Thursday, June 01, 2006

Manifesto for Smalltown America

I’ve been reading and enjoying Bill Kauffman for a decade. “Michael” at calls Kauffman a “category-busting radical crank.” Not bad. Kauffman describes himself as an American patriot, Jeffersonian decentralist, fanatical localist, and anarchist. What I love about Kauffman is that he’s so adaptable in finding allies — he frolics with both Right and Left, in both Chronicles magazine and CounterPunch — as long as they love America and despise Empire.

Bill’s a master of the beautifully crafted sentence and the subtly clever turn-of-phrase. I think he’s one of the best political essayists — strike that — best essayists period of the last 25 years. I spent the past two weeks reading and re-reading then reading again his new book, Look Homeward, America: In Search of Reactionary Radicals and Front-Porch Anarchists, a paean to families, neighborhoods, and insubordinate, smalltown America. At least a dozens times, I stopped at the end of a paragraph, rubbed the bridge of my nose, and mumbled, “Goddamn that’s good.”

Here’s Kauffman writing about a pilgrimage he made in Iowa:

“So there we were, my wife, Lucine, our then-nine-year-old daughter, Gretel, and I, driving the gravel roads outside Clear Lake, Iowa, following directions like ‘first fencerow past the big grain bin,’ till we ditched the rental car and walked the narrow half-mile path between corn and soybean fields to the spot where on February 3, 1959, the plane carrying Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and the Big Bopper crashed, a tragedy later mythicized by Don McLean in ‘American Pie’ as ‘the day the music died.’ We found the cross and makeshift memorial to the three paleo rock-and-rollers. Lucine detests the har-har leering of the Big Bopper — ‘Hell-ooooooo Ba-Beeeee!’ — but Gretel and I persuaded her to join us in a spirited chorus of ‘Chantilly Lace,’ capped by a hearty ‘Oh baby that’s what I like!’ I imagined the Bopper, a bespangled specter, giving us a lewd wink.”

Still wandering through Iowa, Bill reflects on the late actress Donna Reed:

“At some point in post-World War II America, the Middle West and all its Middle American manifestations became inexplicable. Take Donna Reed, without question the most beautifully American-looking actress of the Cold War era. Donna was an Iowa girl, a tomboy who grew up playing baseball with her brothers on the farm — watch her hurl that rock at the window of the old Granville place in It’s a Wonderful Life; what a wonderful arm! She was an Iowa Republican who was for her fellow Iowan Henry Wallace in 1948, for Barry Goldwater in 1964 because the Kennedy-Johnson Democrats offended her Iowa isolationism, and for Eugene McCarthy in 1968 for the same reason. Viewed through old-fashioned American glasses, Reed’s politics make perfect sense as the expression of a girl who attended the one-room schoolhouse in Nishnabotna, Iowa, and won a blue ribbon at the Iowa State Fair for the whole-wheat yeast rolls she made for the Nimble Fingers 4-H Club. It is only in the funhouse mirror of postwar American politics that the Donna Reeds are contorted and the Arnold Schwarzeneggers look normal.”

Kauffman writes about the effect of war and empire on rural America:

“War devastates the homefront as surely as it does the killing fields. Soldiers are conscripted, sent hither and yon to kill and maim or to be killed or maimed; their families relocate, following the jobs created by artificial wartime booms. War is the great scatterer, the merciless disperser. How you gonna keep ’em down on the farm when Mom and Pop and Sis have found Elysium in Detroit?”

Look Homeward, America is a short book, just shy of 200 pages. But it’s stuffed with history, personal asides, and lots and lots of profiles of those Kauffman would call “reactionary radicals,” folks as diverse as U.S. Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan (for whom Kauffman worked briefly), Catholic Worker founder Dorothy Day, writer Wendell Berry, novelist Carolyn Chute, Robert Frost, and Mother Jones. What it all adds up to is a virtual manifesto for front-porch radicals — a loose-limbed movement where Left and Right can stop arguing the little stuff and meet on common ground in their admiration for small-scale over big-scale, local over nation-state, peace over war, America over Empire, and plain, old-fashioned neighborliness.

Bill Kauffman has written a rallying cry for common sense, building relationships, and getting the real work done of just living satisfying lives. If you haven’t read Look Homeward, America by summer’s end, shame on you.


At 11:37 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I ordered the book weeks ago at work (I work at a bookstore) and though I haven't purchased it yet, I've put it on hold indefinitely, reading bits and pieces throughout the workday. Great stuff.

The chapter on Dorothy Day vs. Henry Kissinger - or something to that effect - was great. Who's the REAL conservative Kauffman asks. Good question.



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