Mobility is the great undiagnosed sickness afflicting America. All of our ruling class and most of our writing class consist of deracinated careerists who scorn the placebound as ambitionless losers and sticks in the mud wholly unsuited for world conquest and national greatness. Those of the uprooted who miss home are said to be silly sentimentalists. Suck it up, rube: attachment to home stunts personal (and economic!) growth.

I’m grateful to Gerald Russello, editor of the valuable University Bookman, for pointing me toward Susan J. Matt’s Homesickness: An American History, just out from Oxford University Press. Herewith a taste from Matt’s introduction: “In the twentieth century, the imperative to move became greater, the need to accept dislocations more pressing. From expanding corporations, government agencies, and the military, Americans heard they should subordinate themselves to the large institutions of modern society and move cheerfully when asked. Child-rearing experts suggested that parents prepare their offspring for these inevitable partings by sending them away from home so that they might master their homesickness early in life. Psychologists, corporate leaders, and government officials hoped that ultimately individuals would learn to transfer their loyalties from mother, home, and hometown, to their employers and the government, and would be transformed from mama’s boys into organization men. Impatience with those reluctant to leave home grew over the course of the twentieth century, and the perception that homesickness was a sign of immaturity solidified. Americans learned a code of behavior and emotion
management that taught them to repress all signs of homesickness in public life in order to appear modern and mature.”

Soldiers, conscripts, African American slaves sold away from their families, American Indians incarcerated in government boarding schools, wives of IBM ladder-climbers, the displaced victims of urban renewal,  homesick pioneers and immigrants and country boys adrift in the city….much of this makes for heartbreaking reading. But if we are ever to get back home, we need to understand how we came to lose our way. This is a superb book on a subject at the core—the heart—of the Front Porch Republic enterprise. Bravo, Susan J. Matt.

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Bill Kauffman
Bill Kauffman was born on November 15 (also the birthday of Bobby Dandridge) in the otherwise forgettable year of 1959. He was an all-star Little League shortstop for the Lions Club Cubs but soon thereafter his talents eroded. After an idyllic childhood in his ancestral home of Batavia, New York, birthplace of Anti-Masonry, he was graduated from Batavia High School in 1977. He earned, more or less, a B.A. from the University of Rochester in 1981 and went therefrom to the staff of Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, the only dairy farmer in the U.S. Senate. Two and a half years later he left Moynihan’s staff a bohemian Main Street anarchist who loved the Beats, the New England transcendentalists, early 20th century local colorists (Sarah Orne Jewett his Maine gal), cowpunk music, and the crazy old America. Neil Diamond and Karen Carpenter, too, but don’t tell anyone. He bummed around out west for a while, sleeping in bus stations and writing derivative poetry in Salt Lake City flophouses (nah, he’s not a Mormon, just a BYU fan) before an ill-starred year in graduate school at the UR. He took a seminar with Christopher Lasch and thought on it. In the spring of 1985 he flew west to become an assistant editor with Reason magazine. He had great fun in Santa Barbara with that crew of congenial editors drinking far into the night at Eddie Van Cleeve’s Sportsman’s Lounge, but in ’86 he flew east to become the magazine’s Washington editor. Always homesick, Kauffman persuaded his lovely and talented wife Lucine, a Los Angelena, to move back to Batavia in 1988 in what he called a “one-year experiment”—the year to be measured, apparently, in Old Testament terms. They’re still there—or, more accurately, five miles north in Elba (apt name for an exile!), where Lucine is Town Supervisor. She may well be the highest-ranking Armenian-American elected official in the country, at least until the voters of California send Cher to the U.S. Senate. Take that, Turks! Lucine and Bill have a daughter, Gretel, 17, who writes and acts and plays piano and French horn. Their lab mutt, Victoria, whose tail graces the accompanying photo, is now departed, to their sorrow, but a cat, Duffy, darts in and out of the house when the mood strikes. Bill is the author of nine books: Every Man a King (Soho Press/1989), a novel, which was recently rescued from the remainder bin by a New York Sun article proclaiming it the best political satire of the last century (the Sun thereupon set); Country Towns of New York (McGraw-Hill/1994), a travel book about God’s country; America First! Its History, Culture and Politics (Prometheus/1995), a cultural history of isolationism which Benjamin Schwarz in the Atlantic called the best introduction to the American anti-imperialist tradition; With Good Intentions? Reflections on the Myth of Progress in America (Praeger/1998), his worst-seller, a sympathetic account of critics of highways, school consolidation, a standing army, and the Siren Progress; Dispatches from the Muckdog Gazette: A Mostly Affectionate Account of a Small Town’s Fight to Survive (Henry Holt/2003; Picador ppb. 2004), a memoirish book about his hometown which won the 2003 national “Sense of Place” award from Writers & Books; Look Homeward, America: In Search of Reactionary Radicals and Front-Porch Anarchists (ISI/2006), which the American Library Association named one of the best books of 2006 and which won the Andrew Eiseman Writers Award; Ain’t My America: The Long Noble History of Antiwar Conservatism and Middle American Anti-Imperialism (Henry Holt/ Metropolitan/2008), which Barnes & Noble named one of the best books of 2008; Forgotten Founder: Drunken Prophet: The Life of Luther Martin (ISI/2008), a biography of a brilliant dipsomaniacal Anti-Federalist who warned us this was gonna happen; and Bye Bye, Miss American Empire (Chelsea Green/2010), a cheerful account of dissolution. Bill is a regular contributor to the Wall Street Journal and a columnist for The American Conservative. He has written for numerous publications, including The American Scholar, the Los Angeles Times Book Review, The Nation, Chronicles, the Independent and The Spectator of London, Counterpunch, Orion, University Bookman, and Utne Reader. He is vice president of the Genesee County Baseball Club, which owns the Batavia Muckdogs of the New York-Penn Baseball League. Come summertime, he can be found in the 3rd base bleachers at Dwyer Stadium. He is also active in the officerless (of course) John Gardner Society. Bill is more handsome than the photo on this site would suggest. See books written by Bill Kauffman.

