Francine Prose Reflects on Iowa City

Pretty houses, picket fences, green lawns, and wide rivers: Iowa City is the Midwest at its most picturesque and civic. Alessandro Imbriaco / Contrasto-Redux

The first time I went to live in Iowa City, in 1988, I felt as if I’d gone to heaven without actually having to die. As I’d always half-anticipated, heaven turned out to be an idyllic Middle American town, the sort of place that I, a lifelong New Yorker, had encountered mostly in Hollywood comedies of the 1930s and ’40s, and in high-school productions of Thornton Wilder. Every time I’ve returned to this city of 60,000 or so—four hours from Chicago and an hour farther to Minneapolis and Milwaukee—I experience that sense of being in the heart of the heart of the heartland, at its most appealing and attractive.

The houses are pretty, the fences picket, the streets wide, the trees healthy, the lawns manicured and neat. On Halloween, children trick-or-treat without a trace of urban paranoia, and in the autumn a sort of giant vacuum cleaner trawls the neighborhoods, sucking up fallen leaves from the yards. As in many Midwestern cities, a river runs through it. But unlike those places in which the river serves as a barrier between races and classes, the Iowa River, bordered by parks and grassy banks, divides the pleasant from the even more pleasant. On one side is one of the most advanced medical-research centers and teaching hospitals in the country; the Hancher Auditorium, where I first heard Wynton Marsalis perform his oratorio Blood on the Fields; and an art museum whose holdings include a magnificent early Jackson Pollock. On the other shore is the campus of the University of Iowa, situated amid a downtown that has been saved, by the school’s energizing presence, from the neglect and decline that have blighted so many American city centers.

As a civic society, Iowa City is so high-functioning as to seem positively anachronistic: the public schools are excellent, the crime rate low. There’s a great public library, an inviting municipal swimming pool, and a legendary bookstore, Prairie Lights, where, several evenings a week, one can attend readings by writers whose book tours have brought them to this exceptionally literate and literary town.

The popular passion for literature has at least something to do with the fact that the university is home to the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, the earliest and still one of the most distinguished graduate programs in creative writing (Poets and Writers magazine recently ranked it at the top of a list of M.F.A. programs). An invitation to teach there was what first brought me to Iowa City, where the workshop faculty has included a daunting number of my own literary idols: Mark Strand, Denis Johnson, Louise Glück, Joy Williams, and Frank Conroy, who headed the workshop from 1987 until 2005, when he was succeeded by Lan Samantha Chang, its current director.

Unlike some universities, where poets and novelists are viewed as the dim, semi-unwelcome neighbors of their academic colleagues, Iowa has always been proud to host the writers (like Marilynne Robinson, James Alan McPherson, Ethan Canin, and James Galvin) who teach on the permanent faculty or who (like myself) come to stay for a semester or a year. I can’t think of another city so proud of its literary heritage that a central thoroughfare, Iowa Avenue, has been transformed into a bookish version of Hollywood Boulevard, its pavement imbedded with plaques that feature the names of, and quotations from, writers associated with the workshop: Kurt Vonnegut, Flannery O’Connor, Raymond Carver, and dozens more.

All of which means that Iowa City is not only, in its way, paradisiacal, but like a special corner of paradise set aside for writers. So why doesn’t every writer pull up stakes and move there? Partly, it’s the weather: spring and fall are glorious, but the summer can be brutally hot, and the winter is just plain brutal. And there’s the relative isolation; the longish drive to Chicago can make you feel as if you’re on an island surrounded by cornfields.

But the real answer, I suppose, may have more to do with the reason why, by the end of a semester in Iowa, and no matter how contented and productive I’ve been, I’m always a little homesick for New York City—for the burbling multicultural stew, the polyglot din, the subways, the irritating crowds, the grime and grit. The shopping! If Iowa City is our heartland heaven, it can also, at times, make one wonder if the angels don’t occasionally find themselves longing for the heat of hellfire and the infernal scent of brimstone.

Francine Prose is the author, most recently, of My New American Life.

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