BURNED-OVER DISTRICT, NY. Via the University Bookman, herewith my introduction to its recent special issue on Regionalism, which featured contributions from Frank Bryan, Kate Dalton, Jeff Cain, Jeremy Beer, Jesse Walker, Sockless Caleb Stegall, Steve Lewandowski, Ragtime Dan McCarthy, Jason Peters, and editor Gerald Russello.

“Locality gives art,” said Robert Frost, though that locality can be as loosely defined as “north of Boston” or as specific as “Boardwalk, Asbury Park, New Jersey.” Even writers treating universal themes must begin with the particular, else they lose themselves in the limbo of generality. But what becomes of art when local idioms and neighborhood wisdom are supplanted by the rootless and artificial “culture” beamed-often, alas, welcomed-into our homes by the entertainment industry? “We look to Los Angeles for the language we use / London is dead / London is dead,” as Morrissey sang some years ago. That’s, like, real bad.

Los Angeles has not ripped out all our tongues yet, and in fact the resurgence of regional writing and art across America is among the many hopeful signs piercing the darkness of the early twenty-first century. Certainly the distinguished contributors to this special issue on regionalism in America speak in languages unabsorbed by the Fox-Disney patois.

Ignore the suffix. Regionalism is not an ism, or an ideology. It has always been a feature of American writing, for “America” is not so much a single unit as it is the magnificent welter of hundreds, nay thousands, of smaller places, from Sinclair Lewis’s Sauk Centre to Elmer Kelton’s West Texas. The two great flowerings of regional literature were in the 1880s (the so-called “local color” school of Jewett, Freeman, Eggleston, Garland, et al.) and the 1930s, when a regionalist movement in art (Grant Wood, John Steuart Curry, Thomas Hart Benton) also flourished, and some sainted souls even attempted to fashion a regionalist economics.

Regionalist economics: You mean Oklahoma minting its own currency? Not quite-though wouldn’t it be nice? For a taste, sample Who Owns America? (1936), the programmatic sequel to the Twelve Southerners’ agrarian manifesto I’ll Take My Stand (1930), as well as the works of such American distributists as Dorothy Day, Peter Maurin, Allen Tate, and Herbert Agar. The flavor was rural Catholic and Jeffersonian Protestant, which is to say in favor of the widespread distribution of property, the preservation of small farms and encouragement of homecrafts and gardens, and the decentralization of political power. The thirties were a fantastically fertile era in the provinces, producing everything from the Iowa poetry explosion (see E. Bradford Burns’s fascinating 1996 study Kinship with the Land: Regionalist Thought in Iowa, 1894-1942) to such historical fiction as Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind (1936)-read it before you sneer-and the Upstate New York novels of the underrated Walter D. Edmonds. Prophets and holy fools evangelized for regional values not only in literature and politics but in art (Thomas Craven), classical music (Virgil Thomson), and architecture (Frank Lloyd Wright).

It died at Pearl Harbor. War kills places as well as people. But maybe everything that dies someday comes back, which is why this issue of the University Bookman is not a requiem but a revival.

Regionalism is the expression in artistic form of the particular character of a place. Though based in love and often evincing an intense (if sometimes despairing) sympathy for a locality and its people, regionalist works can be sardonic (Grant Wood’s American Gothic), wistful (Ray Bradbury’s Dandelion Wine, 1957), or witheringly satiric (Sinclair Lewis’s Babbitt, 1922).

Regionalism need not be rural-witness Gerald Russello’s Brooklyn, city of homes and churches; oh, to go back and undo the Mistake of 1898 by which Brooklynites, by the narrowest of margins, abandoned cityhood and threw in with Greater New York!-and it should never rely on the cliches found in Ford Truck commercials or political speeches. It is not studied quaintness. It is not an anthropological examination of country people by a degreed interloper-though seeing through the eyes of the visitor to a settled community is a worthy narrative convention in regional fiction, as for instance in Sarah Orne Jewett’s classic Country of the Pointed Firs (1896). We have often mistreated our places, as Steve Lewandowski explains in his review of Ginger Strand’s book on the mauling of Niagara Falls. Regionalists do not deny or sugarcoat the ugly facts. They are acutely sensitive to the natural world, as Jeff Cain notes of the literature of the Pacific Northwest. Can regional cultures emerge from a wasteland of Targets and Applebees? Don’t bet your Starbucks gift card on it.

Regionalists disdain the bland homogeneity of the national culture and celebrate genuine diversity (a fine word that has been hijacked by enforcers of monoculture). They are neither crabbed nor balefully suspicious; see Jesse Walker’s essay on the fusion of country, soul, and funk in the music of Bobby Womack and others. Good regional art is not earnest or patronizing or didactic; it can be as exuberant as the Beach Boys (yes, yes, I know: Brian Wilson was no bundle of fun, fun, fun).

