweep. As a small horde of White House hopefuls focus more of their energy than seems efficient on rural Iowa Dems as well as the fine citizens of Des Moines, Davenport, Ames, and Dubuque, it’s pleasant to imagine that the state’s six electoral votes might return to the party whose column they buttressed in every presidential election between 1980 and 2012 except 2004’s.

Although he published this book in part to convince fellow anti-Trumpers to take notice, Cullen expresses skepticism in this regard—admittedly writing before Second Amendment extremism began softening a little (or has it?), he sees gun rights as a decisive wedge issue. But he emphasizes that Storm Lake has been turning multiracial ever since food-processing capital broke the unions decades ago. It’s on its way to majority-Latinx as well as accommodating many Laotian Hmong with their own Buddhist temple in a town without synagogue or mosque; 90 percent of elementary schoolers are immigrants, and 70 percent of Storm Lake High School grads are Latinx. When Cullen visited Ayotlan, his town’s Mexican sister city, he learned that the mayor’s aide there washed dishes for a year in L.A. before returning home for law school. That aide shows up in a reprinted Storm Lake Times column. Understandably, local newspapers are said to be disappearing in both this economy and this information age. By argument and example, Cullen wants to make sure everyone understands what a loss that would be.

Xgau Sez

Sly Stone versus peace-and-love, Steely Dan's chewy perversity, alt-rock also-rans, and the heroines of boygenius

There is no question here. This is just an e-mail with Greil Marcus spelled correctly. You’re welcome. — Barry L., Mexico, NY

I thought I’d begin with this no-question question because it’s so Xgau Sez-specific, though the joke that Sezzers may recall it references had legs—was cited on Twitter, in fact, as proof that I hadn’t lost my gift for the one-liner although I hadn’t been sure it was worth doing that entry at all.  All of which is a roundabout way of announcing that with a slight push from several advisors I am a) moving Xgau Sez from robertchristgau.com to And It Don’t Stop, as free content of course, and b) running it the third Wednesday of every month rather than every third Tuesday. That said, I should add that I am writing this edition well ahead of time on October 8, two days from scheduled knee replacement surgery, because I have no idea how functional I’ll be after the operation, which many have told me involves a disablingly painful recovery on the way to painless full mobility, which I haven’t had in that knee for years but which has become more acute since June (although pursuing a stray medical record last week I walked a total of two miles in discrete bits, hospital corridors included).  Also, this is where I should point out that the kicker in the And It Don’t Stop header, Old Age, while also a joke, was in addition simple candor. I’m 77; that’s gonna come up. Maybe I’ll even address it head-on sometime. Case in point with no parity suggested: Hall of Fame New Yorker baseball writer and literary generalist Roger Angell’s “This Old Man,” the prize-winning title essay of a collection he published in his nineties.

Submit a question

Hi Bob, I’m excited to hear about your new newsletter. But I also wondered whether, since you started doing Xgau Sez, it had become at all apparent that the majority of your readers lean towards rock, old music, and the canon of album-orientated, artist-songwriter music—that is, people who enjoy your writing at least partly from the sense that it’s setting up respectabilities and hierarchies based on your intellectual engagement with artists’ work (even if that’s contrary to your own arguments against pretension, snobbery, “guilty pleasures,” etc.). If that is the case, would you be possibly willing to cater to that at all in your new newsletter, with, say, one review per issue of an old album that you never reviewed first time round? — Lewie Shipton, Exeter, UK

Of course I’m aware of my readership’s demographic and taste profile, although I like to think my fans are hip enough to generalize themselves as “male” above all and regret that a little. But I’d add that I get quite a few questions about jazz and African music and hip-hop and also relatively current artists. Without question the new newsletter format, consisting entirely of my fans as opposed to, for instance, some dimly imagined Noisey reader, frees me up to completely suit myself about what I cover, and I’ll need to see how that pans out once I’ve gotten through the backlog of recent releases my three-month layoff rendered inevitable. But even the next few months will include old stuff I would have been chary of covering in NoiseyIf both the newsletter and my body last long enough, I can imagine going back to the ‘60s, before the Consumer Guide began, and homing in on one oldie but goodie a month. But for a while I’m just going to play things as they lay.