11 COMMENTS

  1. This one hits close to home. As a doctoral student in an academic field with few open tenure track positions, I will likely not find employment unless my wife and I are willing to relocate.

  2. Thanks for the kind review!

    I thought about putting a reference to Lasch’s Revolt of the Elites in the closing chapters, but ran out of room.

    Reading of your return to Batavia, seeing the clip of Porchfest in Ithaca, and contemplating my own return visit there this summer (which felt like such a homecoming), I wonder whether upstate New York offers a greater sense of place than many other regions. Maybe it is because small towns still exist and flourish there.

  3. There is an element of homesickness not so often noted. I live in the small (very small) state I was born in and I am happy with that. I do not live in the neighborhood (parish, rather) I grew up in because culturally and largely physically it has ceased to exist. I remember reading some wag somewhere observing “There’s no emotional trauma about going home again. Go ahead: It’s a parking lot.”

  4. Tough new immigration law being considered by congress: Everyone must leave in the order in which they came; will the last Indian across the land-bridge please turn off the statue?

  5. I think that’s true, Professor Matt. Upstate’s towns and small cities often have a ghost-haunted quality to them—they’ve yet to disappear into the Great American Nowhere. I suppose this is the silver lining of economic stagnation: stable populations, less transience than in boom areas. Though of course we are bleeding young people, and suffer just like the rest of the country from pervasive corporate/TV culture and the depredations of empire.
    Thanks again for writing such a powerful and important book. It will be read for many years, I’m sure.

  6. As one of those deracinated careerists who is also Brockport native, I can attest to Upstate’s staying power. I’ve lived in Houston now for 12 years, though before that spent 8 years between DC and the Tien Shan. Capitol life epitomized quantum theory with its constant change. Houston is no different. The Bayou City’s urban planning and development is the embodiment of the creative destruction typical of petro-dollar capitalism.

    But whenever I’m back in western Monroe County and drive across that lazy canal, I have the unmistakable sense of being somewhere that has nearly escaped all this…until I head up to 31 and run smack dab into the Walmart, and read stories about a near-dissolute Brockport on the verge of throwing itself on the mercy of that megalopolis Sweden, or fracking-backing Monroe Country voters. Say it ain’t so!

  7. Resist those voracious Swedes: Long Live Brockport!
    Nathan, you oughta return to God’s country in late February as the curtains go up on your dad’s latest high-school musical.

  8. I know. I owe it to him. He was supposedly going to ‘retire’ to only teaching after the last one. But power fills a vacuum and something tells me that the onion mecca is short on homegrown production/directorial talent!

  9. It is restlessness, rather than rootlessness which is the real bugaboo in American Mobility. I for one do not know which might be worse: Hating where you are or hating where you might not be because it looks better.

    Modern Commercial Culture, broadcast live via satellite , for all its excitements and allure has sought to mold an encapsulated universe of breezily rendered abundance and it has successfully developed a kind of widely accepted resentment against the more chaste realities of a local existence. It has inculcated a profound and troubling “Us against Them” calculation which always results in a negative. It fills the void with want.

    It is not mobility which is the real problem , it is that the mobile possess no grounding with which to enrich their new surroundings. We are now, innately anti-polis. To be against something is our daily fill, never really coming to grips with what we once might have been really for.

  10. I do want to go home now. Some days the tug is stronger than on others, but it’s always there. I love academia, but this is one downside.

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