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

October 18, 2006

A Week With Bill Kauffman, Day Three

Michael Blowhard writes:

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

I introduced the political writer Bill Kauffman in a recent posting. Part One of our interview with Bill is here. Part Two is here. Now, on to Part Three.


A Week With Bill Kauffman, Day Three


Bill Kauffman, photographed by daughter Gretel

2B: Why did you abandon fast-lane, big-city life? Was there a specific moment or event that made you pull the trigger?
I'd always wanted to go home. Life anywhere but in my natal place seemed fugitive, evanescent, meaningless. I don't mean that as a knock on other places; if I were native to them, I'd be in their thrall. But you play the hand you're dealt.

I don't believe in "rising above" your origins -- without at least one foot on the ground you'll go floating off into the empty realm of global citizenship. I need anchorage. Mooring. Plus I despise modern urban architecture: in its scale and characterlessness it is intended to make people feel dwarfed, insignificant, powerless. But I guess it took my wife, an LA girl, to bring me back home.

Lucine and I married in May 1987. Went to Salem on our honeymoon -- spitting in the face of augury? She laid her bouquet at Jack Kerouac's grave in Lowell. "He honored life." Great epitaph. We lived in DC for a while but finally I convinced her to join me in a "one-year experiment" in repatriation. A year to be measured in Old Testament terms, it seems. Nineteen years later I figure we've just passed Washington's Birthday. Or "President's Day," in post-republic zombiespeak.

'Course now we live five miles north of Batavia in Elba -- apt address for an exile! The Onion Capital of the World. Lucine is Town Supervisor. With Deukmejian on the sidelines in California she may be the highest-ranking elected Armenian-American official in America. At least until California sends Cher to the U.S. Senate. As First Man, I'm more Pat Nixon than Hillary Clinton. My advice is limited to urging her to be the first elected Republican to call for Bush's impeachment.

2B: How did your stay in big cities and your experiences with real-life politics affect your views of politics? I turn off politics and politicians generally. "Fuck 'em all, and let's vote for the least-bad" -- that's all I come up with. You seem to have maintained a more nuanced view of the field and of politicians generally.
Well, on the proper attitude toward politicians I'm of two -- or five, or 20 -- minds. Hey, I contain multitudes. I'm of the "fuck 'em" school, in part. Like Edward Abbey, I grow more radical with age. I still curse, execrate, and maledict the bastards as I read about them in the paper. (Hah -- that last line reminds me of something Thomas Wolfe once wrote: "I do not believe the writing to be wordy, prolix, or redundant.")

National figures who exist mostly as images on TV sets are easy to loathe. Bush, for instance. I revile him. Not only should he be impeached -- tarred and feathered, too -- but he ought to spend the rest of his days laving amputees in the veterans' hospitals he is so sedulously filling with the legless, the armless, the blind and insane.

Yet not all politicians are abstractions to me, and therein lies the complication. Our congressman for 20 years was Barber Conable, without question the greatest statesman Upstate has ever produced, the son of rural pacifists and intellectual farmers, a man of extraordinary rectitude and integrity and intelligence and wit. Exactly what the Founders had in mind. He was a kind of decentralist Republican, which is a breed of cat I like, but his character is why I not only admired but revered him.

There are a handful of Conable-like characters in political life, usually at the local level, where their neighbors know them, respect them. I have to account for them, too. Hell, some of the finest folks I know serve in local offices. They're politicians, I suppose, though in an intensely grass roots, local way.

But even with blood-drenched creatures like Bush and Hillary ... It's unhealthy to hate people. Institutions or organizations, okay, but not people. Nothing good ever comes of hate. It's got to be based in love. Dorothy Day saw the face of Christ in every Bowery bum. Maybe it's also there in the visage of every assemblyman, every town justice, every city councilman. I agree with Gore Vidal: I love the old republic, and I hate the American Empire. Because it's really an anti-American Empire: it suppresses, it discolors so much of the good in this country. But I can't hate the politicians who serve that Empire.

And besides, I do love political history. On my walls I have images not only of American writers and saints (Sarah Orne Jewett, Dorothy Day, Walt Whitman, Thomas Wolfe -- the Tar Heel, Gore Vidal) but politicians, too -- Conable, Jefferson, William Jennings Bryan, Eugene Debs, Burton K. Wheeler, Robert Taft.

Our history, including political history, is so rich with honorable, grounded, authentic men and women. They're largely written out of the narrative. I write 'em back in.

2B: Did returning home help you find yourself as a writer?
I'd been thinking about what became "Dispatches from the Muckdog Gazette" since I was a lonely freshman in college, homesick (though I was only 30 miles away) for the sounds and streets and sights of Batavia. Lord Acton said exile is the nursery of nationalism. Sure was for me. (Though I am a localist, the antithesis of a nationalist.)

I can't imagine writing what I'm writing while living in, say, Crystal City. But lemme toss in a contradiction: I wrote most of "Every Man a King," my novel about homecoming, on park benches in DC. (The lyrical parts I composed on trips home.)

2B: That's a heckuva a writing style you have developed. How did it come about? Did returning home help you pull it together?
Frederick Exley used to say "Watertown is not in my marrow; it is my marrow." Same with me and Batavia.

In Batavia, every building is freighted with meaning and memory. A field, a storefront may seem routine or forgettable to an outsider but to me it's often packed with associations, suffused with significance. And so when I write from home, as it were, I feel as though that weight is behind me, y'know? Like I'm swinging a heavy (but not portentous!) bat -- like one of those great Jackie Robinson models with the really thick handles.

The lack of distance -- oh blessed propinquity -- means that I can't take refuge on Saccharine Island. Batavia, Elba, Genesee County -- it's all right here, in my eyes and ears, every day. I can't avoid seeing the warts. I may ultimately regard the blemishes, the imperfections, as dignifying marks of humanity, but I can't blot 'em out.

As for style, well, how does any writer's style take shape? You start, perhaps, mimetically. In my case the influences were drawn from all over the American lot. Mencken, Vidal, Sinclair Lewis. The local colorists of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The Beats. The Transcendentalists. Punk rock. The Upstate regionalists. Jones Very, meet Patti Smith. Gradually, the accretions wear off. Or they are absorbed.

I think of style as the manifestation of a writer's personality. It can't be factitious or contrived. Well, it can be, but that wears thin. If you're in it for the long haul the prose has to be the man.


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. A loving, intelligent and appreciative Caleb Stegall review of Kauffman's "Look Homeward, America" can be read here.

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

posted by Michael at October 18, 2006


Off topic, but I bet people here would like "The Good Soldier Svejk" (Schweik). There's a new translation of the beginning. Hasek wrote like Mark Twain and lived like a punkrocker.

Posted by: John Emerson on October 18, 2006 2:42 PM

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