I spent a few days in Iowa City, my hometown. I did some research at the University of Iowa Library. And I also took long walks around town.
Nostalgia was laced with Zola-like naturalistic observations as I contemplated the monstrous greed of developers who have destroyed whole blocks of graceful old houses and replaced them with cheap apartment houses.
And that’s why you can’t go home again. It’s like having double vision: seeing everything twice through optometrists’ lenses.
At first it was blissful.
Iowa City is pleasantly deserted in May, because the students are gone, and you have the place to yourself . You do not have to stand in line for an American Gothic coffee at Java House. You nip up the hill to College Green Park to sip your coffee and read Barbara Pym’s An Unsuitable Attachment, an eminently suitable vacation novel, peopled by Pym’s diffident, eccentric characters: Ianthe Broome, a librarian, who has “an unsuitable attachment” to a younger man; Sophia, a vicar’s wife, who is obsessed with her cat, Faustina; and Rupert Stonebird, an anthropologist, who can’t decide if he is more attracted to Penelope, whom he calls”the pre-Raphaelite beat-nik,”and to Ianthe, who is “more suitable.”
In the days when College Green Park was called College Street Park (why the change?), I often sat on the swings or picnicked on takeout from the Pioneer Food Co-op. It is the same mellow space it always was, except now it has a new gazebo.
After leaving the Park, I headed over to Washington Street and down the hill to the University of Iowa Library. This is a real library–with tens of thousands of old books. I found a table by the window in the eerily dark literature and language stacks, and arranged my crisp new notebook, British Library pen, and backup hotel pen. And so began the reading and note-taking.
So many books, some great, some terrible. I quickly flashed back to grad school techniques and recalled the unscholarly habit of judging books by the title. Yes, why not? One needs a whimsical sorting system among so many unpromising dull books. Not surprisingly, Sarah Lindheim’s Mail and Female: Epistolary Narrative and Desire in Ovid’s Heroides, is clever and amusing: the title even echoes You’ve Got Mail, the Nora Ephron movie. Lindheim is such a smart, amusing writer that I can’t help but think the allusion was deliberate. And the book is a fascinating analysis of Ovid’s Heroides, a collection of elegiac epistles written from mythological heroines to their lovers and husbands. On the other hand, I struck out with A Web of Fantasies: Gaze, Image, and Gender in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, by Patricia B. Slazman-Mitchell. It’s best to avoid books with “gender” in the title, I decided.
After a morning at the library, I did a lot of walking. I do recommend visiting Hickory Hill Park, 190 acres of woods, meadows, creek, etc. I used to know the park well, but they have bought more land, built more trails, and have deliberately revamped others so you go nowhere near the gap in the fence that led into Oakland Cemetery and was a shortcut home. The large open meadow is now confusingly planted with trees, while another open meadow (which I mistook for the old one) still has that Andrew Wyeth look that makes you want to plop down in the sun. (I got sunburn.) A deer and I came face to face when I stumbled on a remote muddy trail, which perhaps was not even a human trail. Yes, I did get lost, but eventually found an exit that led to Dodge Street. Wow, I need to start a five-miles-a-day walking regimen, because I could feel this in my legs! My husband looked it up and said it was eight miles as the crow flies.
Iowa City is home of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, and in 2008 was named a UNESCO City of Books. We were always vaguely proud of the Workshop, where Flannery O’Connor, Philip Roth, Kurt Vonnegut, Gail Godwin, John Cheever, Frank Conroy, Marvin Bell, Marilynne Robinson, T. C. Boyle, Karen E. Bender, Margot Livesey, and many other brilliant writers have studied or taught.
The Iowa Writers’ Workshop, however, is NOT a haven for Iowa writers. The only Workshop alumna I can think of from Iowa is Elizabeth Evans. No, these geniuses come from New York, California, occasionally Grosse Point, Michigan. The name “Iowa Writers’ Workshop” is an oxymoron. I’m not suggesting a name change–I’m all for tradition!–but there is a certain irony.
Iowa City has always been bookish, but nowadays has trouble supporting bookstores, despite the UNESCO status. Prairie Lights, a two-story bookstore established in the late ’70s, is still magnificent, and has a stunning selection of new books and a good selection of classics, but the number of books seems slightly smaller than it used to be. Prairie Lights also sponsors readings, though fewer big names come through on tour these days. Mostly the readings are by Workshop writers now.
There are only a couple of other bookstores left in Iowa City. Around the block from Prairie Lights is Iowa Book, which used to be called Iowa Book and Supply (or Iowa Book and Crook). To say I was shocked that the store now has only a few shelves of remainders is an understatement. It always made most its money from t-shirts and sweatshirts, but now that is the entire business.
As for used bookstores, I am not a fan of The Haunted Bookshop, where a cat once attacked me. The bookstore clerks apologized, but as a longtime “cat mom” in a multi-cat household, I assure you this is unusual cat behavior. And, honestly, the condition of the books at The Haunted Bookshop is often barely “acceptable.” I miss Martha the cat at Murphy-Brookfield, a truly great bookstore that, alas, folded a few years ago. The Haunted Bookshop is now located in the old Murphy-Brookfield building.
There are many restaurants in Iowa City. The pedestrian downtown lost its department stores years ago and is now a center of restaurants and bars. The best food I found? The vegetarian sandwich at the University Library’s cafe. Honestly, I lived on those. But you won’t go hungry.
CAVEAT: Iowa City is larger than it used to be, and if you are a woman alone, do be careful. It’s hard to take Iowa City seriously as a city because it seems so quaint, but things change, and I was too casual in the evening. Iowa City has a homeless problem, or so I’d read in The Press Citizen, without taking it seriously. I scoffed, until I went to CVS at the Old Capitol Mall around 5 p.m., and had to thread my way through crowds of homeless men out of Dickens’s Oliver Twist. No, it wasn’t Little Dorrit or the Father of the Marshalsea. And I’m not anti-homeless, but they’re destitute and often off their meds. I am talking about safety. I also had not considered the risks of studying at the library at night. During the day, there are people working upstairs, but at night the stacks were deserted. I skedaddled out of there.
PAY ATTENTION TO YOUR SURROUNDINGS. IF YOU FEEL UNCOMFORTABLE , LEAVE.
Yup, I couldn’t face it that Iowa City is a real city now.
Overall, a lovely trip, and it can be fun to visit your hometown. Just don’t stay too long!