Students in the Monmouth College class “Politics and Government in the Midwest” received positive confirmation this week about their scholarly work after interacting with a Pulitzer prize-winning author.
Via Skype, Dale Maharidge, author of “Denison, Iowa: Searching for the Soul of America Through the Secrets of a Midwest Town” (2005), shared his thoughts on issues that hit close to home. Not only did his research for the book tackle many of the same small-town immigration issues which students in lecturer Robin Johnson’s class are addressing this semester, but Denison, with a population of 8,000, a meat packing plant and a growing Latino population, is also strikingly similar to Monmouth.
A professor at the Graduate School of Journalism at Columbia University, Maharidge is the author of 10 books and was awarded the 1990 non-fiction Pulitzer Prize for his second book, “And Their Children After Them.” His first book, “Journey to Nowhere: The Saga of the New Underclass” (1985), inspired Bruce Springsteen to write two songs; it was reissued in 1996 with an introduction by Springsteen. A former Nieman Fellow at Harvard University, Maharidge said he wrote “Denison, Iowa” to provide “a snapshot of America right now.”
Monmouth could just as easily have been the setting for the book, except for one small fact – it’s not in Iowa.
“I decided to pick a town in Iowa because it’s neutral,” he told the class, in response to one of several questions they had for him. “America sees Iowa as ‘Field of Dreams’ and ‘Bridges of Madison County’ and ‘The Music Man.’ I had only three days to get my book proposal ready, so I looked online, and there were seven towns in Iowa that had Latinos. When I looked on Denison’s website, they had a photo of their water tower, and it read ‘It’s a Wonderful Town,’ since that’s where Donna Reed from ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ was born.”
He continued, “When I was talking to Denison historian Nathan Mahrt (who later became Denison’s mayor), he said, ‘You didn’t find Dension. Denison found you.’”
Students wanted to know exactly what Maharidge did find in Denison, related to immigration, specifically, but also his general findings.
“When immigration happens in a small town, people notice,” said Maharidge, who moved to Denison for a year, shortly after 9/11, to research the book. At that point, Latinos had been in the town for about 10 years. “It was a really mixed bag of welcoming the Latinos. The business leaders, who were overwhelmingly Republican, welcomed them. I saw some of the non-accepting attitude in the high school, but it mostly came from the older generation.”
Maharidge said the Latino population was “very undocumented” when it came to illegal immigration, with “harrowing” stories of their journeys, especially for the Salvadorans.
“The community was very segregated,” he added. “It wasn’t like all the people gathered together and sang ‘Kumbaya.’ But that’s human nature. That’s how we are.”
In addition to immigration, Maharidge wrote about other aspects of life in Denison, including “brain drain.”
“Kids don’t stick around there (after they graduate),” he said. “I was told that the town’s biggest exports were pork and kids. … There was not a lot of work there besides the meat packing plant.”
Asked to describe a favorite moment, Maharidge contrasted Denison with New York City, where he had just watched the second World Trade Center tower collapse.
“I was coughing blood from all the toxins from the smoke and dust from the towers,” he said. “I show up in Denison, still coughing blood, a year later. One of the things I did was go looking for Indian arrowheads, walking the cornrows. It had a very Zen-like, very cathartic effect. Denison was almost motherly, in that aspect. I recovered my health there.”
Johnson was pleased that the successful author took time to meet with his class and praised him for the types of books he writes about American society.
“He really holds up a mirror to our country,” said Johnson. “I admire the work he’s doing.”