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Marvin Bell On Becoming Iowan

posted on December 4, 2007 at 1:50 PM

Nearly 80 percent of Iowa’s population was born here. Because there are so many “natives” it can be difficult for newcomers to develop identities as Iowans. When you’re constantly reminded you’re not from here, assimilation can take longer.

A case in point is Marvin Bell, a long-time professor at the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop, and a former Iowa Poet laureate. Bell is not from the state, and it’s taken him awhile to make the adjustment and acquire the identity of an Iowan. For him and perhaps for many new Iowans, the adjustment comes in accepting and appreciating all the things that Iowa is not.

Most people think they live in the best place. That is true of Easterners, Westerners, Northerners, Southerners, Southwesterners, Northwesterners--and Midwesterners, too. As for me, I long ago came to appreciate the benefits of the national ignorance about Iowa. Trust me, it’s better to be off the target. Living in a place not everyone covets means you don’t have to invest in an image of yourself, and the benefits of that are enormous.

I first came to Iowa in 1959. Having grown up on the East Coast, I had adventured as far west as Chicago, where I was taking a slow M.A. degree at the University and working for the law library. The professor who taught the novels of Henry James was a large man named Napier Wilt. Professor Wilt would occasionally lean back in his chair and ramble on about his home town: a community so rural that pigs came right up to the porch. It was a place called Iowa City.

Later, when I was invited to an interview in Iowa City, I didn’t dare drive. As far as I knew, it was the wilds. So I took a Trailways bus. And of course it wasn’t the wilds at all. Well, now it’s fifty years later, and most Americans still think of Iowa as an open space between New York and Los Angeles.

My friends on the East Coast think the West Coast is faddish and silly, and the Midwest a great wasteland. My friends on the West Coast think the East Coast is seedy and dangerous, and the Midwest a great wasteland. People elsewhere think Iowans are corny, plain-spoken, friendly and naive.

That may be why it took me many years of living in Iowa before I answered the question, “Where are you from?” with the one word, “Iowa.” I would say, “I’m from Long Island, but I live in Iowa.” Well, having now resided in Iowa for fifty-one years, with two years out for the military, I think I know what it means to be from Iowa.

It means every four years you get very sincere phone calls and mail from famous politicians who have the heartland at heart. Iowa comes first in the presidential pandering, so we get advance screenings of the verbal shenanigans and fake spontaneity that are characteristic of the process. Still, we Iowans try to glimpse the real person behind the baloney, and then we vote for someone we think not too bad--for a non-Iowan, that is.

One of the things that makes Iowa a good place to live is that many people do not want to live here. They say it’s too cold, too hot, too flat. They say it’s too conservative. But of course it isn’t cold if you have lived in the north, and it isn’t hot if you have lived in the south, and it’s not conservative but populist in the best way. Iowa’s a state where you can have liberal and conservative senators at the same time. And if you ride a bike, you need gears.

Tags: Iowa