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Look Homeward, America, by Bill Kauffman

Sometimes—not too often, I assure you—I'm highly tempted to eschew my pontifications on the books I've read and offer up a review that consists of nothing but quotes from the volume itself. Such is the case with Look Homeward, America: In Search of Reactionary Radicals and Front-Porch Anarchists, by Bill Kauffman. If the subtitle doesn't pique one sufficiently, these random quotes ought to do it:

The side of liberty, of locally based community, of independence from the war machine, the welfare state, the bureacratic prison whose wardens were McNamara, Rockefeller, Bundy, and the wise men and wealthy men who had never grasped Paul Goodman's point—or perhaps they had grasped it all too well, and wrestled it into submission—that [i]t is only the anarchists who are really conservative, for they want to conserve sun and space, animal nature, primary community, experimenting inquiry. (sic; p. 182)
You can believe in the American Empire, with its smart bombs and dumb presidents, or you can believe in the American Main Street, where Sinclair Lewis and Grant Wood lived. You can believe in Clear Channel or you can believe in Clear Lake. (p. 87)
Regionalism, it must be emphasized, was not jingoism, or flag-waving, or the painterly equivalent of the microwave-tortilla eater's USA! USA! chant croaked out during televised time-delayed Viagra-sponsored Olympic matches. [Grant] Wood, in 1937, called regionalism a revolt against cultural nationalism—that is, the tendency of artists to ignore or deny the fact that there are important differences ... between the various regions of America. (p. 55)
I would like to blame television for making us a nation of cretins, lobotomized by that wasteland so vast that it makes Newton Minnow look like a veritable Moby Dick of oracles. Is a resistance, a revival of small-scale polities possible when Mississippians prefer The West Wing to Welty? Ah, but physician, lacerate thyself: I sit listening to Neil Young's album Greendale, about a small-town family shattered (but also ennobled) by its fight against the modern world. About five minutes after ole' Neil shouts It ain't an honor to be on TV—and it ain't a duty either, I get a phone call asking me to appear on a Rochester TV news show to discuss my late friend Barber Conable. I do it. Sorry Neil. Sorry Barber. It's TV, y'know? (p. 179)
The War on Terror, which we have been assured will haunt our lifetimes and those of our children, has intensified my reactionary radicalism, my anarchism—my patriotism—and may yet redefine American politics along a natural divide: the personal versus the abstract. (p. 173; italics in original)

No wonder his Wiki page currently has all kinds of diverse -isms listed for him. And it should be pointed out upfront that Kauffman has a habit rare among writers—a willingness to puncture his own pretensions as readily as he does others'.

Look Homeward, America seems as much a mirror to one's own soul as it is a reflection of an America that many of my generation seem to miss, whether we ever really had it or not. The sharp barbs, whether justified (the collected plagiarisms of Doris Kearns Goodwin, p. 179) or likely snarky hearsay (one of those fabled forty-five-second Kennedy love marathons, p. 176), can intensify a negative or sarcastic mien. But if one's looking for inspiration or hope, that is also well met, in recounts of hopeful statistics on community-supported agriculture or homeschooling or electoral apathy as well as entire chapters on inspiring figures such as Wendell Berry and Carolyn Chute.

Weighing in with just six chapters and a conclusion, for a grand total of 185 smallish pages of text, one might be tempted to think one can breeze through Look Homeward, America. It ain't that easy. Kauffman's meandering prose style and penchant for vocabulary that likely sends all but the most erudite to the dictionary or thesaurus (see, it's infectious) can thwart many a determined speed reader. Reason readers will probably find the style familiar, however—and yes, he did do a stint there, until his Catholicism and lack of admiration of Ayn Rand (unreadable nonfiction word-clots [p. xv of the introduction] is how he described one of her works) likely hastened his departure. Amid the quasi-pedantry, however, one finds gems of individualist insight that speak both to America's possibly-mythic past as well as its hoped-for future:

[T]he most ennobling work we do is seldom remunerated in greenbacks. Bearing and raising a child, cultivating a garden, just being there for a sibling or friend to lean on: this work is compensated in a currency far more valuable than Uncle Sam's paper. This, in fact, is the work that should be honored on Labor Day. The work we do for nothing. (For everything, really.) The work that enriches us as human beings; that binds us to our families and our neighbors; that shrouds even the most commonplace of lives in glory. This is the work whose coin, whose only coin, is love. (p. 133)

One might find various elements on which to disagree with Kauffman—religion, mutualism, isolationism, anti-corporatism, or anarchism, to identify just a few—but anyone who can laugh at today's libertarians while conceding that they are, at least in part, dead right, while simultaneously expanding his audience's vocabulary, is doing at least a few things right. All my scribbled quibbles in the margins aside, I enjoyed Look Homeward, America, and somewhat surprisingly, found some hope for the USSA within it. You might also.

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