Grant Wood’s “American Gothic” is one of the most iconic depictions of American Midwestern life, and more than 80 years after its creation, it still eludes popular agreement on a definitive meaning or interpretation. But something almost everyone can conclude from looking at the painting, and something I picked up on the first time I was introduced to “American Gothic” in my third grade art class, is that it feels hardened.
Certain elements of the image — the farmer’s weathered face and stern expression, his tight grip of the pitchfork, the woman’s distant eyes and tight lips, and the darkness of the Gothic window on the house — have distinctly ominous undertones to me. They suggest that everything is not as plain or simple as it seems, a sentiment that I immediately connected to S-Town, a podcast from the creators of Serial and This American Life that became a smash hit when it was released in March of 2017.
S-Town (short for Shittown) is hosted by reporter Brian Reed and follows the real story of John B. McLemore, a brilliant, eccentric, cynical clock maker who sends an e-mail to This American Life and asks Reed to investigate a rumored murder in his hometown of Woodstock, Alabama. In following e-mail exchanges and phone calls with Reed, McLemore expresses his intense hatred of Woodstock and the people in it, and he often refers to it as a “shit town.” 
But when McLemore commits suicide on June 22, 2015 (in the midst of the podcast’s production and as narrated at the end of the second episode) the narrative shifts to Reed’s exploration of McLemore’s personal life through the Woodstock residents who knew him, his black sheep status in the community, a property dispute and possible buried treasure, and broader questions of small town Southern life.
When “American Gothic” was first shown in 1930, art critics interpreted it as a satirical mocking of the conformity and narrow-mindedness of Midwestern life, and many still see the painting this way.  One could strip away the satire attached to the artwork and try to take it as it is, but there is still the feeling of some deeper statement about the couple, or farming, or the poor Midwest (who knows?) beneath the surface that can’t quite be put into words. S-Town, which media critics have equated to the style and tone of the Southern Gothic literary genre , evokes a similar sensation. The podcast has far more space and ability to dig deeper into McLemore’s life than the painting does of its subjects’ lives, but just the same, mystery and melancholy linger throughout the listening experience and even after the last episode.
The most important thing I learned from both “American Gothic” and S-Town is how powerful and dangerous it is when we as human beings attach stereotypes or labels based solely on individual experience to the people, objects, and systems we encounter in society. Reed, the podcast’s producer, could have easily let the stereotypes about poor white Southerners that McLemore believed in (as uneducated, narrow minded, dull simpletons, for example) influence his reporting, but he went to find out for himself.
“The vision that John was feeding me of this Shittown or S-Town that he lived in, it had all the trappings of the stereotypes you think of when you think of rural Alabama,” Reed said in an interview with Deep South Magazine. “My knee-jerk was to go against that. It can’t be exactly that. I know it’s more complicated than that.” 
Reed uses his conversations with McLemore and just about everyone in Bibb County, Alabama to gain a wide variety of perspectives that helps him construct an accurate portrait of a complicated man’s layered existence in a complicated town. It is up to the listener to determine how to put the puzzle pieces together. I think Wood does the same with “American Gothic.” The painting and the podcast both seem elementary at face value, but they present much more than just the Midwest or a Shittown in the Deep South. They possess a hidden depth that allows for countless interpretations and questions of humanity. Their mysterious undertones spark the audience’s curiosity in a way that can never quite be satisfied; they are gloriously unresolved.
1.”S-Town.” Wikipedia. March 9, 2018. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/S-Town.
2. Corn, Wanda M., and Grant Wood. “The Birth of a National Icon: Grant Wood’s “American Gothic”, 255. Art Institute of Chicago Museum Studies 10 (1983).
3. Romano, Aja. “The New S-Town Podcast, from the Serial Team, Is a Real-life Southern Gothic.” Vox. March 28, 2017. https://www.vox.com/culture/2017/3/28/15082166/s-town-podcast-episodes-release.
4. Bass, Erin Z. “Inside “S-Town” Alabama.” Deep South Magazine. March 29, 2017. http://deepsouthmag.com/2017/03/29/inside-s-town-alabama/.