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« Travel Tongues | Main | A Week With Bill Kauffman, Day Two »

October 16, 2006

A Week With Bill Kauffman, Day One

Michael Blowhard writes:

It's Day One of Bill Kauffman Week here at 2Blowhards.

I introduced the political writer Bill Kauffman in a recent posting. Now, on to the interview itself.


A Week With Bill Kauffman, Day One


Bill Kauffman, photographed by daughter Gretel

2Blowhards: How far back do you and your people go in Western NY? How did they wind up there?
Bill Kauffman:
I'm a typical American mongrel.

My English forbears came to God's country on neither the Mayflower nor a Mayflower moving van. They were farmers who settled around Churchville in the dim mists of time. (Speaking of Churchville -- I digress the way other men blink -- my wife, the lovely and long-suffering Lucine, was roped into coaching the Batavia High basketball cheerleaders a few years ago. BHS is the Blue Devils, a colorless French-derived militaristic nickname that we and 1,200 other schools ought to drop tootsweet. When BHS played the Churchville-Chili Saints, Lucine's girls chanted "Go Devils! Beat the Saints!" A chill ran down my superstitious Catholic back.)

Anyway, the Kauffmans came to Batavia from Germany in the mid-19th century. Fought for the Union. John Kauffman, my great-grandfather, ran one of the first garages in town. The Garraghans, my Irish line, left the emerald isle in the 1880s. And the Stellas, responsible for my Italian quadroonhood, came over from Asiago to Lime Rock at the eastern edge of Genesee County circa 1900. As my 93-year-old grandmother, Mary Stella Baker, says, we're Northern Italian -- almost Swiss.

So I ain't DAR and I ain't FOB.

2B: What kind of regional identity does Western New York have? I'm often surprised by how well people from the area understand each other, for instance, in terms of humor and political points of view. Your combo of isolationism, regionalism, humor, modesty, rambunctiousness, etc -- I suspect many people would find it a hodge-podge. But it makes a lot of instinctive sense to me.
Yeah, well, we're homeboys, right? We speak the secret Upstate code.

So many parts of our country have faded into the Great American Nothingness, and Western NY is no exception. Television, school consolidation, the dislocations of empire, the fetish we make of "success" (which is often determined by mobility: the farther one moves from home the better one is thought to have done) -- we've been ravaged by the usual villains.

But we retain a history, customs, accent, even sins all our own. The forces of homogenization, which is to say the forces of evil -- Dick Cheney, the "Vagina Monologues," Taco Bell, Katie Couric, the Department of Homeland Security -- have yet to entirely replace unpasteurized cider, volunteer fire departments, New York-Penn League baseball, and the front-porch anarchism that has animated such Western NY patriots as the Wyoming County abolitionists, novelist John Gardner, and the rural folk who kept the despised Mario Cuomo from siting a radioactive waste dump in lovely sylvan (and cash-poor) Allegany County.

(Speaking of that sanctimonious bully, can you believe his lizardy son Andrew has revived his NY political career? Lemme take time out from my self-mythicization to urge your NY readers to vote for our friend Rachel Treichler of the Green Party for Attorney General.)

2B: To most people Western New York seems to be nowheresville. It ain't exactly the Northeast, but it ain't exactly the Midwest either.
Edmund Wilson said that he couldn't understand how people west of Syracuse ever bred, so unatttractive are we. Then again Bunny was no Tab Hunter.

But I'll stretch our net far enough to take in Syracuse and everything west of Albany. Let's say that Western NY ends where Giants fans outnumber Bills fans.

It's a paradisal landscape, as the westernmost of the Hudson River School painters (such as the great Lemuel Wiles) understood. It's rich with contradictions. We supplied the most soldiers in the Union, per capita, to Lincoln's army, yet we also produced the most trenchant of the Lincoln critics (for instance, Governor Horatio Seymour). We are Republican, have been since the party was hatched, yet the country club Republicanism that one might associate with, say, Rochester -- Xerox Republicans -- existed alongside the far more interesting rural pacifist Republicanism that one once found in our blessed hinterlands.

(I am a Democrat, I ought to interpose: in fact, Upstate Democrats have a noble lineage -- Martin Van Buren, Grover Cleveland -- though the party today is led by toadies and collaborators with the Colossus on the Hudson.)

New York is one of the most agricultural of the 48 states, you know. I say 48 because I never have accepted those rotten fruits of the Cold War, Alaska and Hawaii. There was an integrity to the contiguous US that was destroyed by adding stars #49 and 50. Let 'em go!

But we needn't redesign the flag. California and New York ought to be split in two. Norman Mailer made this the centerpiece of his 1969 campaign for the Democratic nomination for the NYC mayoralty. Divide NY, and then devolve all power to the neighborhoods. Mailer's essay/speech "An Instrument for the City" is one of the few really wise pieces of modern political oratory. Toss the Ted Sorenson-Peggy Noonan scripts into the trash; Mailer saw the way.


Wikipedia's entry on Bill Kauffman is a good one. It also includes a useful set of links to online articles by Bill. I'm especially fond of this rousing declaration of love and defiance, and this smaller-is-better rant in favor of localism and devolution.

Bill's books are buyable here, here, here, here, here, and here. I suggest starting with "Dispatches From the Muckdog Gazette" and/or "Look Homeward, America!" But really you can't go wrong.

Bill and a bunch of fellow "reactionary radicals" (including Clark Stooksbury, John Zmirak, and Caleb Stegall) blogged for a while here.

Many thanks to Dave Lull for setting up this interview. Please return tomorrow for Part Two of five.

posted by Michael at October 16, 2006


Upstate New York seems to be in a class by itself, with a little overlap with Northern New England and Western Pennsylvania. Not Eastern, not Midwestern. My son's friends from Buffalo decided that they were basically Canadian.

