As you know, I recently read Bill Kauffman’s new book, Look Homeward,
America. It is one of those rare books that affected me deeply, like
reading Wendall Berry’s The Unsettling of America in 1979, or Neil
Postman’s Technopoly in 1993. All these books expressed clearly things
I had only intuited, or clarified vague or hazy thoughts, like distilling strong
whisky from weak beer.
Not that Look Homeward offers any startling or new ideas for one
familiar with Caelum et Terra. Rather, the way a jam band can reveal
the possibilities of a familiar tune, Mr. Kauffman approaches old truths- the
love of smallnes of scale, sustainability, Kirk’s "permanent things"- in a
fresh, specifically American, way.
While CT occasionaly gave a nod to the American, Jeffersonian
tradition, our emphasis was more on the European roots of Distributism. Bill
Kauffman turns this around, focusing on the same instinct running through
diverse American threads, while acknowledging European distributists. In doing
so he reminded this disaffected American of the many healthy things in the
American tradition, things I had nearly forgotten in my disgust for the
direction the nation has been heading in for too long. Looking homeward, the
book revived the "love" part of my old love/hate relationship with America.
Central to Mr. Kauffman’s thesis is the value of place, the love of one’s
own home- not to be confused with "the homeland", a term Kauffman despises as
foreign-sounding, with Nazi and Soviet overtones.
His own roots run deep in western New York’s Genesee County, and he holds
that despite the great American pioneer myth, "the real honor resides with those
who stay put." Indeed he says that "the careless have always been the first to
pick up and move".
Much as I may envy Kauffman’s sense of place, my own people- English, Irish
Protestants, Scots- were always on the move, rarely staying in one place for
more than a generation, sometimes uprooting themselves more than once in a
I lived in four places growing up; the last, fortunately, was from the age
of nine through adolescence, so I at least had a taste of stability in a small
town in southern Michigan’s Genesee County- yes, named by the "careless" for
the county in New York from whence they had come.
It was a place surrounded by orchards and cowfields and cornfields, a place
which is no more, devoured by suburbia, the 19th century downtown long razed by
an urban renewal scam, the orchards all gone.
And I have lived in half a dozen states as an adult.
"Careless", however, is not a word I’d use to describe my folk.
Hardworking, honest, Bible-reading if not always churchgoing, with a strong
ethic of honor, they were anything but careless, let alone shiftless, but they
were certainly restless. While they did stay in Michigan for around 150 years,
they moved from one end of the state to the other, and sometimes back again.
Moving from the northeast farmlands to a southern factory town, as my father
did, or from staid Ypsilanti to the spruce and birch forests of the northern tip
of the lower peninsula, as my mother’s maternal grandfather did, is to move from
one land to another, even if both places are in the same state.
Hey, Batavia and Brooklyn are both in New York.
So I don’t have a place, I have places. And I honestly have loved all the
places I have lived and savored their peculiarities.
I know that sentence sounds careless, if not shiftless, but it is
I love the small declining steel town of Massillon, Ohio, in which I live,
and the very different small agricultural/college town of Wooster, in which I
work. And I love the surrounding countryside, with its rolling farmland and
large Amish and Mennonite communities. I pass five Mennonite churches in a
twelve mile stretch of my drive to work; how many regions of the country could
make that distinctive claim?
I love the little town where I spent childhood and adolescence, with its
almost homogenous population of English descendents, offspring of New England’s
westward settlement. Or what’s left of it: if you stroll the old Victorian
neighborhoods you can still get the feel of it.
I love the far North, the Nordic feel of the low undulating spruce and
birch-covered hills where my mother was a girl, where the air is clear and the
water is crystalline, fast moving in the streams, still and clear in the lakes,
so different from the slow brown creeks and grey-green lakes of Genesee County,
I love the woods and farms of the low sand hills of Ogemaw County, where my
dad was raised, and the fertile flatlands across the Saginaw Bay in Sanilac
County, from whence his great grandfather had come, in the "thumb" of Michigan’s
And that place was settled by the restless Celt who had left Ulster in
1811, William John Nichol [the "s", which gives the surname an English look, was
added -we know not why- by his son Samuel who moved across the Bay].
And William John’s family had probably only been in Ireland a couple of
generations after leaving Scotland, the Isle of Skye in undocumented family lore
[there is a Nicolson clan on Skye, traditionally bards and divines,
which sounds about right].
I hope this old Calvinist was one of the elect, as I hope I am, for I’d
sure like to meet him in Eternity. He outlived two of his three wives, fathering
22 children, the last when he was 70, and who he lived to see full grown [he
died at 87].
And note that he didn’t end up in Michigan until after he had spent a
couple of decades in Ontario.
With such a heritage I can never have the sense of belonging that Bill
Kauffman has, that many of you have. Probably my uncles’, my brother’s and my
interest in geneology springs from this essential rootlessness: we may not have
a place, but we do have a People.
So I am acutely aware of being in, but not of, Massillon, as I have been
aware of being in but not of every place I have lived. My people were wanderers,
even on my mother’s puritan side, literal Pilgrims, some of them.
My paternal grandmother gave it away as she neared her end. She told me "They say there’s mansions in Heaven, but I don’t care about that. Just let me pitch my little tent just inside the gate". She wasn’t contemplating a permanent dwelling, even in Heaven.
I am part of the other American tradition, more Huck lighting out for the
Territories than Tom staying home in Hannibal. Much as I may envy the settled, I
cannot change my ancestry. My youthful wanderlust was no doubt inevitable.
But I must look on the bright side: this earth, after all, is not
ultimately our home. Perhaps my family’s lack of attachment is a good training
And what is more quintessentially American than the old folk hymn
Wayfaring Stranger? :
I am a poor wayfaring stranger
Travelling through this world of woe.
There is no sickness toil or danger
In that bright Land to which I go.
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