Archive for June 5th, 2006

Looking Homeward

I suppose one could find something to quibble about in Bill Kauffman’s new book Look Homeward, America: In Search of Reactionary Radicals and Front Porch Anarchists. First, there is his self description: "…I am an anarchist", on the first page of the Introduction. But when he adds "Not a sallow garrett-rat translating Proudhan by pirated kilowatt, nor a militiaman catechized by the Classic Comics version of The Turner Diaries; rather, I am the love child of Henry Thoreau and Dorothy Day, conceived amidst the asters and goldenrods of an Upstate New York autumn",  well, you know this is, an anarchist with his (big) heart in the right place. Especially when his next line is "…I am also a reactionary radical, which is to say I believe in peace and justice but I do not believe in smart bombs, daycare centers, Wal-Mart, television, or Melissa Etheridge’s test-tube baby."

I am not an anarchist, but anyone who can sum up his beliefs like that is all right in my book.
Besides, anarchist or not, Mr. Kauffman is no ideologue. His book contains paeans to anarchists, certainly (Mother Jones, Thoreau, Dorothy Day, Paul Goodman), but also to Catholic liberals (Eugene McCarthy, Daniel Patrick Moynihan), socialists (Eugene Debs, Norman Thomas), regionalist artists (Grant Wood, John Steuart Curry), antiwar farmer-poets (Wendell Berry), disaffected Republican operatives (Karl Hess) and many even more unclassifiable thinkers, dreamers, and hell-raisers. Kauffman finds his affinities in humanity, not ideology, in those who love land, home, locality and real souls with real faces more than abstractions.

Bill Kauffman’s Look Homeward, America will no doubt be categorized with Rod Dreher’s Crunchy Cons, as both books tweak conventional conservatism.

Or rather, Dreher tweaks.

Kauffman flails.

Then eviscerates.


Actually, the two books are as dissimilar as can be. Though, as I have said, there is more good than bad in Crunchy Cons, and the book is quite possibly a landmark on the road to an emerging new populism, my annoyance and frustration with the thing began with the title and subtitle and continued throughout. It is the work of someone who has taken the first steps on a journey to he knows not where, and whose recent past was spent working for The National Review (a journal for which Mr. Kauffman shows only witty contempt).

This voyage-of-adventure narrative could perhaps have been a delightful tale of discovery were Mr. Dreher a gifted writer, but his prose is pedestrian at best. Or to switch metaphors, Dreher’s book is a thin gruel, while Kauffman’s is a thick, spicy Upstate gumbo. (I know, wrong cuisine, but I cannot resist the image).

Bill Kauffman, in contrast to Mr. Dreher, knows his place and his destination: Batavia, New York, where his roots are deep. The eclectic outlook he expresses so well is one well honed over the decades. This is the New Populism fully evolved.

And did I mention he is one fine writer?

There is scarcely a page without a startling phrase, an "aha!" moment, or a good laugh (or, I am embarrassed to report, an unfamiliar word. While I could not bring myself to put the book down to look them up, I am going to reread it with the Oxford Universal Dictionary at my side).

But a warning: as Mr. Dreher noted (with disapproval) in his review in The American Conservative, Mr. Kauffman does not exactly write in syllogisms: he pursues every tangent and meanders lingeringly around his subject. Like a mountain road, his writing is not the most direct line between point A and point B, but like the mountain road the scenery along the way is magnificent.

And he is a world-class smart ass.

Just one example, as precise a skewering of the Catholic neocons as I have seen: "The soft young men in three piece suits who write their little pamphlets proving that whatever slaughter our government is currently engaged in is a ‘just war’ should be laughed back to the seminaries they quit. ‘Thou shalt not kill’ means us, too".


As Chesterton said, an ounce of sarcasm is worth a pound of argument.

But far beyond the stinging zingers, this is a book of uncommon wisdom, delighting in what is best in the sometimes eccentric American tradition. I can honestly say that this book has inspired me more than any in recent memory, breathing new life and fire from these ashen Caelum et Terra-type coals, long dormant within me, grown still from disuse and distraction.

I don’t know what will come of Bill Kauffman’s book; probalby not much. If noticed by the bigshots it will be with a sneer. But for all us littleshots, the meandering creeks and dancing rivulets far from the Main Stream, all the hick philosophers, holy fools, hippie monks and American outsiders, this book is to be received with gratitude, a gift if not from On High, at least from Batavia, New York, which if I am not mistaken is not far from Bedford Falls.

Daniel Nichols

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