May 1991

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Back to Batavia


Bill Kauffman


Part 1

In John Gardner's novel, The Sunlight Dialogues, a wild man is arrested for painting LOVE in the middle of Oak Street in the sleepy western New York hamlet of Batavia. He is jailed; he escapes; he is gunned down. The disturber of the peace is revealed to be Taggert Hodge, a local boy gone loco, a wandering son who returned to clue Batavians in to the mysteries of existence.

Poor Tag: he was a century and a half late.

One hundred fifty years ago my native region of west central New York state blazed with the white fires of reform and fanaticism. Joseph Smith, Harriet Tubman, Susan B. Anthony, Liberty party abolitionists, and a thousand ragged prophets traveled our "psychic highway," as the folklorist Carl Carmer called the Utica-to-Batavia corridor. We had Anti-Masons and reincarnated Christs and enough necromancers to pester the dead till time's end.

The fires have long since dimmed in our Burned-Over District; the scorched earth eventually grew verdant. Itinerant preachers became vagrants, and emancipationists took up temperance, vegetarianism, and other nuisance causes. Nothing burned here anymore. So when I returned home in 1988, less hirsute than Taggert Hodge but no less feverish, I brought my own tinderbox.

I was going to be a one-man regionalist revival: a resuscitator of a weary sluggish beaten lump of a culture. To raise the dead—to wake the living—to introduce them and watch a flowering of provincial genius the likes of which had never been seen before…this was my immodest aim.

Such grand visions clouded my eyes! I saw Grant Wood painting murals for Cedar Rapids businessmen; I saw Sinclair Lewis—an "all-out professional Minnesotan," the artist Adolph Dehn called him—memorizing the Gopher State's eighty-seven counties and county seats, just like Cass Timberlane; I saw Sarah Orne Jewett greeting an awed little Mary Ellen Chase in South Berwick, kindly enjoining the girl to grow up and write stories "all about Maine"; I saw Helen Hoover Santmyer being reproved by her M. L. S. superiors at the Dayton Library, but the old gal just smiled, for she was writing Ohio Town by kerosene light, and when it was published, Xenia would dwarf its smug neighbor to the west; I saw Hamlin Garland, the barefoot Dakotan, having a man-to-man with William Dean Howells, and for an instant Boston knelt before two great midwesterners; I saw Tom Benton on a Kansas City bar stool, Edward Eggleston upholding the honor of Hoosierhood, and Andrew Lytle walking on water where the TVA flooded his family's plantation. And I saw my own Upstate New York alive, again.

If you have an eagle eye, you can see the faint impress of a literary tradition in my New York. There were Cooper and Paulding and Irving, of course, although the latter two belong to the Hudson Valley, which is too rich for our blood. Harold Frederic wrote some wonderful stories about Yorker ambivalence toward the Civil War, and The Damnation of Theron Ware, his novel of a simple Upstate minister's faith-shattering encounter with the Enlightenment, is still read in some American universities. We had a fine local colorist, Philander Deming, and our own cracker-barrel sage, David Harum, a folksy dialectal elidin' banker in David Harum: A Story of American Life by Edward Noyes Westcott, a descendant of the Oneida communalists. In the dark years of the American midcentury, our torch was carried by Walter Edmonds, best known for his historical novel Drums Along the Mohawk, part of a six-volume chronicle depicting the settling and creeping modernization of central York. Among contemporary writers, John Gardner set The Resurrection and The Sunlight Dialogues in Batavia; Frederick Exley does his boozy autobiographical thing in his gelid refuge of Watertown; William Kennedy literarily owns Albany, that grafting outpost of empire, which is to Upstate as Guantánamo is to Cuba; Henry Clune wrote well about middle-class Rochester; and Richard Russo is still trying to make peace with Utica.

That mountain in the distance, sometimes ours and sometimes not, is of course Edmund Wilson, Tory anarchist, stout laird of Talcottville, studying the Iroquois, measuring his family tree, yelling at loud kids racing motorbikes on the street where he lived.

Wilson is, to put it gently, problematic for a western New Yorker. In the marvelously cranky Upstate, he complained that people west of Syracuse "seemed very low grade. Not even pretty girls, but pale gray-eyed lean ill-built Polish women and the usual thick loutish men. One wonders how these men and women can feel enough mutual attraction even to breed more of their unattractive kind." Et tu, Bunny.

