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American Gothic and Ma and Pa Kent

A first-rate video on Grant Wood’s American Gothic (1930).  One of the more famous pictures at the Art Institute in Chicago, I have long admired it.  Endlessly interpreted, the  picture lends itself to a Rorschach  type of test where what the viewer says about the painting says more about the interpreter than it does about the painting.

Whenever I look at it, I have always thought of Jonathan and Martha Kent, the fictional foster parents of Superman.  The date of the painting would have been when the future Superman would have been around 11 based on his original chronology.  The Kents would have been desperate to keep their beloved son, just beginning the mastery of his awesome powers, away from the notice of the World.  The figures in the painting seem to me to be keeping a great secret.  They look suspiciously at the viewer.  The shades on their house are drawn.  The averageness of the couple is belied by their desire to keep prying eyes away from that house.  At the same time there is nothing that gives any hint of evil about the man and woman.  They simply have something great that has been placed into their care and they wish to protect it from outsiders.

The association of the painting with the Superman saga is not original to me.  In Superman The Animated Series Mr. Mxyzptlk, the imp from another dimension who periodically torments Superman, turns Ma and Pa Kent into a facsimile of the painting.

One can imagine the encounter that led to the painting.

From the diary of Jonathan Kent:

April 1, 1930.  Too wet to do any field work.  Patched some fences and repaired some machinery.  About 10:00 AM a city feller had a flat in front of the house.  I helped him fix it and Martha brought out some cookies and lemon juice.  Feller’s name was Grant Wood, a painter from Iowa.  I was about to start dickering with him about painting the barn, a job I have always hated, when he explained that he was an artiste.  He said that he would like to paint me and Martha to pay us back for the help in fixing the flat and the food and drink.  I began to tell him that was not necessary, when Martha spoke up and said that she thought it was a grand idea.  I looked at her and she took me aside and said that it would make a great keepsake for Clark.  Clark of course was the whole problem when it came to strangers.  Now that he was eleven he knew not to do anything “odd” when other people were around, but there was always a risk.  Martha seemed determined, so I didn’t ague.  When that woman makes her mind up it would take the Lord God Almighty to change it.  Besides, I knew that mostly she wanted an excuse to get painted in that dress I bought her last Christmas, and she does look mighty fine in it.  Martha said she’d tell Clark to stay in the house,  but with his eyes of course that would not stop him from seeing everything that went on.

Martha put on her dress and came out, looking real pretty.  Wood said he wanted me to hold a pitchfork.  I almost told him to take a hike, guessing he wanted me to look like a hick, which is what I am I suppose.  Wood said he wanted me to hold the pitchfork so that people would know I was a farmer.  One look at my weathered face would tell them that, but Martha gave me a stern look and I picked up the durn pitchfork. 

Posing for a painter is hard work.  While he was drawing us, we had to stand still, and with all the bugs around that ain’t easy.  About an hour into this I saw smoke billowing from town and I knew what was going to happen next.  Expecting Clark to sit by when there are people who need help is like expecting a cow to give out chocolate milk.  He flew out from the house in a red and blue blur and blew out the house fire with his breath.  He then had the sense to stay away until Wood was gone.

Wood saw the red and blue streak, and Martha got worried and her eyes narrowed.  Me, I just looked straight ahead as if nothing was happening.  Wood asked what that was and I told him I hadn’t seen nothing.  Wood looked suspicious for a few seconds and then he shrugged and went back to his drawing.  Two hours later he was done and Martha and I were dog tired.  Martha asked him if he would like to stay for dinner, which I thought was carrying hospitality too far, but he said he had a meeting in Topeka and he needed to get back on the road.  He promised to send us a copy of the painting and I breathed easier after his car pulled out of sight.  Clark appeared out of nowhere, like usual.  He apologized and I told him that he was just trying to help people but we needed to be cautious.

Well that pretty much shot the day.  My old man, if he was still living, would have skinned me alive for wasting so much of a workday with a city slicker, but I bet Ma would have been like Martha, and would have gotten the old man to pose like I did today.  I’ll work extra hard tomorrow.

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Donald R. McClarey

Cradle Catholic. Active in the pro-life movement since 1973. Father of three and happily married for 35 years. Small town lawyer and amateur historian. Former president of the board of directors of the local crisis pregnancy center for a decade.

2 Comments

  1. Mr. McClarey,
    A few months ago you featured Jack Kirby in this space and now this. As life-long comic reader/collector, I really appreciate these respites from the dire political news.
    My father was a farmer and I am not too sure that men like him would have kept a diary but this was marvelous regardless of its likelihood.
    Thanks.

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