Paradise Lost

A populist's nostalgic ode to an America gone by


Look Homeward, America, by Bill Kauffman, Wilmington, Del.: ISI Books, 185 pages, $25

At the turn of the 20th century, one of the most popular writers in America dwelled in a small village in upstate New York. After two decades of wandering about Europe and America, Elbert Hubbard (1856–1915) had settled in East Aurora, 18 miles southeast of Buffalo. Along the way he had built and sold a soap company, making a tidy profit he used to finance his literary ventures.

Hubbard wanted to be a well-known writer. The editors at the leading publishing houses of the day did not encourage that ambition. So Hubbard followed the advice of an ancient local rustic, Uncle Billy Bushnell: "Stay at home and do your work well enough, and the world will come to you."

Hubbard launched a printing plant, manned by youngsters from the village, to turn out his magazine The Philistine, devoted to expressing his political, philosophical, and religious views. He went on to print, bind, and sell his essays. Many of them, written to introduce readers to notables such as Washington, Voltaire, Marcus Aurelius, and Jane Austen, appeared in a 14-volume set titled Little Journeys to the Homes of the Great. His most celebrated essay—still read today, though not often enough—was "A Message to Garcia," the inspiring tale of a resourceful and courageous U.S. Army courier who made his way to the camp of a Cuban rebel leader just before the outbreak of the Spanish-American War. Hubbard became known far and wide as "The Sage of Aurora."

In many respects—not including the creation of a 300-employee publishing house—Bill Kauffman of tiny Elba, New York, has become today's Elbert Hubbard. But unlike Hubbard, whose essays glorified the lives and works of famous people, Kauffman's literary journey seeks out "the America of holy fools and backyard radicals, the America whose eccentric voice is seldom heard anymore…the [voice of] third parties, of Greenbackers and Libertarians and village atheists and the 'conservative Christian anarchist' party whose founder and only member was Henry Adams."

Kauffman's earlier books mined interesting veins of localism and hostility to modernity. America First! celebrated America's forgotten isolationist activists, from Hamlin Garland to Alice Roosevelt, plus other assorted individualists, including Edward Abbey, Gore Vidal, Sinclair Lewis, and this writer, included because he considered me, not altogether inaccurately, the last lonely true-believing Jeffersonian. His Dispatches From the Muckdog Gazette celebrated the lives of the common people of Kauffman's Genesee County, home of the minor league Batavia Muckdogs baseball team.

His newest book, Look Homeward, America, will interest anyone who suspects there might be more to America than is found in the average installment of the network news. It's a series of often sparkling profiles of Americans, both near-famous and obscure—similar to Hubbard's Little Journeys, but selected and viewed through Kauffman's unique prism of localism, authenticity, tradition, and human scale.

Like Hubbard, Kauffman has had a long and interesting journey back to his self-imposed exile in Elba. He began a career of itinerant wordsmithing with two and a half unsatisfying years as a staff member for Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-N.Y.) in the 1980s. (Kauffman relates his disappointment with his old boss in a profile in this book, lamenting the senator's failure to live up to his own best instincts and possibilities.) Kauffman then worked from 1985 to 1988 at Reason, serving part of that time as the magazine's first Washington editor. At Reason he interviewed such eccentric Americans as the Black Panther turned Reaganite Eldridge Cleaver, a pre–Supreme Court Clarence Thomas, and Charlton Heston; he contributed reports on topics ranging from cowpunk to Kerouac, from anti-war capitalists to Delaware's former Republican governor Pete du Pont, who sought his party's presidential nomination in 1988.

In the 1990s Kauffman, who is now 47, returned to his native Genesee County after writing Every Man a King (1989), a novel clearly inspired by his own wanderings. He bought an old house in Elba (32 miles northeast of Hubbard's East Aurora) and began his own one-man literary enterprise. Besides writing books, he contributes articles to a range of publications, from the left-leaning British newspaper The Independent to the libertarian monthly Liberty. For several years he did editorial work for the conservative magazine The American Enterprise.

