Monday, May 4, 2009

Grain elevators as colossal figures

I find I am not alone in referring to the American grain elevator as an American Colossus. According to Drake Hokanson, who mounted an exhibit of his grain-elevator photographs in Perry, Iowa, in February 2007, grain elevators are "American colossi -- giant human figures on the landscape like the huge Egyptian statues in the Nile Valley."

Note: the image above does not depict an Egyptian colossus, such as the Colossus of Memnon, but the Colossus of Rhodes. But it is the general idea that matters here, not the particulars. I might just as well have posted the painting called The Colossus (1808-1812), commonly but incorrectly attributed to Francisco de Goya (see below).

As I point out on pages 258-262 of American Colossus, the word "colossus" doesn't necessarily refer to something that is very big, but to something (an effigy) that stands upright. Colossi and other effigies, though sometimes crudely rendered, are always complete figures: they never lack limbs, torsos or heads. This is why representations of them --no matter how big they are -- are always comforting, not disturbing. They reflect back to us images of our own complete forms.

It is quite true that grain elevators stand upright, not only with respect to the flatness of the areas that surround them, but also upon "legs" (elevating mechanisms) and "boots" (the pits into which the "legs" reach). The anthropomorphism of grain-elevator jargon goes even further: one speaks of "loose" legs and "stiff" legs, "head houses" and even the shoulders of grain elevators. . . .

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