Regionalism never developed in the film industry, largely because producers, writers, actors, and directors were centralized in southern California. A novelist could live in Milledgeville, Georgia, or South Berwick, Maine; a film director-or screenwriter, for you detesters of auteur theory-almost had to live in Los Angeles and its environs. (Which is, perhaps, why the best films with a regional flavor are often set in Southern California-e.g., Chinatown.) This is not as true today. Film production is dispersed, at least a bit. We await the golden cinematic age of Tulsa and Spokane and Pittsburgh, though George Romero’s zombies got the jump on that last one.

Caleb Stegall, who, God and voters willing, will be the next county attorney of Jefferson County, Kansas, contrasts Frank Baum’s populist vision of Kansas in his Oz novels with Hollywood’s depiction of a colorless tornado-denuded landscape from which a plucky girl can escape merely by closing her eyes and making a wish. With apologies to Buffalo’s Harold Arlen, the gold that matters is found under the rainbow, not over it.

In Vermont, the political expression of regionalism is the town meeting, or what onetime Green Mountain State resident Alexander Solzhenitsyn, in Rebuilding Russia (1991), called the “democracy of small areas.” Frank Bryan describes his Vermont, and that of subject Ralph Nading Hill, as a blend of contrariety and neighborliness, held together by the bond of propinquity, or nearness.

While salvation is not to be found in politics, the best political men usually have the stamp of locality, as did Senator Jim Reed of Missouri, a favorite of both H.L. Mencken and Joplin’s own Ragtime Dan McCarthy. John Voelker, aka Robert Traver, whom Michigan’s graying basketball court wunderkind Jason Peters profiles, was a justice of the Michigan Supreme Court when he was not writing novels and odes to trout-fishing in (his) America.

Ellen Chesser, heroine of Elizabeth Madox Roberts’s extraordinary novel The Time of Man (1926), about which Kate Dalton writes, found wonder in the everyday, but to the impoverished of imagination a life away from lights! camera! action! is too dreary to contemplate. One Midwestern expat, actor Ronald Reagan, later spoke disdainfully of “those sleepy old towns where generation after generation lived. And then the kids in the Midwest left; there was nothing in those towns-Lord, that’s why I left! And they wanted to see the world, so they went to the cities.”

Contrast Reagan with Booth Tarkington, subject of Jeremy Beer’s essay and author of the masterpiece The Magnificent Ambersons (1918), which is today known primarily as the source of Orson Welles’s studio-mutilated film. Says a character in Tark the non-Shark’s novel The Gentleman from Indiana (1899): “I was born in Indiana, and, in a way, the thought of coming back to a life-work in my native State appealed to me. I always had a dim sort of feeling that the people out in these parts knew more-had more sense and were less artificial, I mean-and were kinder, and tried less to be somebody else, than almost any other people anywhere. And I believe it’s so.”

Booth chose Indiana; Ronnie chose Hollywood and Washington. Which man would a healthy conservative movement revere? Which man does the contemporary conservative movement revere? Funny world, isn’t it?

Let’s sing chants democratic-in a minor key. The vagabond poet Vachel Lindsay, who at the end of all his wanderings came home to the state Reagan couldn’t wait to leave, wrote in “The Illinois Village”:

O you who lose the art of hope,
Whose temples seem to shrine a lie,
Whose sidewalks are but stones of fear,
Who weep that Liberty must die,
Turn to the little prairie towns,
Your higher hope shall yet begin….

No matter what corner or hamlet or city block you live on or in, it has probably been painted or poetized by men and women who make art of the dirt beneath their feet. If it hasn’t, well, then go to it.

Read the authors of your place. Listen to its musicians, engage its artists. Teach your children. Delphos, Ohio; Ogden, Utah; Utica, New York; Nacogdoches, Texas: sing it, write it, paint it your way.

Local Culture
Local Culture
Local Culture
Local Culture
Previous articleGrowth or Virtue?
Next articleDouthat to the Times
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.


  1. Growing up, I breathed in Farley Mowat and Sterling North. Now that I’m older, I ponder One Man’s Meat (EB White) and the Sand County Almanac (pretty much every county in Wisconsin). I guess I’m just set in my ways.

  2. Excellent piece. I am so pleased to see a reference to Elmer Kelton of San Angelo, in West Texas. Elmer is the real deal … a western novelist … but no pulper. He has captured the REAL West Texas cowboy culture – the geography, the ethic, the lingo, the style. He is a fine writer. Those interested should check out the book “The Good Old Boys” or the movie of the same name starring Tommy Lee Jones and Sissy Spacek. The movie is true to the book, depicting the angst and heartache of the early 1900’s transition from rural cowboying and farming to the technoligical age. Elmer is a treasure and the story is a fine one.

  3. I’m very grateful for this thoughtful entry, but would suggest, as a visual ornament, the observation of the distinction between a hyphen (-) and a dash (–).

  4. Very impressive article. It is like an artwork in the form of writing. Lots of thoughts to ponder. It points on every aspect of what we call art. Nice.

  5. Wonderful piece. It reveals the author’s passion for writing as he always quote the original writer of the of the sentences relevant to the topic. You are such a great writer.

Comments are closed.