It's difficult to find a place for Kauffman in today's political taxonomy. He started out as a populist liberal. As that youthful infatuation waned, he became a libertarian, attracted by that creed's unrelenting hostility to the curse of statism. In his own telling, he became increasingly uncomfortable with the Randian side of libertarianism and what he saw as the movement's infatuation with economic calculus to the near-exclusion of humanistic values such as community, charity, faith, and honor. He then slid into the "peace-and-love left wing of paleoconservatism," of which he may well be the only identifiable member.

The more Kauffman read and experienced, the more he developed an affinity for various schools of thought, not all of them mutually consistent: Jeffersonian agrarian distributist, Catholic Worker pacifist, traditional Old Right conservative, transcendentalist, decentralist, anarchist. His anarchism, he stresses, is not that of "a sallow garret-rat translating Proudhon by pirated kilowatt, nor a militiaman catechized by the Classic Comics version of The Turner Diaries." Rather, he writes, "I am the love child of Henry Thoreau and Dorothy Day, conceived among the asters and goldenrod of an Upstate New York autumn." Thoreau doesn't play a major role in Look Homeward, America, but Day, a largely forgotten social activist who died in 1980, is one of its stars.

From this intellectual odyssey Kauffman has accumulated a long list of dislikes, some of them intense. A sampler: wars, empires, television, consolidated schools, homeland security, the metric system, interstate highways, collectivism, day care centers, Wal-Mart, wage labor, gun control, urban renewal, trade agreements, the PATRIOT Act, National Review, Ayn Rand, Henry Kissinger, Nelson Rockefeller, and Hillary Clinton. Among his least-favorite initials are FDR, JFK, LBJ, NYC, IRS, and CNN. What this seemingly diverse list has in common, to Kauffman, is that each entry is destructive of the values he holds dear: the richness, faith, and compassion of a small community, built upon a network of self-reliant but mutually supportive families, rooted in a sense of place, cherishing the memories and traditions of generations past.

The figures who march across the pages of Look Homeward, America include the Iowa regionalist painter Grant Wood (American Gothic), the Ohio copperhead congressman Clement Vallandigham, the socialists Eugene V. Debs and Mother Jones, the contemporary rural Maine novelist and militia maven Carolyn Chute, the former New York congressmen Augustus Frank Jr. and Barber Conable, the late Rep. H.R. Gross (R-Iowa) and current Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas), and the Goldwater speechwriter turned Black Panther and anti-war enthusiast Karl Hess. Kauffman reveres this cast of characters because each, in his own way, said no to war, to empire, to global commerce, to giant enterprise, and to centralized governments gobbling up taxes, distributing benefits, and propagating dependency, all contrary to the spirit of the Old Republic.

That semi-mythic era of the happy, contented rural village—its land-owning swains and lasses farming and blacksmithing and barn raising, quilting and square dancing and parenting, worshiping and burying and remembering, oblivious to the greed, passions, and nation-state criminality washing over the rest of the planet—has, on the whole, receded far beyond recovery. But in thousands of Elbas and Auroras, Kauffman believes, principled localists can still create a facsimile. Or could, if somehow the intrusive forces of bigness, modernity, homogenization, and imperialism could be kept at bay beyond the village limits.

Kauffman leads off his parade of exemplars with Dorothy Day, the guiding spirit of the Catholic Worker movement. An ultra-sincere follower of the Christian gospels, Day ardently believed in a widespread distribution of "true" private property ownership, in which the property is under the personal control of its moral and responsible owner, as the essential ingredient of a just society. To this distributism Day added pacifism and anarchism. Her slogan was "To Christ—To the Land," representing a vision in which community-oriented independent landowners would honor the teachings of the church and build little societies free of exploitation, wage slavery, tenement housing, plutocracy, pride, communism, and for that matter "progress."

