BURNED-OVER DISTRICT, NY—Our daughter will be spending the snowy months rehearsing her role as Marian the Librarian in her high school’s production of Meredith Willson’s “The Music Man,” that tuneful Iowa-placed warhorse—no, parade horse—of community theater. (The flaw in community theater is that while the actors are drawn from the community, the playwrights seldom are.)

It’s been an autumn of imposture, as my wife played the lead in a sharply observed one-act, “Blind Date,” by the late great Horton Foote of Wharton, Texas, whom a friend calls “the last straight man in American theater,” by which she does not mean that he set up punch-lines for comics. The Internet, I learned, is not wholly useless: Lucine created her accent by watching Lady Bird Johnson clips on YouTube. You remember Lady Bird: the cuckquean who had the gall to scold Americans about the ugliness of highway billboards while her grotesque husband was ordering the murder of hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese and Americans in Southeast Asia. There are degrees of ugliness, Bird.

In 1966, LBJ appointed Meredith Willson to the National Council on the Humanities, but hey, everybody’s imperfect. And that was the last time Mason City, Iowa, would ever have a voice in government-subsidized culture. Although Meredith had long since lit out for Southern California, the notes in his head were always Iowan. He was said to have been the largest baby (14 pounds, 6 ounces) born in Iowa, which perhaps justified that superfluous L in his surname.  Meredith Willson’s father, an attorney, had played baseball at Notre Dame, where he was taught to throw a curveball by the inventor of that pitch, Candy Cummings. Meredith’s sister, Dixie, a literate Ziegfeld Follies chorine and silent-movie screenwriter, wrote the oft-anthologized poem that begins “I like the fall/The mist and all.”

So the Willsons were one of those families of talented eccentrics, some grounded and some not, who grow like beautiful weeds whenever small-town America is left alone to develop in its own way, in its own time.

Mason City also gave us Hanford MacNider, national commander of the American Legion in the 1920s and a believer in “Iowa as the Promised Land.” The Legion once was a potent lobbyist for loot, though veterans’ benefits were meager recompense to those who came home legless or armless or blind or insane from the single-L Wilson’s War to End All Wars. MacNider, a banker, introduced the most un-Mr. Potterish “Iowa idea,” which required each Legion post to “make some unselfish contribution to its community’s welfare each year or lose its charter.” I’d say 90 years of sponsoring American Legion baseball teams is a pretty fair contribution.

Peace has long been an Iowa idea as well. Hanford MacNider was given to such craven and anti-American utterances as “I am … unwilling to commit my sons or any American’s sons to the policing of the rest of the world.” Traitor! MacNider played football at Harvard and earned a chestful of medals in both world wars, but he had an Iowa isolationist streak that such He-Men as Lindsey Graham and Rick Santorum would find suspiciously girlish.

Iowa isolationism was also embodied, in rather different bodies, by the New Left historian William Appleman Williams of Atlantic, Iowa, and by Barry Goldwater-Eugene McCarthy supporter Donna Reed of Nishnabotna, Iowa. (I’ll bet Donna could have thrown a mean curveball, too; watch her fling that rock through the upper window of the old Granville house in “It’s a Wonderful Life.”)

I devoted a chapter to Iowa’s prewar culture—Grant Wood, Jay Sigmund, Ruth Suckow, Marvin Cone—in my book Look Homeward, America. Its artistically fecund soil was so much richer than barren Manhattan. And it produced worthy political leaders, too, from the cantankerous Old Right skinflint H.R. Gross to the radical farm crusader Milo Reno.

Meredith Willson seems to have been fairly apolitical, though he did, mind-bogglingly, compose a march commissioned by President Ford for that phlegmatic Michigander’s Whip Inflation Now (WIN) campaign. That combination is so far beyond unhip as to propel the WIN March into its own dimension of occult stodginess. Maybe the University of Michigan marching band can thump it out next time the Wolverines play the Iowa Hawkeyes?

I hear tell that there are caucuses, if not crocuses, coming up in Iowa. As far as I know, only two men in the mix—Ron Paul and Gary Johnson—come anywhere near the Iowa Idea. Not that politics is the answer. If the Mason Cities of our country are ever to reflower, they need peace and poetry and music—the mist and all.

(This appeared in the January 2012 issue of The American Conservative www.theamericanconservative.com, to which you really should subscribe.)

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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.

3 COMMENTS

  1. I really hope Ron Paul wins the Iowa caucuses. Not because he’d therefore have a prayer of winning the Republican nomination–he won’t–and not because I actually want him to be a viable candidate–the prospect of Ron Paul as president (and I think any GOP candidate has a decent chance of defeating Obama in November) is frankly terrifying to me–but because the longer he kicks around, the longer the GOP has to deal with Paul’s libertarian challenge, and the longer libertarians themselves will be obliged to think about cleaning their own house…both of which would be very good things.

  2. ” . . . and by Barry Goldwater-Eugene McCarthy supporter Donna Reed of Nishnabotna, Iowa.”

    Um, Goldwater? The same Goldwater that was willing to go nuclear in Vietnam?

  3. And as long as we’re on the topic of my beloved neighbor state to the south (Old Yoke: Vat vould happen if I-o-vay annexed suddern Minnesota? Da I-Q of bot’ states vould RISE!), don’t forget Phil Stong, author of State Fair, which John Ford made into a starring vehicle for Will Rogers and Rodgers and Hammerstein later turned into their one-and-only film musical; Herbert Hoover, who, whatever else you may feel moved to say about him, was probably the most pacifist U.S. president and the most personally generous man who ever ran for that presidency; Mackinlay Kantor, author of not one, not two, but three considerable Civil War novels; and Templeton rye, the definitely unbonded whiskey so justifiably famed among discriminating bibbers that for the last few years someone’s been putting out a legal, bonded rye in a blatant attempt to profit on the creativity of valiant Iowans who shall necessarily and gloriously remain nameless (it’s not bad, certainly better than many a year’s output of the real thing, BUT not as good as a some years’ I’ve tasted–nosir!)

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