I saw a survery saying that people there smiled less than people anywhere else in the country. My home area (Upper Midwest) came in second. I think that excessive smiling is a bad thing, so that's all cool with me. My friend from Oneida who works in a convenience store gets a bit of flak for not smiling enough, but screw 'em.

Posted by: John Emerson on October 16, 2006 8:54 AM

Glad to see this! I have a hard time figuring out what exactly Kaufmann believes, but that doesn't get in the way of being a big fan of his. He's the only author I would compare to Ed Abbey.

Posted by: Todd Fletcher on October 16, 2006 11:57 AM

I suppose I have no strong cred to be butting into the western NYS mystique thing -- I only lived in Albany for 4+ years, but also had to forecast the population for all of the state's counties and traveled the area as part of my duties.

Personalities and subcultures aside, western New York is Great Lakes. Great Lakes is a sub-species of Midlle West. Buffalo is far more akin to Cleveland than to Albany, methinks, if you posit "geography as destiny."

Redesigning state boundaries is a seductive idea I blow hot and cold over. Lots of regional "minorities" get screwed because a in-state regional "majority" crams legislation down their throats. But a lot of homogeneity theoretically can mean less national cohesion and could lead to a break-up at some indefinite future date.

All that aside, I agree that it makes sense to chop NYS in two at a point somewhere near Bear Mountain. California can be separated along the mountains north of the LA basin. Eastern Washington and Oregon plus the Idaho panhandle might be merged. And there is that old, putative state of Jefferson that would take in southwest Oregon and California north of Shasta Dam.

And that's only the start...

Posted by: Donald Pittenger on October 16, 2006 12:24 PM

Donald, you reminded me of one of my former architect bosses, whose favorite expression was "Everyone is a designer..."

Posted by: Tat on October 16, 2006 12:58 PM

It's interesting to note how, despite the mobility of the population of our nation, the cultural templates set down by the original settlement patterns are still in place.

Northern Oklahoma was settled by a lot farmers with German ancestry from the midwest. Southeastern Oklahoma was settled mostly by Scots-Irish from the south, and is known as "Little Dixie".

Posted by: Bill on October 16, 2006 2:40 PM

"The Garraghans, my Irish line, left the emerald isle in the 1880s": bloody hell, this must be a first - someone of Irish descent refraining from claiming that his ancestors left the old sod during the Potato Famine.

Posted by: dearieme on October 16, 2006 3:58 PM

My Irish side also came over in the late 19th/early 20th centuries.

Posted by: James Kabala on October 16, 2006 4:15 PM

"Mailer saw the way."

Saw the way to what? deadend nihilism?

I'm sorry, but these minor league regional cranks are a fun diversion when it comes to a walk down memory lane, but lord save us from any of them getting their hands on the levers of actual power...which, thank the lord, they never will.

Posted by: ricpic on October 16, 2006 4:47 PM

"My Irish side also came over in the late 19th/early 20th centuries."

My Irish side comes over after about 3 drinks.

Posted by: the patriarch on October 16, 2006 6:39 PM

Ah, makes me think of perhaps my favorite album.

Posted by: J. Goard on October 16, 2006 7:57 PM

You know you're from Cheektowaga if:

Your favorite restaurant ...
has its windows covered in neon beer signs
has Quick Draw monitors scattered all around the dining area
has a bar in the front, with the dining area in the back
has no waitresses younger than 50
has a non-smoking section consisting of one table
is in an old house, and has an apartment upstairs
has its name in light colored shingles on the roof
is host to bands with names like "Joey Delvecchio and his Orchestra" or
"The Polka Puretones"
has a menu that looks like it hasn't changed since 1958
is regularly cited for health code violations - which must mean the food is
really good

You have rosary beads hanging from your rear view mirror ... and a big
Infant of Jesus statue in the back.

You live on a street that ...
is named after something French
has a girl's name
has a name with religious overtones ("Rosary Drive," "St. Jude Court,"
has a name that is impossible to pronounce by most people outside the

You have a name that is impossible to pronounce by most people outside the

You drive a pre-cab forward era Chrysler product (Aries, Reliant, Dynasty,
New Yorker, anything else built on the K platform, etc.)

Your actually watch the Mother Angelica show on EWTN on a regular basis.

You actually watch that show on EWTN where they recite the Hail Mary over
and over again, for hours and hours.

You protested at the offices of Adelphia Cable because they considered
replacing EWTN with Comedy Central..

You can talk for hours on end about which restaurant in town has the best
fish fry.

You wear white socks with dress shoes, and black socks with sneakers.

You consider the following "high culture" ...
sitting on the 50 yard line at Bills games
a Starving Artists watercolor of Pope John Paul II hung just right on
your wood paneled wall
the Dyna-Tones at the St. Stanislaus Day festival in Town Park
the Variety Club Telethon
Sunbday morings when many radio stations go to an all-polka format
Eyewitness News, especially on nights when lots of houses burn down
a good fireman's picnic or lawn fete.

You know what a "fireman's picnic" and "lawn fete" are.

You end most of your sentences with the word "der."

Pierogies are a regular part of your diet.

You spend more time and money maintaining your lawn than your house.

You ever bowled a 300 game.

Your name is Joanne ... and you pronounce it with three syllables.

You're a third generation American, but you still have an accent that
makes you sound like you're from the "da' olt country der."

You go to church on Saturday.

Posted by: william o'toole on October 16, 2006 8:33 PM

"You end most of your sentences with the word 'der'."

All of Pennsylvania ('cept Philly), too.

Posted by: ricpic on October 17, 2006 12:00 PM

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