June 1991

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Back to Batavia


Bill Kauffman

Part 1


When I take midnight walks I feel the presence of ghosts. I pass an abandoned brick warehouse that Will Garraghan built, or the shut-down factory where Ed Kauffman was shop steward. One block from the family homestead is Dwyer Stadium, home of the Class A Batavia Clippers, who were Bunyanesque heroes to generations of local kids. My dad was batboy, and for a few games I was too. Field of Dreams syrup aside, and pardon my blasphemy, but my every visit to Dwyer is an act of communion.

Coming home exerts appeal especially to the contrarians among us. Every economic, cultural, and social pressure pushes us into the cities, the bigger the better. Returning becomes an act of rebellion. But just as no one sings louder than the whore in church, no regional patriotism can match that of the returning prodigal. Through travel he has discovered what is unique about his home place; he insists on shouting these newly found truths from the rooftops—and boring his neighbors blue.

Southerners know this better than anyone. Proving Lord Acton's aphorism that exile is the nursery of nationalism, almost every one of the agrarian authors of the 1930 Old South manifesto I'll Take My Stand spent his early adulthood north of Mason-Dixon; Stark Young and Robert Penn Warren, among others, never returned. But they did look back, and that made all the difference. They had to see the city to love the country.

Alas, localism is neater in theory than in practice. I visited the mall on my first day home, to draw the bead on my enemy. To my surprise, I could summon none of the old bile; all I felt was pity. No one was ever there; the shops were nigh deserted, fudgsicle-smeared urchins crowded around video games, fat women and vaguely remembered white-trash classmates slumped on the L-shaped orange couches in the atrium.

Just inside the western entrance, a mural spanned the wall. High school students had painted—from pictures, in the way that I only know my great-great-grandparents from daguerreotypes—what Main Street used to look like. Chuck's Sporting Goods, Scott & Bean, Charles Men's Shop: the colors were vivid, the effect somber. This was our town, before we tore it down. It's as if an unrepentant murderer was showing off his prize possession, a Polaroid of his hapless victim.

Everywhere In Batavia I found small independent businesses in retreat. The Tops grocery chain has opened a super store on West Main, and all those little corner grocers, where at three o'clock the kids liberated from school, bought pretzel sticks and Bazooka Joes and Red Hot Dollars, all those Lamberts and Wandryks and Says and Borrellis are gone, gone, gone. Mr. Quartley just died, and the Platens are hanging on, barely. And now Tops has a pizza oven, and a Domino's just opened in the K Mart Plaza, so Pontillo's and Arena's and Ficarella's and Starvin' Marvin, you'd better dig in and fight. Or maybe it would just be easier to sell out, pack the wife and kids into a U-Haul, and slink down to Florida—to a trailer-park reservation with all the other white Indians.

Even Dwyer Stadium is endangered. An electronic scoreboard ushered in a new regime; no longer do kids scurry to the center-field wall between innings to hang metallic hits, runs, and errors shingles. (A boy's life knew no greater thrill.) If the governor dishes out the pork, plastic seats will replace our vintage 1930s grandstand. And the Clippers' parent team, the Philadelphia Phillies, has complained that our right-center-field wall is too short (lefties salivate at a 360-foot power alley), so, like lap dogs, management has agreed to reshape the diamond to boring Phillies' dimensions. By 1992, our coliseum will be standardized, conventionalized, Zenithized.

The daily newspaper has passed from the Griswolds and the McWains—fine old Republicans, how gentle that Main Street Harding hauteur seems now—to a chain. The chain sent a team of journalism school, degreed outsiders to Batavia, where they patiently instruct us in contemporary etiquette. (Let's get some foreign titles in the video store! What Batavia needs is a nice Mexican restaurant!) The editorial writers are all looking to move up and out, so the paper's leaders feature plenty of "Outlaw Pit Bulls" and "Dwarf-Tossing a National Disgrace" and "A Plan for World Peace" and nary a "Save a County Courthouse."