My first novel, Every Man a King, was soon to be published, and though it masqueraded as a satirical assault on Washington, D. C.'s idealogue class, it contained (horrors!) a message: Go home, young man. Return to Anniston, to Fargo, to Saginaw, to Batavia. Rediscover the permanent things; fight your battles under the parochial flag. Grant Wood wanted Cedar Rapids to be the Athens of Iowa; I'd settle for making my postage stamp of ground no less, I wanted to be the nativest son. So I came home, to Batavia, in Genesee County, where my ancestors settled early, and fought in the Civil War, and farmed on a human scale, and repaired Model T's, and supervised the construction of the Batavia water tower, and ran for City Council as representatives of the German-Irish Democracy, and lost.

Batavia had suffered more than most small cities in the years since the Second World War. Its glory days were in the distant past, in the Jacksonian era, when an itinerant gadfly named William Morgan wrote a book exposing the rituals of Freemasonry. Morgan was kidnapped and (it is presumed) drowned for his perfidy by local Masons. An Anti-Masonic party sprang up overnight; by 1828, Upstate New York was ablaze, and Batavia was capital of the American political fringe for five head-spinning years. (Today, a family friend heads Batavia's Masonic lodge, which is akin to being the Rotary president of Sauk Centre.)

The Gilded Age was good to Batavia. Dean Richmond, president of the New York Central Railroad, lived a grandee's life on Main Street, and the tracks he laid brought industries of all sorts—gun works, a tractor factory—to our town. Richmond was a Copperhead Democrat, but Batavia was solidly Republican, as it has been ever since. A blue-collar enclave of seventeen thousand surrounded by fertile black muck, with its rows of onions and potatoes and corn. Batavia was a friendly little city, like one of Vachel Lindsay's prairie towns, but with more ethnic spice: the English and Scots and Germans were soon joined by the Irish, and at century's dawn there came an influx of Poles and Italians.

But progress came and washed my town away. In the heady morn of the postwar world, Governor Thomas Edmund Dewey (of New York City, as our state governors always are) determined to build his own Erie Canal, and the New York State Thruway was born. Eminent domain came to rural York with a vengeance, hundreds of miles of farmland were stolen by Albany, for the greater good, of course: this state-of-the-art roadway would link us with New York City, four hundred short miles away. Think of the benefits!

The curmudgeons carped and the mossbacks muttered, and the thruway was built. Its first casualty was Route 5, Batavia's Main Street, for years a bustling thoroughfare. Travelers ate at diners along Route 5, and slept in hotels, and shopped at stores—until progress came, and the farms were paved, and Route 5 died. Across Upstate, countless locally owned and owner-operated businesses were bankrupted. Drivers stuck to the thruway and ate at the Howard Johnson's monopoly.

Batavia responded to the demise of Route 5 with an act of parricide unequaled this side of Rumania, where the demonic Ceausescu once waged war on pre-Communist architecture. The city fathers rushed headlong into urban renewal, whereby the federal government paid Batavia to knock down its past: the mansions of the founders, the sandstone churches, the brick shops, all of it (even Dean Richmond's manor, which had become an orphanage financed by Miss Edna, the city's legendary madam with a heart of gold, may she rest in peace.)

Batavia tore out—literally—its five-block heart and filled the cavity with a ghastly mall, a dull gray sprawling oasis in a desert of parking spaces. The mall was a colossal failure, but it succeeded in destroying the last vestiges of our home-run economy. J. C. Penney and Wendy's were in; the Dipson Theater and the Dagwood Restaurant were out. As our chamber of commerce might put it in one of their doggedly goofy brochures, Batavia had entered the global economy.

Why did our town rip out its heart? Two explanations. First, Batavia's civic class has the same lust for progress that Sinclair Lewis deplored in Minnesota. (Anyone who tells you that Red Lewis has dated poorly just doesn't live in a small town. Lewis's novels are as mordant and—forgive me, sir—as relevant as ever.) Vergil Gunch foresaw the urban renewal debacle in Babbitt:

Fact is, we're mighty lucky to be living among a bunch of city-folks, that recognize artistic things and business—punch equally. We'd feel pretty glum if we got stuck in some Main Street burg and tried to wise the old codgers up to the kind of life we're used to here. But, by golly, there's this you got to say for 'em: Every small American town is trying to get population and modern ideals…You don't want to just look at what these small towns are, you want to look at what they're aiming to become, and they all got an ambition that in the long run is going to make 'em the finest spots on earth—they all want to be just like Zenith!

