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Look Homeward America

Look Homeward, America, by Bill Kauffman

Bill Kauffman is not ashamed to be an American. In fact, he loves his country, though he is also at pains to explain precisely what “America” it is that he loves:

There are two Americas: the televised America, known and hated by the world, and the rest of us. The former is a factitious creation whose strange gods include HBO, accentless TV anchor people, Dick Cheney, reruns of Friends, and the National Endowment for Democracy. It is real enough—cross it and you’ll learn more than you want to know about weapons of mass destruction—but it has no heart, no soul, no connection to the thousand and one real Americas that produced Zora Neale Hurston and Jack Kerouac and Saint Dorothy Day and the Mighty Casey who struck out.

I am of the other America, the unseen America, the America un-dreamt of by the foreigners who hate my country without knowing a single thing about it. Ours is a land of volunteer fire departments, of baseball played without payment or sanction, of uncut maples and unpasteurized cider.

Kauffman wrote that passage during the Bush II presidency and the Iraq War, but I don’t think anything that’s happened in the past few years would lead him to rewrite it. As the essays gathered in Look Homeward, America demonstrate, Kauffman remains firmly in favor of “little America” and against the militarized American Empire, Big Government, and utopian planners and their utopian plans. At one point, Kauffman quotes Richard Nixon about how America must remain involved in the “great enterprise” of “defending and promoting peace and freedom around the world”; to which Kauffman responds,

My daughter’s lemonade stand is a great enterprise; the cabinetmaker’s shop is a great enterprise; the town historical society’s new museum is a great enterprise…

I’ll take Kauffman’s humble vision over Nixon’s imperial overreach any time.

Kauffman is not always on the mark; he overstates both the virtues of his heroes (with the notable exceptions of Dorothy Day and Wendell Berry, whose virtues cannot be overstated) and the vices of his villains (is it really necessary to call Lyndon Johnson “homicidal” and to refer to Abraham Lincoln’s “bellicosity”?). Still, what other writer will you find singing the praises of Millard Fillmore and Clement Vallandigham or of Easy Rider and the Black Panthers? Plus, Kauffman provides some excellent musical accompaniment, tossing in quotes from and references to Bob Dylan and John Fogerty, among others; if Kauffman’s work ever made it to the screen[1] the soundtrack would be all roots music and Americana, bluegrass and classic country, with some Delta blues and zydeco tossed in for good measure.

Politically, Kaufmann is impossible to categorize: labels like “paleo-conservative” or “left conservative” raise more questions than they answer. Kauffman takes his stand with community-supported agriculture and armed militias, favors secession and “American Regionalism,” hates FDR, the Kennedys, and the Bush-Cheney administration, likes Gene McCarthy and Barry Goldwater (but would have voted for Dr. Spock in 1968), and says (echoing Paul Goodman) that “It is only the anarchists who are really conservative.” His dream of liberty is to reject “the war machine, the welfare state [and] the bureaucratic prison” in favor of “locally based community” and small-town idylls that mostly don’t exist and never did. He thinks the Civil War was a mistake (“No cause is worth 600,000 deaths”) and Abraham Lincoln a despot.[2]He claims to have voted, at various times, for Jesse Jackson, Al Sharpton, Pat Buchanan and Ron Paul: the common denominator seeming to be, none of them had a chance of winning.

Given the author’s gleeful contrarianism, it’s likely that no reader will get through Look Homeward, America without moments of exasperation (I had particular trouble with the chapter on Carolyn Chute). But it’s also likely that a reader will find much to embrace, whether it’s the saintliness of Dorothy Day, the probity of Wendell Berry, or the eccentricities of Kauffman’s local heroes. How can you not like a man who despises Henry Kissinger and Dick Cheney, and who reads to his young daughter, each summer solstice, from Ray Bradbury’s “Dandelion Wine”? And how can you not admire a book that includes this concluding passage from Kauffman’s description of an old-fashioned, small-town Christmas Eve celebration?

The barn goes dark, lit only by a single candle. We sing ‘Silent Night’ in the darkness. Sleep in heavenly peace. We leave the barn in a fellowship that is at once deeply particularistic, bound by place, yet also as universal as Christ’s love. They’ll know we are Christians, as the hymn goes.

Heavenly peace. The Little Way. The Way of Love. What do you say?

I say, read Look Homeward, America. Get angry, get sad, get hopeful, get thoughtful–and then do something about it.

Books mentioned in this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.

Notes:

1. It’s not impossible; if they can make a movie out of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, then why not Kauffman’s work?

2. I agree with him on the first and disagree with him on the second.

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5 replies to this post
  1. This sounds like a good book, and the outline of Kaufmam’s America that you trace sounds like the one I grew up in. The problem is that the other America seems numerically superior at the polls and in the primaries of both major parties.

    I also think it’s unnecessary to disparage FDR, Johnson, Lincoln etc, but I understand that the recent decline of the country’s fortunes make people prone to emotion – I’m no exception – and we sometimes lash out helplessly at “forces” and “the powerful” rather than just finally doing something as a nation to just solve the damned problem.

  2. Great book, and a supremely talented wordsmith.
    Billl’s a regular guy, who should have his own TV show.
    My only critique of this sagacious gentleman is his failure, at least to date, to include a rich analysis of the transcendent in his portrait of man and his condition.

  3. Jack, It’s a good review, thank you. Bill Kauffman is an American original, but in saying that I don’t mean to relegate him to some obscure corner called “originals.” His patriotism is first about western New York, filled in eventually by men and women he finds who have similar loyalties. If you are of the variety of nationalists (not patriots) who reflexively say that “This is the greatest country on earth,” Bill will probably irritate you more than comfort you. As for me, I’m proud to have a copy of this book autographed by him that says, “fellow upstater–Phelps forever!”

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