When speaking of our endangered county courthouse, I remember that one of my fictive models was the title character in Berry Fleming's charming 1943 novel Colonel Effingham's Raid. The Colonel, returning to his sleepy Georgia hometown after a long absence, is aghast to find its venerable courthouse on the verge of destruction. Swelling with outraged patriotism, he sounds the tocsin, calling all good men and women to the ramparts…and no one listens, save the Daughters of the Confederacy.

Colonel Effingham had his raiders, and Batavia has hers. They are elderly, mostly women. Their companions live on old streets and in cemeteries. They are Friends of the Library and members of the Holland Purchase Historical Society. They remember what Batavia used to be; they are saddened by its decline, which they cannot prevent, because the town is no longer theirs.

It belongs to the Johnson Newspapers Corporation, King Communications of Boston, Tops, J.C. Penney, K Mart, Genesee Community College (run by "credentialed" outsiders) and the government of New York State and Uncle Sam. We have been crushed, not by the iron heel but by a soft noiseless Thom McCann sole.

I do not want to paint too relentlessly depressing a picture. Hundreds still gather for Friday night high school football, and they cheer as loudly as ever; dozens attend the barbershop-quartet concerts in the Blind School Park; a hardy band of volunteers mows the lawn of our pioneer cemetery. Yet so many more Batavians are huddled around the living-room TV, watching "Entertainment Tonight" or some vapid sitcom, as localism withers on its ancient vine.

All over Upstate, people are pledging allegiance to national culture. They are Americans, not Upstaters, and if you believe, as I do, that homogeneity is death, then this loss of particularistic, parochial patriotism is a horrible thing. The provinces are aping the capital—as though we really need the Jay McInerny of Glens Falls, the Tama Janowitz of Johnson City, the Andy Warhol of Watertown.

Our best rock band, Jamestown's 10,000 Maniacs, is better known in Los Angeles than in Batavia. (Pity, as lead Maniac Natalie Merchant is a Burned-Over Chautaqua County spiritualist, a Lily Dale sprite.) Central New York boasts that it gave actor Richard Gere to the world, but Walter Edmonds, the author of Drums Along the Mohawk, wiles away the days in Concord, Massachusetts, near the Sleepy Hollow cemetery but far from the Mohawk. Mormons from around the world visit the Hill Cumorah in Palmyra, but days pass without a single visitor at some local historical sites. Thanks to New York City-dominated Regents, our high school graduates are more familiar with Alice Walker than with James Fenimore Cooper.

The question I faced, and failed utterly to answer, was this: How does one begin to revive a regional culture long dormant? I used to think it was funny when populists rode into town alone and went out the same way, disgusted that the townsfolk hadn't the gumption to take up arms. But no more.

The agrarian John Gould Fletcher, returned from a quarter century in England, once shared the dream and the disappointment.

I saw no reason, in that spring of 1933, why Arkansas should not achieve a genuine culture of its own, as significant in the pattern of American living as the culture of New England or of New York had been. My hope, however, of the achievement of any very vital and original culture for my native state has now largely waned… The lack of support, moral and financial, for genuine expression of local and indigenous culture is one of the most flagrantly vicious facts in American life today. How many American authors, artists, intellectuals have made reputations, only by getting away from their own native backgrounds, and by successfully ignoring the small-town disposition to criticize?

There is an earnestness bordering on the pathetic in those writers who have gone home again. Sinclair Lewis learned his counties but just couldn't stay in any one of them for very long. Jack Kerouac held court at his brother-in-law Nicky's bar in Lowell, Massachusetts; a drunken bum, said his neighbors, just another high school jock gone to pot. Helen Hoover Santmyer published two failed novels and returned to Xenia, Ohio, to teach English. She lived the life of a bourgeois spinster and wrote a fat best-seller…And Ladies of the Club, and a loving history of Xenia, Ohio Town, but I wonder, did Xenia treat her well? Flannery O'Connor had no choice; lupus chased her back to Milledgeville, Georgia. Even the sainted O'Connor gave in to fitful bitterness. She wrote to an admirer, Benjamin Griffith, "Since you show an interest in my book I presume you are a foreigner, as nobody in Georgia shows much interest. Southern people don't know anything about the literature of the south unless they have gone to Northern colleges or to some of the conscious places like Vanderbilt or Sewanee or W & L."

