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« The Reviver? | Main | Travel Tongues »

October 14, 2006

Bill Kauffman, An Introduction

Michael Blowhard writes:

Dear Blowhards --

Thanks to Dave Lull, I've recently discovered the work of the political writer Bill Kauffman. With a few of his books still to catch up with, I've become a big fan. Kauffman's nothing if not contrarian, one-of-a-kind, and hard-to-categorize. He once worked for Reason and he publishes mostly in rightie outlets, yet he's a registered Democrat. Decidedly libertarian in most ways, he often votes Green. Drawn to the political scene, he's frank about the way that his own experiences in the political world turned him into an anarchist. Rock on! I like people who won't be confined by conventional labels.

Kauffman's writing is just as hard to slot: prickly yet rambunctious, traditionalist yet gonzo, ornery yet extravagant. He generally works as an up-to-date journalist, but his books are ambitious in a pre-modernist literary way. Temperamentally drawn to the small-scale and the personal, he's also unstoppably outgoing, rowdy, and exuberant. He's an upbeat pessimist, both a nostalgist and a punk rocker.

But encountering his work isn't just to be swept away by energy, talent, and brains, it's also to discover a fresh, unexpected, and fully-developed vision. In "America First!: Its History, Politics, and Culture," Kauffman rehabilitates the reputation of a mid-century antiwar group that, these belligerant days, is looked highly-askance-at. In "Look Homeward America: In Search of Reactionary Radicals and Front-Porch Anarchists," Kauffman celebrates a motley group of go-it-your-own-way cranks and dreamers that you're unlikely to hear praised by profs, let alone by partisan cheerleaders. His version of American history is the -- to me very convincing -- story of the Empire (and its supporters and propagandists) vs. Us Human-Scale Creatures.

None of Kauffman's books are straightforward affairs. You'd be frustrated if you turned to them for clearly-laid-out arguments or encyclopedia-style information. Instead, they're fullblown reading experiences: part history, part personal essay. They're also big, heraldic, all-over-the-place prose poems -- patchwork, Whitmanesque, "barbaric yawps" set to driving rock, country, and blues beats. They're florid and funky, perverse yet open, bristling with deeply-felt exhortations and digressions, and full of comic but heart-busting praise-songs. To the extent that I'd want to categorize his work at all, I'd put it on the same rhapsodic / eccentric, full-of-contradictions-but-that's-the-point-dammit shelf as Edward Abbey, Henry David Thoreau, and H.L. Mencken.

Kauffman's most personal book is "Dispatches from the Muckdog Gazette: A Mostly Affectionate Account of a Small Town's Fight to Survive." It's about Kauffman's love affair with his hometown, Batavia, New York, a small place about 20 miles outside Rochester.

In "Muckdog," he blends history, tales, autobiography, and ruminations. Kauffman grew up in Batavia, and Batavia has been the fulcrum of his work all along. His theme is almost always "home" -- he often describes himself as (among many other things) a "localist," and his devotion to Western New York runs deep. He studied at the University of Rochester, worked in D.C. as a staffer for Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, spent some time in L.A. (where he met Lucine, his wife-to-be), and then returned home for good to the Batavia area.

It hasn't been an unbumpy love affair. Poor Batavia! A beautiful small town in a pristine region, it has endured decades of insults, from an "urban renewal" going-over that gutted its downtown to the arrival of Wal-Mart, which finished the job. Kauffman feels the pangs and the pain, yet the love endures.

A fast personal note: If I respond fully to Kauffman's writing, it's not just because I find it eye-opening and remarkable. It's also because I share so much with him and his story. I'm only a few years older than Kauffman, and I grew up only 30 miles away from him. We don't know each other personally, but in many respects we know each other very well. We share an out-in-the-sticks history, a corny / deadpan sense of humor, a minor-league-fan's view of things, and a neighborly vibe.