If Dorothy Day is Kauffman's heroine, Wendell Berry is his hero. One of America's most distinguished men of letters, Berry lives on his ancestral farm in Port Royal, Kentucky, immersed in its traditions and continuity of generations. As a patriot of his native land—that would be greater Port Royal and probably all or most of Kentucky—Berry brilliantly inveighs against the evils of war and empire.

Berry ascribes those ills to our loss of firm roots in the villages and neighborhoods of America. As Kauffman puts it, "As romantic as prairie schooners and the Hesperian exodus to the fruited plain may be, the real honor resides with those who stayed put. [They were] the real heroes of the settling of America." Of course, if millions of early immigrants had stayed put in Yorkshire, Galway, Ulster, Silesia, Saxony, Tuscany, Lebanon, Wallachia, Oaxaca, Luzon, Shantung, and other such places, today's America would be only a thinly populated Native American battleground, unmarred by Caucasians and casinos.

The book's other chapters celebrate the lives and idiosyncrasies of a wide range of people not often celebrated. The least obscure of this bunch is President Millard Fillmore, of whom very little has ever been approvingly said other than Queen Victoria's observation that he was the handsomest man she had ever met. Kauffman tries hard to make his fellow upstate New Yorker (Fillmore originated in East Aurora, long before Hubbard's time) look good. He was, Kauffman reports, a "fine if not outstanding president," mainly because as a "Peace Whig" he opposed the Mexican War, the proposed annexation of Cuba, and the fire-eaters on both sides who eventually produced the bloody convulsion of the Civil War.

This tribute is persuasive only to those who, like Kauffman, view nay-saying and pacifism as controlling virtues. Fillmore's signing of the Fugitive Slave Act, his preference for deporting slaves to Africa over abolition, and his 1856 presidential candidacy on the secretive anti-immigrant and anti-Catholic Know-Nothing ticket hardly make a glittering legacy. So long as Fillmore pretty much said no to everything, he qualified as a Kauffman notable if not a hero. Once he found something to say yes to—intolerant nativism—he pretty much fell out of the pantheon.

Kauffman's localist-traditionalist ethos would have received the hearty assent of Elbert Hubbard's East Aurora villagers, and their Elba neighbors, in 1900. Well, perhaps in 1825, before railroads, the telegraph, and the electric grid worked their insidious effects.

Two salient facts intrude upon this blissful picture. First, very few of America's 300 million inhabitants have any intention of living like their or anybody's forebears in an upstate New York village with all the blessings of 1900 (let alone 1825) technology. Not even Bill Kauffman, with his fondness for home-squeezed apple cider, sandlot baseball, Christmas caroling, and dandelion wine, is willing to give up his word processor and Internet access, his publisher in far-off Delaware, and (presumably) his access to modern medical and dental care.

Attractive as such a life may seem to many—and I write this in a log house on a northeastern Vermont mountainside—none of us can flee from the second and more menacing fact that in a cave in Pakistan, a coffeehouse in Cairo, a mosque in Riyadh, and a bunker beneath Tehran, well-armed and inventive villains really, really want to kill the peaceful people of Elba, New York, and wherever else we Americans dwell. They want to do so because their reading of their holy book commands them to purify their faith by extirpating the infidels, and in so doing reaffirm their divine right to rule the world. This is not a problem that Kauffman chooses to address.

As one who has long fought against the temptation, I can despondently concede that we Americans of 2006 cannot afford to retreat into a nostalgic tranquility. We are in a global struggle we would rather not have to contest but which now makes American withdrawal from the world a matter of possibly mortal consequence.

Still, facing that challenge need not command all our waking hours. Some of them thus can be enjoyably spent reading Bill Kauffman's lively, literate, and thought-provoking ramble through the woodland paths and flower-strewn dales of the Old Republic, honoring its heroes and heroines, celebrating their commitment to place and community, and inspiring us to think bravely about recovering its best features in a time of soul-crushing bigness, cultural degradation, and mortal challenge from implacable enemies.

Contributing Editor John McClaughry (john@ethanallen.org) has for the last 40 years served as moderator of the town meeting of Kirby, Vermont (pop. 500).