Country Facts and Folklore
By Andy Reddick


I have not read many of Phil Stong’s novels. I always liked his descriptions, but often found his plots lacked complexity, and his characters were too shallow. I recently ran across a crushing review by Ruth Gallaher of Palimpsest printed in October, 1940.

Phil Stong’s Hawkeyes, she says, is advertised as an intimate biography of Iowa but is in fact a mixture of reminiscence both personal and second hand, history (with question marks) and descriptions told in Stong’s typical breezy, dramatic style. Among the chapters are Forums (general stores as centers of pioneer life); Corn fed Art; Justice; Revolt Worship; Indian Stuff; High "Sassiety" (devoted chiefly to Masons, P.E.O., various women’s clubs, and the Society Page of the Des Moines Register); Big Red Schoolhouse; Land of the Free; Grapefruits of Wrath (optimistic picture of farm tenancy); Flies in the Ointment (including lack of bathrooms); The River; and Crops.

The book was probably written in haste according to Gallaher, as she found many errors. The very first statement in the first chapter is wrong. Iowa celebrated its Territorial Centennial Anniversary in 1938, not in 1939 as stated in the book. Stong used a phrase of the moment when he wrote "these scoundrels had the highest literacy rate in the country in 1840." He cleverly and sarcastically quoted Congress in reference to Iowans as "scoundrels," but the census figures do not bear his claim. With 7 times the population of Iowa Territory, Connecticut found only half as many people unable to read and write.

Further, the Honey War did not involve "a hundred years of not-too-bloody hostilities." It was settled in 1849, only twelve years after the dispute first arose. The first priest to hold services in Iowa was a Jesuit, not a Dominican. And the Indians of Tama were not required to comply with the marriage laws of the white man, nor did the government ever approve of their use of peyote.

Stong states that he was unable to find an account of any hanging in Iowa that was not duly authorized by the state, yet the Iowa Journal of History and Politics in 1912 listed some 60 men that were lynched within the state without the benefit of a legal court trial!

Phil Stong’s comments were usually intended to be witty thrusts at the many defects within Iowa life and society. For example, he said "when a man does something, its news; when a lady does something, it is usually society page!"

In spite of grammar errors missed by the proofreader, Stong writes rather well at times, admitted Gallaher. She did not appreciate, however, what she thought was a flippant attitude inferring that the Hawkeyes were usually pacifists and incompetent.

Although he wrote as an Iowan, he was condescending and sometimes contemptuous toward matters of church, school, and government. "The Iowa country soon after settlement was full of school teachers and preachers who taught what they wished they knew." "The Sabbath," wrote Stong, "is the Lord’s Day, held holy by a lot of old women and quivering legislators." (And she noted that the last word was spelled incorrectly.) "Farmers will learn," he said, "that paying for a bus is cheaper than paying semi-educated imbeciles to operate schools!"

What seemed to irk Gallaher most, was Stong’s insistence on mixing into his great detail many rude, off-color stories and obscene allusions. "His smutty stories have no place in a book intended for home or school libraries", she commented. Stong’s vocabulary was marvelous at times, yet he leaves the impression that there are only half a dozen intelligent people within the entire state of Iowa! She declared the volume 1/4 wrong, 1/4 dull, 1/4 offensive, and 1/4 good. "It could easily have been a great book", she added.

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Contributed to the Van Buren Co. IAGenWeb Project by Andy Reddick