When he writes of his homesickness for Western New York and when he evokes the life there -- both in its sweetness and modest beauty, and in its trashed-up, ever-in-decline modern incarnation -- I find my soul stirred and my emotions wrenched; I share his feelings completely. Why is the life we came out of being methodically steamrollered by the big boyz in Albany, NYC, and D.C.? And why aren't our friends and neighbors tougher about fighting the incursions of the globalist-wannabes? In any case -- and however blurry the lines can become -- it finally does boil down to Us vs. Them. At a certain point you take a stand. Smart opinion? Let's take it down. Remake-the-world-in-my-image egomaniacs? Unquestionably the enemy.

Bill Kauffman's an inspired loose cannon with a full-blown vision of his own, something like a combo of Camille Paglia, Christopher Lasch (whom Kauffman studied with at the U. of R.), Sinclair Lewis, and a 19th century newspaper editor.

Dave Lull was also kind enough to e-introduce me to Bill Kauffman. I proposed the idea of doing an email interview, and Bill agreed. I'll be running the results in five parts, Monday through Friday. Please come back for all of them. You'll get to know a really remarkable writer.

Many thanks to Dave Lull, without whose efforts and generosity this interview wouldn't have taken place.

Best,

Michael

posted by Michael at October 14, 2006




Comments

I'm getting more and more interested in Dave Lull.

Posted by: Tat on October 14, 2006 1:05 PM



Dave Lull does not have a blog, but he has something pretty close to it, called Librarian's Place -- see
http://librariansplace.wordpress.com/

This interesting article is linked to from there at:
http://librariansplace.wordpress.com/2006/10/14/bill-kauffman-an-introduction-and-dave-lull/

best wishes
Maxine.

Posted by: maxine on October 14, 2006 2:10 PM



Tat -- Dave's a very interesting guy!

Maxiine -- I had no idea! Thanks for letting me know. Dave himself ... Well, he's going to get a piece of my mind.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on October 14, 2006 3:25 PM



Through a series of misadventures of no interest to anyone but myself, I came to live in the Finger Lakes Region of New York about a year ago. There's a town called Penn Yann, about a half hour from where I live. Everytime I drive over there it's like going back in time to the forties or fifties. It's not that the town doesn't have all the amenities, it's just that something hasn't been wiped out yet, a peace that's hard to describe. And, of course, the town is surrounded by achingly lovely farm country, that, over time, gets into your entrails. Ah well....

Posted by: ricpic on October 14, 2006 7:47 PM



Dave has been most helpful to me, too. He has educated me on the newest and best medicine theories regarding a longtime family medical curse - premature macular degeneration. Hopefully, I can prevent or stave off the disease better than my father or grandmother, or great grandfather with his kind assistance and my dedicated vitamin/food regimen.

Now, it seems, Dave is quite the multi-faceted gentleman I suspected!

I am looking forward to the e-interview, Michael.

Onward!

Posted by: Cowtown Pattie on October 15, 2006 1:42 PM



Kauffman is fantastic. His writing radiates decency and genuine affection for what's best about our country (as opposed to "patriotic" jingoism). He wrote a wonderful piece on Goerge McGovern in the "American Conservative", wonder if you've seen it:

http://www.amconmag.com/2006/2006_01_30/article.html

Speaking of upstate: I'm an upstate NYer by birth too, and the place has a unique charm that stays with you. But do you ever feel a touch guilty for leaving it behind? Everyone I know who grew up in my hometown has left. You probably know that an inability to keep skilled young and middle aged people there is one source of the region's problems. Oh well, perhaps I'll retire there one day.

Posted by: MQ on October 15, 2006 4:58 PM



Love both Bill Kauffman and Dave Lull. As to the latter, he's easy to come to rely on. His regular pointers to things that interest me (many of which he seems just to have intuited would interest me) and that I'd otherwise miss are wonderful. Like Michael, I never knew about Dave's blog, and am right now devouring it.

Posted by: Francis Morrone on October 15, 2006 7:36 PM



I just finished "Look Homeward, America" and am now almost half way through "America First". They are eloquent, furious, funny and wise.

Posted by: Bill Chen on October 16, 2006 12:23 AM






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