Like you, I love the classic music of Sly and the Family Stone. One of the main messages they pushed was the greatness of racial unity between Whites and Blacks. However, when Sly went off the rails and became a drugged out thug, this message went out the window. Do you believe Sly was sincere in his earlier message or was it just horseshit to sell records? What do you believe was behind Sly’s changed viewpoint, which I’d say began with the Riot album? — Steve Mauyer, Phoenix

I think you’ve got this wrong in several significant ways. First of all, though I may have missed something, it’s not my impression that Sly turned into a “thug”—any kind of seriously violent robber or dealer. He merely turned into a drug casualty, and since he’s still alive at 76, he’s done better by that fate than many. Not that I much admire the person he seems to be, but those are real distinctions. Second, I believe his first two ‘70s albums, There’s a Riot Goin’ On and Fresh, are easily his best albums-as-albums, and though the first greatest hits album is even better, one reason there’s an argument to the contrary is that the everybody-is-a-star message of racial harmony and universal love had serious limitations that Stone was much quicker and sharper than most to see through—he was certainly no worse a drug fiend than John Phillips or several post-folk harmonizers we both could name, but unlike those bozos he figured out ways to make art out of his disillusion, art that among other things had smarter and warmer things to say about love (“Family Affair”? wow!) than most of the white druggies who were figuring the same shit out. So yes, I believe Stone was sincere in his early message without believing he was altogether a fool about it, and good on him. “Peace and love” was OK as an ideal and dishonest as an ideology. Lots of ‘6os rockers fell for it or exploited it and who can tell which? Fewer critics did.

I’ve been obsessed with your reviews of Steely Dan over the years, since I've been a fan of them since I was 12 years old. Your review of Pretzel Logic has particularly intrigued me. When you say this is the epitome of their “chewy perversity,” what do you mean? — Hugh, West of Ireland

“Chewy” is a pretzel joke, though maybe in the west of Ireland they don’t make big doughy pretzels, only the crisp dry kind. “Perversity” is posed in contradistinction to “logic.” Steely Dan’s songs are always something to chew over—they don’t parse “logically,” yet don’t seem at all meaningless. Moreover, these guys have a fairly twisted worldview, wouldn’t you say? Voila.

Whatever happened to Deerhunter? You seemed to start to really like them despite your initial misgivings, but you haven’t reviewed either of their two most recent albums. Does that mean you didn’t like their new releases all that much? — Christopher, Hawaii

That’s exactly what it means, the key phrase being “all that much.” With bands like Deerhunter, who I’ve admired intermittently with reservations—and “until he lurches off in another direction” certainly indicates reservations—I always give a listen. But I also make up my mind pretty fast about whether the album in question is good enough to review or not, and if it isn’t let it pass unless there’s some compelling reason not to. Possible A albums I put time into; Honorable Mentions I feel free to skip (and will even more in the monthly Substack format). There are too many artists capable of albums that really reach me to expend time on marginals.

Phoebe Bridgers’ recent collaboration album with Conor Oberst excepted, you’ve never reviewed any releases by the Boygenius trio. Any thoughts on them? — Adam Hart, Richmond, British Columbia

Releases plural? Boygenius released one EP, which Wikipedia tells me took them four days for four songs. I listened to it multiple times and thought it wan, merely conceptual, dare I say overrated just because people liked the idea of the thing (which I sure did). Of its three members—in addition to Bridgers, the more prominent Lucy Dacus and Julien Baker—I’ve given lots of time to the latter two. Dacus especially is considered a big deal by many I respect but has never came close to reaching me, and at a certain point you just have to throw up your hands and move on. This was long enough ago that I don’t know exactly how I’d characterize her music except to say that I could hear she had big ideas but found her expression, I don’t know, flat. Baker moved me more—her determination to address her own depressive tendencies directly seemed both courageous and educational. But in the end I found her too thin to climb into Honorable Mention territory.

