California Literary Review

Look Homeward America by Bill Kauffman

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July 5th, 2007 at 10:06 am

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Look Homeward, America:, In Search of Reactionary Radicals and Front-Porch Anarchists
by Bill Kauffman
Intercollegiate Studies Institute, 201 pp.
CLR Rating: ★★★★★

A Stand Against Empire

“BLOW UP YOUR T.V., THROW AWAY THE PAPER…TRY AND FIND JESUS ON YOUR OWN.”
John Prine, Spanish Pipedream

Elba, New York writer, Bill Kauffman, is not likely to find himself comfortably couched beside the doyenne of daytime book reviews, the lovely Miss Oprah, nor is he likely to preside over a wine and cheese party sponsored by the east coast literati anytime soon. Such are the vicissitudes of a provincial placist who has rejected the munificence of the “post-war corporatist-collectivist consensus” and spent his career, or most it, in search of those venerable American intellectuals who “have sought to tear down what is artificial, factitious, imposed by remote and often coercive forces and instead cultivate what is local, organic, natural, and family-centered.”

It is a lofty goal Kauffman has set for himself. The truth of the matter is that the genre of people he seeks to learn and write about is not exactly on the cutting edge of “what’s happening now.” Thus, Kauffman is in danger of losing the American “everyman;” he who subscribes to “People,” religiously tunes into the “Nightly News,” and patiently waits for the latest re-run of “Seinfeld,” that T.V. show about nothing, which turned out to be an amazingly accurate portrayal of modernity.

However, what saves it all for Kauffman is the fact that he is a supremely gifted writer who with a facile ebullience conjures up some of the funniest and erudite copy on either side of the Atlantic. An apropos example, and one that sets the tone of his book, is his final sentence in the introduction to, Look Homeward, America, “Until Americans take the Chute route of rejecting the remote and pestilential institutions that mean us harm, and of choosing the free, the local, the life-giving anarchic, the Columbuses will rot into Columbines.” Now that’s a sentence!

He is not much impressed with modernity, rejecting with certitude McDonald’s transfatty fries, the inter-state highway system, television, the decline of literature, and a pernicious militarism that has sponsored the “great American diaspora.” He notes with a trenchant passion the lot of the great American unwashed, “Yet we are the America that suffers in wartime: we do the dying, the paying of taxes, we supply the million unfortunate sons (and now daughters) who are sent hither and yon in what amounts to a vast government uprooting of the populace.” This is not the stuff upon which the neo-conservative junta will heap approbation, but then you’re not likely to find many of their sons and daughters serving in Fallujah.

Kauffman is H.L. Mencken in high dudgeon, Samuel Clemens in wry observation, Will Rodgers in celebration of the American condition, and Michael O’Brien in emotive prayer. He is the Oakeshottian thinker who eschews a debilitating and corruptive rationalism, quite content in the knowledge that happiness is an unscheduled accident.

In Look Homeward, America, Kauffman tackles the challenges of an interviewer, memoirist, and historian with the panache and élan of an Alan Tate in high literary criticism. Some of the people he has chosen to portray are, in many ways, his teachers, and he has gleaned from them those rare and elusive golden nuggets of truth upon which a man can hang his hat. He labored, with disquietude, in the vineyard of Pat Moynihan, admired the politics and stoicism of Eugene “Clean Gene” McCarthy, and found a sustaining peace in the Christ-like example of Dorothy Day-“in the face of Empire, The Way of Love.”

In his chapter on regionalist artist, Grant Woods, Kauffman offers a comparison pregnant with possibility; “You can believe in the American Empire, with its smart bombs and dumb presidents, or you can believe in the American Main Street, where Sinclair Lewis and Grant Wood lived. You can believe in Clear Channel or you can believe in Clear Lake.”

My favorite essay is Wendell Berry on War and Peace. Kauffman adroitly sets the tone with a quote from G.K. Chesterton; “I think the first thing that made me dislike imperialism was the statement that the sun never set on the British Empire. What good is a country with no sunset?” Thus, setting in motion a penetrating critique of the pernicious effects of the American war machine and Berry’s efforts, in essay and novel, to detail the horrendous and oft times uncounted consequences of war.

One of Berry’s characters, Virgil Feltner, and indeed his entire family, have been favorites of mine since I started reading about the Port William membership many years ago. Kauffman’s reminder that Virgil died in the “Bulge” set me back. You see, my father fought in the “Bulge.” He was a platoon sergeant in the 305th Combat Engineers attached to the 80th Division, the old Blue Ridge, and he was lucky or blessed to get out alive and unscathed. The Feltner’s were not as fortunate as our family and I have grieved for these old friends as if they drew breath, such is the power of Berry’s writing.

What powers Kauffman’s lucid prose is his encyclopedic knowledge of American history, evidenced in his monthly column published in the pages of The American Enterprise. He has applied this knowledge, centered on many of the radicals and beloved reactionaries, in Look Homeward, America and the result is a delightful, erudite examination of brilliant and brave American stalwarts who have questioned the government’s proclivity toward militarism and the inimical effects of modernity upon our culture and people. From Carolyn Chute to Dorothy Day, from Wendell Berry to Millard Fillmore, from Frank Capra to Karl Hess, Kauffman celebrates a band of citizens who have, in their own way, rejected the “collectivist-corporatist consensus” and chose to make their stand in small town America, among the poor and broken, on a farm nestled among the hills that crown the glorious valley of the Ohio. “The best radicals,” Kauffman writes, “are reactionaries at heart.”

Bill Kauffman is a chronicler, historian, and social critic. He possesses an equanimity and discernment that provides a unique perspective that deserves our attention. He is a Jeffersonian de-centralist, thought criminal, word tossing anarchist, and champion of America’s gutted, Walmartized small towns. “Mine is a Middle America,” Kauffman writes, “profoundly un-imperial patriotism based in love of American music, poetry, places, quirks and commonalities, historical crotchets, holy fools and eminent Kansans.”

Perhaps, John Prine had it right all along. Go ahead and “blow up your T.V.,” then read Look Homeward, America. In fact you might want to read all of Bill Kauffman’s books!

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