The Bridges of Madison County and Iowa: Production, Reception, and Place

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2005-05-12

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Title of Dissertation: THE BRIDGES OF MADISON COUNTY AND IOWA: PRODUCTION, RECEPTION, AND PLACE

Gregory R. Wahl, Doctor of Philosophy, 2005

Dissertation directed by: R. Gordon Kelly, Department of American Studies

The 1992 Warner Books novel The Bridges of Madison County, the first by Robert James Waller, a University of Northern Iowa Management professor, was a "surprise" success, marketed as literary fiction through a "word-of-mouth" campaign of "handselling" in independent bookstores, which put it on the New York Times bestseller list. Once the love story became a bestseller, the story of its popularity began to appear in mass entertainment media, notably on National Public Radio's "Morning Edition" and on the Oprah Winfrey Show. It sold over ten million copies and became the fastest-selling hardcover novel of its era. Bridges' pretension to literariness touched a nerve with New York cultural gatekeeping literary reviewers, who conflated its perceived sub-literary qualities with its Iowa origins, middlebrow readership, and even cultural disease. Readers, however, identified with and participated in the novel's realistic frame narrative, which constructed the story and its setting, Winterset, Iowa, as a text and place where true love was made manifest. Bridges was parodied for its perceived sexism and pretentious language. A movie adaptation was made by Clint Eastwood and Steven Spielberg, and Bridges-related tourism changed the nature of Winterset's economy and community.

What can we learn about American culture from the unexpected, record-setting sales success of The Bridges of Madison County, situated as it was on the boundaries of art and popular culture and of local community and mass media? At each stage of the book's communications circuit--production, sales success, differing receptions by reviewers and readers, and reintegration into the setting of Iowa--the case of The Bridges of Madison County illustrates that cultural boundaries are contested and maintained in part by invoking place and region, that the power of mass media depends on the participation of individuals and local community, and that local communities will make their own power in the face of, and out of, the power of mass media.

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