Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Book Review - Look Homeward, America

From Anarchist News

Look Homeward, America, by Bill Kauffman, Wilmington, Del.: ISI Books, 185 pages, $25

At the turn of the 20th century, one of the most popular writers in America dwelled in a small village in upstate New York. After two decades of wandering about Europe and America, Elbert Hubbard (1856–1915) had settled in East Aurora, 18 miles southeast of Buffalo. Along the way he had built and sold a soap company, making a tidy profit he used to finance his literary ventures.
[Is a front-porch anarchist like a stoop anarchists?]

Hubbard wanted to be a well-known writer. The editors at the leading publishing houses of the day did not encourage that ambition. So Hubbard followed the advice of an ancient local rustic, Uncle Billy Bushnell: “Stay at home and do your work well enough, and the world will come to you.�?

Hubbard launched a printing plant, manned by youngsters from the village, to turn out his magazine The Philistine, devoted to expressing his political, philosophical, and religious views. He went on to print, bind, and sell his essays. Many of them, written to introduce readers to notables such as Washington, Voltaire, Marcus Aurelius, and Jane Austen, appeared in a 14-volume set titled Little Journeys to the Homes of the Great. His most celebrated essay—still read today, though not often enough—was “A Message to Garcia,�? the inspiring tale of a resourceful and courageous U.S. Army courier who made his way to the camp of a Cuban rebel leader just before the outbreak of the Spanish-American War. Hubbard became known far and wide as “The Sage of Aurora.�?

In many respects—not including the creation of a 300-employee publishing house—Bill Kauffman of tiny Elba, New York, has become today’s Elbert Hubbard. But unlike Hubbard, whose essays glorified the lives and works of famous people, Kauffman’s literary journey seeks out “the America of holy fools and backyard radicals, the America whose eccentric voice is seldom heard anymore…the [voice of] third parties, of Greenbackers and Libertarians and village atheists and the ‘conservative Christian anarchist’ party whose founder and only member was Henry Adams.�?

Kauffman’s earlier books mined interesting veins of localism and hostility to modernity. America First! celebrated America’s forgotten isolationist activists, from Hamlin Garland to Alice Roosevelt, plus other assorted individualists, including Edward Abbey, Gore Vidal, Sinclair Lewis, and this writer, included because he considered me, not altogether inaccurately, the last lonely true-believing Jeffersonian. His Dispatches From the Muckdog Gazette celebrated the lives of the common people of Kauffman’s Genesee County, home of the minor league Batavia Muckdogs baseball team.

His newest book, Look Homeward, America, will interest anyone who suspects there might be more to America than is found in the average installment of the network news. It’s a series of often sparkling profiles of Americans, both near-famous and obscure—similar to Hubbard’s Little Journeys, but selected and viewed through Kauffman’s unique prism of localism, authenticity, tradition, and human scale.

Like Hubbard, Kauffman has had a long and interesting journey back to his self-imposed exile in Elba. He began a career of itinerant wordsmithing with two and a half unsatisfying years as a staff member for Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-N.Y.) in the 1980s. (Kauffman relates his disappointment with his old boss in a profile in this book, lamenting the senator’s failure to live up to his own best instincts and possibilities.) Kauffman then worked from 1985 to 1988 at Reason, serving part of that time as the magazine’s first Washington editor. At Reason he interviewed such eccentric Americans as the Black Panther turned Reaganite Eldridge Cleaver, a pre–Supreme Court Clarence Thomas, and Charlton Heston; he contributed reports on topics ranging from cowpunk to Kerouac, from anti-war capitalists to Delaware’s former Republican governor Pete du Pont, who sought his party’s presidential nomination in 1988.

In the 1990s Kauffman, who is now 47, returned to his native Genesee County after writing Every Man a King (1989), a novel clearly inspired by his own wanderings. He bought an old house in Elba (32 miles northeast of Hubbard’s East Aurora) and began his own one-man literary enterprise. Besides writing books, he contributes articles to a range of publications, from the left-leaning British newspaper The Independent to the libertarian monthly Liberty. For several years he did editorial work for the conservative magazine The American Enterprise.

It’s difficult to find a place for Kauffman in today’s political taxonomy. He started out as a populist liberal. As that youthful infatuation waned, he became a libertarian, attracted by that creed’s unrelenting hostility to the curse of statism. In his own telling, he became increasingly uncomfortable with the Randian side of libertarianism and what he saw as the movement’s infatuation with economic calculus to the near-exclusion of humanistic values such as community, charity, faith, and honor. He then slid into the “peace-and-love left wing of paleoconservatism,�? of which he may well be the only identifiable member.

The more Kauffman read and experienced, the more he developed an affinity for various schools of thought, not all of them mutually consistent: Jeffersonian agrarian distributist, Catholic Worker pacifist, traditional Old Right conservative, transcendentalist, decentralist, anarchist. His anarchism, he stresses, is not that of “a sallow garret-rat translating Proudhon by pirated kilowatt, nor a militiaman catechized by the Classic Comics version of The Turner Diaries.�? Rather, he writes, “I am the love child of Henry Thoreau and Dorothy Day, conceived among the asters and goldenrod of an Upstate New York autumn.�? Thoreau doesn’t play a major role in Look Homeward, America, but Day, a largely forgotten social activist who died in 1980, is one of its stars.


No comments: