“Would that thou couldst last for aye,

Merry, ever merry May”

–William D. Gallagher

Well, it can’t. But herewith my May column from The American Conservative on a contumacious patriot of Idaho, Vardis Fisher:

I am polybiblious—-not, I hope, polybilious—-in that I often read two books over the same period, alternating as the mood strikes.  Seldom are they counterpoints or complements; they are merely the cheerfully incongruous products of happenstance. During a recent week of travel I paired Vardis Fisher, Idaho’s gift to local color and regional history, with a whole lotta pages (When Giants Walked the Earth) on Led Zeppelin, a headachingly boring band I have never liked, not for a single godforsaken beat. (I did learn that Led Zeppelin’s most interesting, if sinister, member, Aleister Crowley disciple Jimmy Page, votes Tory.)

Yesterday I broke up Willa Cather with a 1952 hockey novel for boys (Scrubs on Skates) written by Scott Young. I’d long wanted to read one of Young’s YA novels. He is the father of Neil “There is a town in North Ontario” Young, provincial Canada’s gift to American music. Scott’s edifying tale is set in Winnipeg and references streets also mentioned in  Randy Bachman’s melancholy anthem of Manitoba (and its betrayal by talented sons), “Prairie Town.”

You will note that the only obscure figure cited above is the one who stayed home: Vardis Fisher, who is known today, if at all, as the author of Mountain Man, source of one of Robert Redford’s best films, Jeremiah Johnson (1972), scripted by the anarchist surfer John Milius.

Vardis didn’t surf, but the apostate Mormon did play football (150-pound starting center for the University of Utah), tutor Wallace Stegner, novelize his place and his frontier forebears, and compile a WPA guide to Idaho in the publication series that is the New Deal’s best legacy. He also drove away most of his modest readership by producing a bizarre twelve-book history of mankind called the Testament of Man. That’s the thing about cranks: they can’t help themselves.

Like so many American writers, Vardis Fisher hated FDR, despised the regimenting state, and proclaimed “a distaste for American graves in foreign fields, no matter how thick the poppies might be.”  (Project for a young Idahoan: track down and write up the political columns Fisher penned for the Idaho Daily Statesman, which sound like 180-proof Old Right.)

Fisher seems to have been almost a parody of the cantankerous libertarian/village atheist. He was “temperamental, obstinate, rude, ill-tempered, [and] tactless,” as his biographer Tim Woodward concedes.  But he was a true son of Idaho, crotchety and strange yet pertinaciously loyal, and can you blame him for resenting that part-time resident Ernest Hemingway was feted as the Gem State’s author?

Woodward quotes Fisher lamenting his neglect: “[I]f I had stayed in Manhattan and gone on teaching, and if I had learned to scratch some backs in New York and had cottoned up to some of those important people in the literary world—-it would have been easy enough to do—-and if I had slipped the word to them that I was saying good-bye to Idaho as Glenway Wescott said good-bye to Wisconsin, and had agreed that it was a desolate land out there not only in regard to rainfall but also in regard to culture and everything else, and that it was very good to get back to the complex of culture in New York—-with all that, my sales record and my review record would have improved. And I don’t think that’s rationalizing.”

Maybe. But if you walk away from (or never join in the first place) the daisy chain you can’t complain when they forget your name. Home, however, is a different matter: healthy places remember. Tim Woodward tells me, “Our state falls all over itself to honor [Ezra] Pound, who left as an infant and never returned, and Hemingway, who came here primarily on vacations. Fisher, meanwhile, is pretty much ignored.”

I am not much of a Fisher man, but then I have no private Idaho. If I did, I would beg this of my neighbors: Pull for Boise State football, but know that homegrown Idahoans make up just 20 percent of the Broncos’ roster. Read Hemingway, but admit that flighty Mariel and model-suicide Margaux are the Idahoans, not their grandfather. Thank Senators William Borah and Frank Church for fighting in their own ways to preserve the republic, but deplore that not a single member of your congressional delegation–including Larry Craig, the Mr. Goodbar of the airport stall, just another of the numberless D.C. Republican closet cases—-had or has the guts to vote against these damned wars.

What I am trying to say, Idaho, is shield your eyes against the coastal glare and look homeward, for there are rare and wild flowers pushing up from your untended graves.

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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.

4 COMMENTS

  1. Note to self add another fine candidate to the roster of potential Grave stone inscribings:

    “Thats the thing about cranks: they can’t help themselves”

    For some reason, the spiny intermountain region produces members of the permanent opposition with reliability. Perhaps it is the isolation or maybe it is the rather herd-like quality of the greater number of residents but the type of person who would play Center at only 150 lbs is a good demonstration of the Classic Intermontaine Crank.

    Drinking enough to bring a Musk Ox to its knees is another.

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