Look Homeward, America
In Search of Reactionary Radicals and Front-Porch Anarchists
by Bill Kauffman, ISI Books, May 2006
reviewed by Bill Treichler
Bill Kauffman in his new book, Look Homeward, America: In Search of Reactionary Radicals and Front-Porch Anarchists, seeks those independent-minded Americans who have opposed privilege, arbitrary authority, and conformity to mass frivolities, and who have rejected a timid acceptance of public policy pronouncements, dictates on artistic and literary taste, and advertized living styles. He has found many individuals, past and present, who celebrated rural and small town life, "Live and Let Live" anarchism and self-sufficient radicalism.
We like to think of ourselves as descendents of immigrants seeking freedom from economic serfdom, military servitude, and religious intolerance; and we revere the pamphlets of Thomas Paine, the oratory of Patrick Henry and the magnificent statement of the rights of all persons, The Declaration of Independence. We should be proud of self-reliant pioneers, slavery abolitionists, writers and orators who opposed wars of territorial expansion, and of those productive working people who resented factory work and demanded a radical examination of state-granted privileges. Bill Kauffman in Look Homeward, America writes of the many challengers to entrenched control who have spoken out in the past and still do today.
Bill was born and spent his childhood in Batavia, New York, the seat of The Holland Land Company. Following his graduation from the University of Rochester, he worked for New York Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, a respected maverick Democrat politician. Bill relates many stories of his experiences as a staffer.
Then he writes of Eugene McCarthy's early party-line political career as congressman and senator, and McCarthy's later presidential campaigns opposing the war in Vietnam, and of more recent remarks made in interviews Bill had with him. Kauffman also writes of other New York politicians he has known. They wished to be remembered as wise statesmen, but all of them made compromises necessary for their own political survival.
Following his time with Moynihan and his disillusionment with politicians, Bill Kauffman traveled west and became an editor at Reason magazine in Los Angeles. Reason was founded to advance arguments against government control and for free exchange. Bill learned at Reason that some professing libertarians regarded profitability as the measure of morality—again disillusionment and another step in Kauffman's personal education.
Next Bill worked with Chronicles magazine and traditional conservatives for awhile, before rrealizing that he needed to return, for at least a year, to his origins in Batavia, New York. And so with his supportive wife Lucine, he came back to the locale of his first experiences. That was nearly twenty years ago. Bill, Lucine and their daughter, Gretel, are now well established in an historic house near farmed fields on the edge of Elba, a few miles north of hometown Batavia. Lucine is active in the Landmark Society, was a past president, and is now Town of Elba Supervisor; and Gretel, like her dad, is an enthusiastic baseball fan. Gretel is also talented in music and soccer playing. Bill Kauffman is a regular contributor to the Wall Street Journal, American Enterprise, Counterpunch, the American Conservative, and other publications.
In the time since they returned to Genesee County, Bill has also written six books. First, a novel, Every Man a King; then Country Towns of New York; next, With Good Intentions?: Reflections on the Myth of Progress in America; followed by, America First: Its History Culture and Politics (1995);and continuing with, Dispatches from the Muckdog Gazette (2002); and this spring, Look Homeward, America: In Search of Reactionary Radicals and Front-Porch Anarchists.
Bill Kauffman prides himself on being a localist, even a regionalist, and he champions local writers and painters not just in New York State but also in the Midwest, Tennessee, Maine, in the South, any place not dominated by the Down East or West Coast establishments. In Look Homeward, America he has a chapter featuring Tennessee writer Wendell Berry, another about Carolyn Chute in Maine, and he often refers to southern writers. An early chapter traces the painters Grant Wood in Iowa, John Steuart Curry in Kansas, and Thomas Hart Benton in Missouri.
There is a long and admiring chapter about Dorothy Day who founded the Catholic Worker movement and established Houses of Hospitality to provide meals and shelter for helpless drifters in New York City. Dorothy Day considered herself to be a personalist and a distributist. She opposed wars and air-raid drills and was repeatedly arrested for her appearance at demonstrations. Although Miss Day's work was principally in cities, where she saw the greatest misery, she advocated rural life and supported movements for agrarian reform. Her advisor, Peter Maurin, suggested the title "Green Revolution" for a homestead movement publication. Dorothy Day's own publication, The Catholic Worker, continues today, long after her death.
Bill Kauffman has written his revisionist history book in essay style without footnotes, occasionally citing references in the text but placing most of them, chapter by chapter, in a section near the back. This bibliography contains titles and authors of more than two hundred books and papers he used as sources. I have read the book through twice and I'm still browsing the index and leafing through the pages, finding marvelous quotes.
Look Homeward, America: In Search of Reactionary Radicals and Front-Porch Anarchists is filled with anecdotes about many reactionary radicals both past and present and their sometimes surprising connections: One I liked is about Eugene V. Debs. When it was finally possible to release Debs from prison, after Woodrow Wilson could no longer prevent his being freed, Warren Harding invited Debs to come to the White House. When Debs arrived they had a very congenial and understanding conversation (pp. 129-130). Norman Thomas, Socialist Party leader and former paper boy for Harding's Marion, Ohio, Star, visited Harding several times in Washington to reminisce about old times (p. 130).
More tidbits: Henry Adams defined politics as the systematic organization of hatreds (p. 138). Henry also said (p. 21), "No man, however strong, can serve ten years as schoolmaster, priest, or Senator, and remain fit for anything else." Adams proposed "the conservative Christian anarchist" party, but he seems to have been the only member.
Long-time readers of The Crooked Lake Review may remember some of Bill Kauffman's many contributions. First was Back to Batavia in the May and June 1991 issues, reprinted from The American Scholar; New York vs. New York in October 1991 issue and Henry and Louise in the Lair de Clune in February 1992, both reprinted with permission from Chronicles; then Warren Hunting Smith, The Quintessential Genevan in the February 1993 issue; Walter Edmonds, Our Stalwart from New York History in the April 1993 issue, and Ed Harris, Thanks for the Memoirs, in the July 1996 issue.
We are all lucky that Bill Kauffman was born in western New York and came back to make it his home and to write about New York towns and villages, American culture and politics, changes in hometown Batavia, regional writers and artists, and reactionary radicals and armchair anarchists. Look Homeward, America is available from the Holland Purchase Museum and online. Be sure to go to www.radicalreactionaries.net to see comments about the book.