Batavia, NY. My lovely literate wife Lucine (“Armenian for Darlene,” I type out of habit, and wince at the thought of the shoe flying across the room) recently reviewed for the local library one of those pop-anthropological books in which a big-city reporter spends a few weeks in a small town and lives to tell the tale.

I’ll withhold the book’s title, since Lucine said the author meant well, and besides, when a really egregious target waddles into my sights I’ve become like my dad hunting deer—I shoot wide and low and let it lollop away. When I was a mere stripling I’d blast the bastard, but I was so much older then, I’m younger than that now.

The latest Margaret Mead in Podunk committed this sentence: “It’s easy to spot someone who grew up in a small town and got out: they have a breathless air about them, their expressions somehow startled and dreamy.” Talk about the shock of unrecognition: What the hell does that mean? My wife teased a few laughs from its sheer obtuseness. And if anyone can spot the startled dreaminess of exiles from Elm Street it ought to be Lucine, a Southern Cal gal turned rural Yorker who stubbornly resists my kindly efforts to compress her into the John Mellencamp line:

Married an LA doll and brought her to this small town

Now she’s small town, just like me

Actually, as town supervisor and emcee of the Onion Queen Pageant she makes me look like a regular boulevardier, but I suppose as a native I can be identified by some hidden Lovecraftian nodule.

Where this latest tourist among the rustics goes wrong is in not crediting the stay-at-homes with the capacity to dream, and in not noticing that some of those who “got out” dream of returning—a return barred, so often, by the poisonous assumption that “success” in America can be measured in the distance one has traveled from home. My friend Patrick Deneen, who teaches political theory at Georgetown, has written on the decentralist website Front Porch Republic of interviewing at a college (much less prestigious than Georgetown) near his hometown in Connecticut:

“I was inordinately excited at this possibility, thinking that it might work out that my wife and I and newborn son might be able to settle close to family and childhood friends. When asked about accommodations, I proudly informed the college that I would be staying in my bedroom that night – my childhood bedroom, that is. During the two day interview I related in every conversation that I was native to the area and had a longstanding relationship to the campus, having attended its plays, movies, and used its library for many years. I believed my local connection would make me an especially attractive candidate, sure in the knowledge that a school would be attracted to someone who already had deep roots in the community and was likely to build a long life and career in that place.”

In fact, Patrick writes, “this proud display of my nativeness went over badly.” The American professional class does not just accept rootlessness as the cost of achievement—it positively fetishizes it. And so it is befuddled—startled, even—when confronted by a Deneen.

Levon Helm of Turkey Scratch, Arkansas, drummer for The Band and a great American, described a cotton-farming guitar player from Elaine, Arkansas, named Thurlow Brown: “He could have been famous, but he didn’t like leaving his farm, so he never broke out of our area.”

My hero!

Thurlow Brown of Elaine is worth every deracinated novelist who ever took a table at Elaine’s. But how do we convince young Thurlow Browns to ignore the synthesized drumbeat that tells our children that to stay at home is the act of a loser, and that if you’re not in NY, LA, or DC you’re nowhere?

When another Front Porcher, the reprobate wit Jason Peters, cracked open the treasury of Augustana College a while back to have me out to hector his students, we did a little post-lecture proselytizing in the Quad Cities.

Midnight settled on Davenport, Iowa, home of the late 19th-century local color novelist Octave Thanet. Fearing that her tones had been forgotten by the town she never forsook, and wondering just how I might interest the rantipole youths and roistering blades of Davenport in their native daughter, I took to decorating the men’s rooms of that fair city with obscene graffiti about Octave’s amative practices. Forgive me, Octave, baby. I didn’t know what else to do. Lacking the “breathless air” of those who “got out,” you and Thurlow and I dream on.

Reprinted courtesy of The American Conservative. Subscribe or donate (www.amconmag.com), won’t ya?

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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.

6 COMMENTS

  1. You are writing far too little for the Front Porch (or any other freeby venue that I can turn up), Mr. Kauffman. I particularly thank you for the title Onion Queen Pageant. I want to be there, but I never want to be away from Southern New England or, heaven forfend, The Sea.

  2. The academic bias against staying put goes beyond where applicants grew up. After I finished grad school I spent another year on campus as a visiting lecturer. Then a tenure-track position opened up. It was a long shot, but I figured I might as well apply. I was told in no uncertain terms that my application would NOT be considered seriously. I countered with, “Are you saying that people who get a graduate degree from here are not qualified to teach here?” They told me it wasn’t that: They said it’s pretty standard policy across academia not to seriously consider applications from recent grads of the program. A recent grad from a far-off university? Sure. They hire those people.

    I thought this was a polite way of telling me, “You stink.” But I asked around a bit and discovered that it is actually a pretty common practice. The schools will accept the application, but there is a strong bias against people graduating from the local program. Reason? They want people to “get out” and “see new things.”

    I dunno, though. I think it comes back to the Ponzi scheme. Each and every podunk grad program is churning out scores of new PhDs every year, to enter a market in which just a few jobs materialize. Having people lurk around fighting for scraps would seem to put that fact in the spotlight, especially if the local State U. keeps hiring people from Harvard. So they need a policy to blame.

    Plus, I probably kind of stink.

    • I agree that the “see new things” attitude is pervasive in academia. I was repeatedly told by mentors that staying in the same department for successive stages of my career would be lead to a dead end. That doesn’t mean that you can’t make a living by staying put (researching in someone else’s lab or teaching), only that you won’t get a tenure-track position.

      “The American professional class does not just accept rootlessness as the cost of achievement—it positively fetishizes it.”

      I’ve seen it fetishized a little bit in academia, and that is frustrating because it reflects intellectual laziness — the fetishizer in unable to explain why it is good to “see new things”, and is unable to distinguish between the situations where the rule holds and where it is not applicable. For instance, I know of many successful scientists who have returned to the same University or department after spending a few years (~5) somewhere else. Likewise, many scientists have had successful careers in a single city if that city is big enough (i.e. has enough research institutions) that the researcher can truly be exposed to new things by moving among the various research institutions. These “stay at home” researchers can even benefit from from having a large number of connections in that city, so that they can find collaborators when they want to conduct a project that requires expertise outside of their own.

      For a little more perspective, the above examples are from within the USA. From what I’ve heard of Europe, the small size of many countries means that there are really only one or two good universities in the country, so people tend to stay put (though that may be changing with the EU).

      Finally, the reason that people are discouraged from staying in their home department is that they have little to contribute to that department — their knowledge/expertise is largely redundant. The range of human knowledge is so vast, even within one field, that it is impossible for individuals to contain it. It is only contained by the community as a whole.

  3. But we whose hearts are homing birds have heavier thoughts of home,
    Though the great eagles burn with gold on Paris or on Rome,
    Who stand beside our dead and stare, like seers at an eclipse,
    At the riddle of the island tale and the twilight of the ships.

    For these were simple men that loved with hands and feet and eyes,
    Whose souls were humbled to the hills and narrowed to the skies,
    The hundred little lands within one little land that lie,
    Where Severn seeks the sunset isles or Sussex scales the sky.

  4. I work with a fella who still lives in–well, several miles outside–the same town I did as a kid. He’s out on his dad’s farm he inherited. He runs some cows, has a mess of dogs, and generally lives a good life. I envy him like you would not believe. I’d give just about anything to have been able to live a little life in that little town. Those people that were able to survive the loss of the local industries and figure a way to keep rooted there–I think they’re more successful than any business tycoon or university research professor.

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