The second reason Batavia obliterated the handiwork of her fathers has to do with class and ethnic resentments, which we are not allowed to talk about in American under penalty of banishment. (Fortunately, my wife coaches high school tennis in the Village of Elba, five miles north of Batavia, so our exile is within walking distance.) Batavia's immigrants, particularly the Italians and Catholics, prospered in the middle years of our century. They surpassed the natives— including the booboisie, which had barred them from country clubs and the like—and they came to feel, understandably, that Batavia needed a face-lift to reflect its reconfigured ethnic mix. New, sometimes, gaudy, homes were built on the city's west end; the old, dilapidated Victorian houses and Greek revival mansions of downtown were considered eyesores, paint-peeling relics of pre-Ellis Island days. An elderly member of the displaced gentry recently observed, "It was just a hatred of the people who built Batavia." (Plea for immunity: I am a church-going Catholic—St. Joseph's Parish—blessed with a beautiful and proudly Italian grandmother. I assume this pedigree shields me from the dread brand "nativist." No scarlet letters for me, thank you.)

In any event, the center of town all came down, and Batavia looked like Dresden. When urban renewal was completed, it looked like Dresden with a grotesque mall sprouting from the rubble. The destruction of old Batavia led to a housing shortage. Our poorest residents had for years lived above the small Main Street shops, in the respectable brick buildings of the late nineteenth century. Progress had kicked them out on the streets. So Batavia, prodded by her concerned clergy and laity, secured federal monies to construct three typically ugly and depressing clusters of low-income housing. Alas, we hadn't enough poor people to fill these jerry-built tenements. So black families from Buffalo were shipped in, and Batavia had its first real taste of race hatred. Theretofore, a small black community had existed in Genesee County; the Underground Railroad ran parallel to the New York Central up here, and some of our black citizens have roots in Batavia a century or more deep.

Relations between the races had been cordial if not close; public housing changed that. The newcomers from Buffalo soon dominated the police blotter; the crimes were for the most part petty, but the animosities were real. "Lotta niggers in Batavia," became a common refrain, and pious exhortations to brotherhood and school celebrations of Martin Luther King Day changed nothing.

John Gardner thought the old town had become emblematic of Main Street USA's decline;

Batavia, New York, where the Holland Land Office was…the beginning of a civilization…selling the land in this country. It was, in the beginning, a wonderful, beautiful place with the smartest Indians in America around. Now it's this old, run-down town which has been urban-renewalized just about out of existence. The factories have stopped and the people are poor and sometimes crabby; the elm trees are all dead, and so are the oaks and maples. So it's a good symbol.

Silly me, full of pride and vainglory and the defiant screw-you-Wadsworth spirit of my forefathers, I wanted to pour gasoline in one glorious wide path from Utica to Buffalo. Once ignited, the Burned-Over District would positively glow with fire, a beautiful consuming conflagration, and out of the flames a new Upstate would emerge, dreamy and boisterous and refractory, just like one hundred fifty years ago.

Boy, was I ever stupid.

I didn't listen to my Los Angeles-bred wife, who likes the landscape but scoffs that my Upstate, with its gallery of David Harum horse-sense philosophers and salt-of-the-earth trailer park Joads and stiff-spined Episcopalian ladies creaking with noblesse oblige, is somewhere between a mirage and a lie. I didn't even listen to my own novel, in which the protagonist, who returned to Batavia after being run out of Washington, is forced into the most factitious populism because there is simply no other outlet for honest protest.

Perhaps mine is the commonest tale of the exile returning home. It begins with the longings of Booth Tarkington's Gentleman from Indiana: "The thought of coming back to a life-work in my native state appealed to me. I always had a dim sort of feeling that the people out in these parts knew more—had more SENSE and were less artificial."

I had spent several pleasurable years in Babylon—Washington, D. C. and Southern California, to be precise—until the usual pangs of home-sickness grew into something quite different: a conviction that only by living in the place of my nativity, and the nativity of my ancestors, could I live a life that was anything but footloose, ephermeral, meaningless. As the writer and my fellow Upstater Frederick Exley says, "Watertown is not in my marrow; it is my marrow."

© 1991, Bill Kauffman and The American Scholar.
Reprinted by permission from The American Scholar, January 1991
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