The Myth of the Simpler Time
The toxic nostalgia of the Midwest
This is the mid-week issue of Men Yell at Me the newsletter about the places our politics and personhood collide. Today, I wrote about nostalgia and corn and baseball. By the way, I love baseball and just bought some Kernels tickets. See you out there.
On April 14, the Go the Distance Baseball LLC, now headed by Baseball Hall of Famer Frank Thomas, revealed its $80 million plan for the Field of Dreams in Dyersville, Iowa.
The Field of Dreams was originally built for the 1989 Kevin Costner movie that gave it its name. The movie, based on the book “Shoeless Joe,” is about a man named Ray Kinsella who is on the verge of losing his family farm. After being visited by the ghost of “Shoeless” Joe Jackson, the former Chicago White Sox player who was part of the 1919 Black Sox scandal, Kinsella builds a baseball field in the middle of his farm. It’s a romantic gesture and a story about family, the past and the future, all combined with hope in the face of insurmountable odds.
I first saw the movie in 2004, two weeks after my fiance proposed. When he and I had first started dating, his father would meet me at the door of his house with a pop quiz about baseball. “What’s Kirby Puckett’s number?” “Who was the first Major League player to have his number retired?”
He joked that I, a girl raised in Texas on a steady diet of Dallas Cowboys and Jesus, couldn’t come inside until I understood baseball. The night after my fiancé proposed, he made me watch the 1991 Twins World Series video on VHS in his parents’ basement. After that, we watched every baseball movie he could think of, including “Field of Dreams.”
The movie came out right after the farm crisis of the 1980s devastated the Midwest. Many families were left barely hanging onto their land and their lives, hoping for something to save them. The movie was a hit. And the field, which was built specifically for the movie, became a shrine to baseball, nostalgia, masculinity, loss and hope.
I visited the Field of Dreams with my then-husband in 2010. The site was small. It had been built over land owned by two separate families, who ended up operating two separate souvenir shops. There wasn’t much for many years. But over the years, the make-believe world of that field became something real. Eventually, one family sold its land to the other; a few years later, the remaining family sold the site. Go the Distance LLC has owned the site since 2012 and has continued to develop it as a sort of Disneyland for baseball fans. On August 12, 2021, the field hosted its first-ever Major League game – the Chicago White Sox v. the New York Yankees. Kevin Costner led the White Sox out of the corn in the beginning of the game in a corny homage to the movie. A moment so ridiculous it would be like if Patrick Swayze and Demi Moore had reunited to reenact the pottery scene from Ghost for $1,400 a ticket.
But the moment was telling. Kevin Costner walking out of the corn was a manufactured narrative about who and what the Midwest was and is supposed to be, and what we were willing to forget.
Yet, when news of the $80 million development broke, fans were quick to criticize the commodification of the site.
Chris Williams, publisher of the Iowa State fan site Cyclone Fanatic, lamented, “Am I the only person who fears all of this growth around the original site is going to ruin the site’s quiet, nostalgic appeal? Hope I am wrong…” He wasn’t the only one.
Dave Dreezsen, managing editor of the Sioux City Journal, tweeted, “Glad I got to visit and experience the site when it was still quiet with a nostalgic feel. All the commercial development has ruined that.”
This wasn’t the first time those concerns were voiced. In 2012, after Go the Distance LLC bought the field, columnists and residents worried about losing that “nostalgic” feel to the site.
The comments spoke to something lost. Of something ruined. But what? The movie is fantasy. Everything about the site and the story is contrived. The field didn’t exist before it was built for the movie. The owners’ sale of the land echoes the same market forces that threatened the fictional Kinsella’s farm.
What I’m grieving is ignorance. The times were never simpler; we were just more ignorant.
Even the setting for last year’s MLB game was faked. The night before the game, strong winds took down much of the corn surrounding the baseball field, and people actually used zip ties and 1,100 metal and fiberglass rods to get it upright again. As a metaphor for Midwestern values, it’s almost too on-the-nose.
The movie itself is cheesy and designed to pull on heartstrings. Nothing wrong with that. But it was manufactured by Hollywood to sell a story. That the site is still being used to turn a buck is the most honest thing about it.
Even the nostalgia in the movie, which ties into Kinsella’s dysfunctional relationship with his long-dead father, is about something that never existed. Kinsella could never go back and make his father a better person or fix their relationship. But he could play baseball, one of the few good things they shared. For Kinsella, building the field is an act of redemption, for his childhood. He can’t redeem the past, but he can change the future. He’s not forgetting.
(Also, it’s pretty ironic that in the movie, Kinsella’s wife, Annie, gives a speech against banning books in schools. Meanwhile, Iowa’s government is currently finding new and creative ways to ban books in schools, while Iowa’s governor gives millions in grants to honor movie that spoke out against that very thing.)
Expressing nostalgia over the Field of Dreams is a bit like expressing nostalgia for the good old days when children could walk through magical wardrobes and commune with talking lions. The sense of loss over the field is a longing for a fiction – something that never existed. Something manufactured to tell a story about the Midwest that simply isn’t true.
Field of Dreams fans aren’t the only ones lamenting a past that never existed. Prairie dresses are back in fashion; manufactured barn wood signs are sold in home stores across America. Amish romance fiction has spiked in popularity and is known for depicting a life that is not at all Amish, but an idealized version of a past that never existed. Similarly, hit television shows like “Sweet Magnolias” and “Yellowstone” depict people fighting to defend a romanticized past.
This mawkish reverence for the past bolstersa virulent strain in our politics, one that is pushing to undermine abortion rights, restrict voting rights and to demonize LGBTQ people.
I understand the sense of loss. We have all lost so much these past few years. And when I wonder if there ever was a “simpler” time, another part of me thinks, but there was a time before COVID. And I think about my son graduating from kindergarten in 2020 and how, whatever world we end up with, he won’t remember a “before time.” And every time I think like that, it makes me cry. But I also know that diseases have ravaged the world before. So have wars. What I’m grieving is ignorance. The times were never simpler; we were just more ignorant.
The desire to re-create a fictional past too often allows us to ignore the realities of the present. And it erases real history, real nuance, in favor of a moral superiority that never actually existed.
Americans’ sense of loss is very real. But the past for which so many seem to be yearning never was.
Further Reading: Listen, this was a pretty solid story about the 2021 Field of Dreams game from Defector.
Men Yell at Me is a newsletter where I write about the intersection of the personal and political. And yes, about yelling. I am an Iowan, author, journalist, and columnist. If you value what you read, consider subscribing to the free weekly emails or become a paying subscriber.