Sightings of an Endangered Species
To say that Bill Kauffman’s collection of essays, Poetry Night at the Ballpark, comes from a forgotten America is, in one sense, to state the obvious. Kauffman, who for the past thirty years has staked out a career as a columnist and commentator from his home in upstate New York, obviously comes from a place in America that is increasingly rare—a small region with a distinctive voice, outlook, and independence that sets it apart from the rest of the nation. Yet behind this obvious description there is an important point to be made: Kauffman’s book is the product of two things that are dying before our eyes: American regionalism and the idea of a man of letters.
We’ll begin by considering the first point. Kauffman’s writing routinely features references to his home in upstate New York. At one time this would not have been unusual. Regionalism is a great tradition in American letters and you can find distinctive writers from every part of the country—New England gave us Hawthorne and the transcendentalists (and never did repent of it). The South has given us Faulkner and Percy and O’Connor. The West can point to Wallace Stegner and John Steinbeck while the Midwest can claim Willa Cather and Marilynne Robinson, amongst others. This tradition has continued on a more limited basis up to the present day with Wendell Berry representing the South, Ted Kooser speaking for the Great Plains, and Garrison Keillor for the upper Midwest. But it is a failing tradition at this point, for the simple reason that most of these great and distinctive regional voices are dying. Today’s most famous novelists are not known for their rootedness and membership in the place of their birth but are instead, more often than not, cosmopolitan citizens of global cities like New York, San Francisco, Washington, and London. Indeed, if we still have a “regionalism” at all it is the regionalism of the cosmopolitan cities which is, increasingly the default culture of most cities. Stegner and his student Berry have been replaced by novelists like Jonathan Franzen and Dave Eggers or critics like the late Christopher Hitchens.
Hitchens, in fact, may serve as a good bridge to the other death that Kauffman’s book tacitly implies: The passing away of the man of letters. One of the most remarkable things about Kauffman’s book is the sheer breadth of his learning. He is not a scholar and so his study is not deep into any one field by academic standards; a scholar reading Kauffman writing about his own field would perhaps be underwhelmed. But that should not be taken as too much of a criticism of Kauffman, for if anything he has the ability to underwhelm many academics. The man possesses a breadth of knowledge that in all likelihood few in America can rival. Kauffman seems equally comfortable discussing obscure mid-twentieth century films, public policy issues, technological developments in mass communications, American history, and the game of baseball.
It is hard to imagine today’s writing economy producing Kauffman’s equal, as our institutions simply lack the resources required to sustain writers like Kauffman—regular columnists who have enormous editorial freedom and whose learning is as broad as the mandate from their editor. As such, we would all do well to learn not only from Kauffman’s specific thoughts and ideas, but from the broader example he has set as a man of letters possessing the wisdom and learning needed to speak intelligently on a remarkable range of topics and subjects. Our media outlets may not have the means (or perhaps the desire) to support such writers today, but private citizens can still attempt to cultivate such wisdom and learning in themselves and use it for the service of their local places while working in other fields.
Though this book is clearly a collection of essays and so suffers from a kind of shotgun approach to Kauffman’s work, there are some particularly bright moments deserving of special praise. His essay “George W. Bush, the Anti-Family President” from Counterpunch is worth reading carefully, particularly in a day when the GOP presidential candidate most acceptable to many evangelicals, Marco Rubio, endorsed making women part of the draft. Kauffman’s essay is a blistering and sadly accurate takedown of the hypocrisy inherent in any political platform that would profess to be both pro-American empire and pro-family. Here is his punchy and prescient conclusion to the essay, which was published in 2003:
“The leadership of the family values Right is hopelessly compromised by its long-term adulterous affair with the Republican party. But plenty of good folks who call themselves ‘conservatives’ mean by that now-useless term that they believe in the integrity of families and small communities and detest the vulgar, home-wrecking, and even murderous intrusions of corporate capitalism and Big Government. As they watch this latest American diaspora, as young husbands and wives tearfully leave spouses and children and extended families to serve the Empire, we should remind them that the only foreign policy compatible with healthy family life is one of peace and non-intervention. Come home, America. Come home.”
Not all of the works in this volume are that abrasive, however. Some concern themselves with amusing forgotten stories or films from America’s past. In “TR vs. the Dictionary,” first published in 2001 in The American Enterprise, Kauffman tells the tale of the Spelling Reform Association, founded by Melvil Dewey (the developer of the book cataloging system that bears his name) in 1886. The organization was dedicated to simplifying the spelling of many common words in American English, a cause that actually has an impressive historical pedigree via Benjamin Franklin, who once advocated for changing the spelling of “bread” to “bred” since the “a” was silent anyway.
By the early twentieth century, the organization found a major living advocate in the form of President Teddy Roosevelt. Unfortunately, Roosevelt rather lacked the support required to advance his cause anywhere beyond the newsroom of various publications that enjoyed poking fun at the sitting president. Here we see Kauffman’s playful side: “The press heaped ridicule upon Roosevelt, who had a self-deprecating sense of humor but did not much like to be deprecated by others. The Baltimore Sun asked how the President’s surname would be rendered in the new spelling: ‘Rusevelt’ or ‘Butt-in-sky’? In best conspiracy-sniffing fashion, the Rochester Post-Express declared, ‘It is a scheme financed by Carnegie, backed by certain large publishing interests, and designed to carry out an immense project for jobbery in reprinting dictionaries and school books.’”
The fact that the two essays sampled above concern a contrarian conservative take on military service and a bit of obscure Americana from the early twentieth century actually says a great deal about the range of this book. Though few people will want to read the volume from cover to cover, there is something in this book for just about anyone. The fact that such a wide-ranging book can come from the pen of a single author is a miraculous thing. One hopes such a thing will still be possible twenty years from now.
Jake Meador is a writer and editor from Lincoln NE. He is a contributing editor with Fare Forward and Mere Orthodoxy and is the creator of the soccer newsletter The Inside Channel. His work has been published in First Things, Front Porch Republic, Christianity Today, and Books & Culture. He lives in Lincoln with his wife and two children.
Posted: November 27, 2016
An Anti-Utopian Life
Kevin J. McNamara
Volume 39, Number 3 (Fall 1999)