Deconstructing Reconstruction

Nicholas Lemann: "Redemption: The Last Battle of the Civil War" (257 pp., 2006)

I only read Nicholas Lemann’s 2006 Redemption: The Last Battle of the Civil War after I was asked to review his new Transaction Man, and thus I caught up just in time. That’s because, as Louisiana-born New Yorker stalwart Lemann may have feared or even foreseen all those years ago, it could have been designed to address the frightening historical juncture that is 2019. Centered on Reconstruction-era Mississippi governor Adelbert Ames, a young Union general whose father-in-law was Radical Republican kingmaker Benjamin Butler, its deepest purpose is to document the racist violence that demolished Reconstruction in Mississippi and Louisiana in the early 1870s. In a sickening succession of riots, murders, and massacres, Confederate veterans demolish black freedmen’s voting rights and uppity educational pretensions in unrelenting acts of armed terrorism, some of which leave trails of dead while others simply send ex-slaves fleeing or convince them to settle for a penury not much better than bondage. The crucial actor here isn’t Ames, however admirable his physical courage and fruitless efforts to convince Washington pols to back up their supposed principles with troops. It’s all the lying, arrogant, brutal white supremacists who succeed in proving Reconstruction an unworkable fantasy.

An auxiliary satisfaction of Redemption is a reminder of the epistolatory eloquence to which so many educated 19th-century Americans aspired, the many long quotes from the correspondence and journals of Adelbert and his gifted wife Blanche, who in 1870 wrote: “What is there that human mind is not capable of fashioning? Ere long the Heavens may be used as the common highway and Jove’s own thunderbolts—no longer simply for destruction—may be utilized for benefit of mankind, in the form of light and heat.” But even more impressive is the less elegant but deeper prose of the freedom-fighting black resistance. Soon-deposed black sheriff John Milton Brown: “On the way, they met up with a preacher, an old colored man named Nelson Bright, and they shot him. He was hunting his mules and had no gun with him at the time. They went farther and killed another colored man, as I understand.” A hurried missive to President Grant from the valiant E.C. Walker: “Pres. I have write the Hon. Governor Two (2) Letters and Pres. I know you Have it in your Powder To Stop White People from Killing Black People . . . now Pres. I will ask your Hon. Doant the 13 & 14 & 15 Demendments Gives the (Col'd) Peopels the Same Rights and the voice to the Balord Box as it Do the Whites.”

Practically speaking, the answer was of course no, which as today’s voter suppressors dig in for the long haul it often still is. Glumly, Redemption draws to a close by recalling Columbia University’s John W. Burgess, “arguably the founder of the discipline of political science in the United States,” whose 1902 Reconstruction and the Constitution established as a truism that Reconstruction’s program of Negro enfranchisement failed to recognize the “vast differences in political capacity between the races.” Lemann follows this calumny to Woodrow Wilson’s five-volume History of the American People, which ended with an even more racist account of Reconstruction, and while such arrant prejudice did gradually fade into the background of Reconstruction’s historical profile, I can attest that the inevitability of its failure was still taken for granted when I attended high school in the mid-’50s. Lemann ends Redemption by noting that this truism was built into John F. Kennedy’s 1955 Profiles in Courage, which disparages Adelbert Ames and lionizes Mississippi senator Lucius Lamar, a key dismantler of the Reconstuction JFK called “a black nightmare the South could never forget.” Kennedy’s racial politics evolved before he died—unlike Grant, he sent federal troops to the South to enforce African-Americans’ civil rights. But despite repeated protests by Ames’s heirs, the text of Profiles in Courage remains untouched.

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