How I wish we had a Vanderbilt, a Sewanee, a W & L. Young Southern writers, no matter how remote their parish, how indifferent their neighbors, have a thousand polestars of every conceivable magnitude and color to guide them. The Southern sky is full of William Gilmore Simms and James Branch Cabell and Carson McCullers and Eudora Welty and even glittering Truman Capote, and look, there's the Thomas Wolfe nebula, huge and diffuse.

Upstate, the firmament is dark. There are footprints in the snow, but they are unillumined, hard to follow, and most just tail off after a while. The territory is uncharted; trailblazers are bound to get lost in the wood, and few ever emerge. You can preach and scream all you like, but certain facts are irrefragable: Batavia is now owned and operated by distant corporations. We are governed by Washington and Albany (in practice, New York City). We read newspapers written by corporate outsiders, watch television shows produced by people who despise us, hold jobs on the sufferance of business-school-trained executives who wouldn't be caught dead in the best of our restaurants. (Our nouvellest dish is spaghetti, and Les Miz ain't every gonna grace the stage of the high school auditorium.)

At the end of my second year in Batavia, the Catholic hospital in which I was born sought to purchase one of the last mansions on Main Street—built in 1811—and knock it down. In its stead would stand a high-rise residence for affluent elderly people. An architect from St. Louis was hired to supervise the razing and subsequent rising.

The preservationist remnant took its case to the planning board, and lost. Votes to save the mansion were cast by Catherine Roth—a woman of aristocratic demeanor, stern and indefatigable, faithful to the old Batavia—and Hollis Upson, a rooted son. The three votes for demolition were cast by Italian-surnamed commissioners. Is that ethnic division significant? Am I bigoted to notice? (A self-hater, as I am an Italian quadroon?)

The matter then went to the City Council, the court of last resort. Preservationists packed Council chambers. (Located in the 1853 red brick manse of George Brisbane, son of our first merchant, City Hall too, will one day be reduced to rubble.) The Daily News set the tone in its pre-meeting editorial: the "Fisher home must go," it lectured, because the hospital is "leading the rush into the future." Hospital officials derided opponents as "history buffs": a devastating putdown in fin de siècle America. The Council enthusiastically approved destruction; we rush into the future, unimpeded by the past.

St. Louis, Washington, Philadelphia, Albany, New York City: we entrust our lives and landmarks and cultural judgments to distant experts from famous cities. When did we lose confidence in ourselves? When did small-town America forfeit home rule? No one took it from us—we lost it. Sophisticates and city slickers are not our biggest problem: Batavians have met the enemy, and he is us.

Sometime in the fast-receding past, we renounced the old republic and turned a continent full of Okies and Yorkers and Hoosiers and Utah jack Mormons and Duluth boosters and Brooklynites and Maine Yankees into Americans whose passions are now spent on things distant: Donald Trump, the drug war, missing children, Jesse Jackson, global interdependence, Tom Cruise, Paula Abdul, and others, ad nauseum. Sinclair Lewis saw it coming, but even Zenith had its own poetaster, Chum Frink, (Chum is probably poet-in-residence at Cal State Wherever these days.)

Batavia's expiry may not impoverish the national letters. But what if my town is not atypical? Can regional literature survive the death of a thousand Batavias? When Anti-Masons and the Dagwood Restaurant and Edna's whorehouse give way to McDonald's and Burger King and MTV, do we condemn ourselves to a placeless fiction in which one burg is the same as the next? Are the ethnic enclaves within big cities the last fertile ground for parochial culture?

American regionalists face a daunting task. The giant we seek to wake may, after all, be dead. But one thing we must believe: John Gardner's Taggert Hodge was right. LOVE is the answer. Scrawl it across a highway near you.

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