This Might Be the Best Book of the 21st Century

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Look Homeward, America. Bill Kauffman. ISI Books, 2006.

Strong,  deep, readable, desperate, fun. All those adjectives—even those that trip over one another—fit this book. It’s such a good book, it made me want to quit writing. “If someone like Kauffman, with his erudition and talent, isn’t a household name, what makes me think I can scratch together enough publishable words to cover my underwear budget?”

I’m not saying it’s the best book ever, not even the best book of the past 15 years. Indeed, when I went back through it for this piece, I almost put it back on the shelf: it simply doesn’t have the drunken chimp-like markings of other books I love. I’m not sure why. Maybe it’s because it’s such a pretty book, with good binding, that I felt bad marking it up.

Regardless, Kauffman’s is a real message. Partially Quixotic, partially crucial . . . and there’s considerable overlap between those. I don’t know if the passages reproduced here will convey the deep current under Kauffman’s light-skipping prose, but I hope they do. If not, buy the book. You won’t be disappointed. Kauffman’s display of his prodigious vocabulary alone is worth the price.


I’m pretty sure Kauffman has the biggest vocabulary since Samuel Johnson.

Unique words found in Look Homeward, America:

  • mottle
  • pavid
  • bumptious
  • martinet
  • scarify
  • nonce
  • terrene
  • descant
  • manque
  • phiz
  • clochard

Select Passages

Here are choice passages from the books, with my commentary where I think it might be entertaining and/or useful.

I’m not sure I’ve ever seen such a pithy and fun biography. It’s packed with entertaining facts that paint a vivid picture: “The guru of the libertarian paleos, the combative economist and joyful iconoclast Murray Rothbard, was a gnomic 5’3” nonbelieving Jew who adored cathedrals; championed the Black Panthers while also boasting that he had been founder, president, and pretty much the only member of Columbia University Students for Strom Thurmond in the 1948 presidential election; and once woke his wife JoAnn out of a sound sleep to declare, in his gleeful squawk, ‘That bastard Eli Whitney didn’t invent the cotton gin!’”

A rumination from the fifties: “So what, you ask, should the civil libertarian do about communists in government jobs? ‘Abolish the jobs,” replied anarchist Frank Chodorov. But who listens to anarchists?

Perhaps the most bizarre quote I’ve ever seen, and it’s an oldie (surprised I’d never seen it before): “The Virgin and St. Thomas are my vehicles of anarchism. Nobody knows enough to see what they mean, so the Judges will probably not be able to burn me.” Henry Adams.

“Dorothy Day, and humane anarchists in general, befuddle ideologues.”

For those who still think Dorothy Day was a communist: “An anarchistic distrust of the state, even in its putatively benevolent role as giver of alms, pervaded the Catholic Workers.”

And: “The greatest enemy of the church today is the state. Dorothy Day.

Interesting: “Peter Maurin’s anarchism was on one level based on this principle of subsidiarity, and on a higher level on that scene at the Last Supper where Christ washed the feet of his apostles. He came to serve, to show the new Way, the way of the powerless.”

A great snapshot of the condescending attitude of the Coasts toward the rest of our country’s regions: “[W]hen George Plimpton [through the NEA] paid Aram Saroyan $1,500 for a poem consisting of the single misspelled word ‘lighght,’ an Iowa congressional aide dared ask the dilettantish Plimpton what the poem meant. ‘You are from the Midwest. You are culturally deprived, so you would not understand it anyway,’ replied the New Yorker Plimpton.”

“Grant Wood . . . never much liked automobiles, the primary instrument of dislocation.” Amen to that. I dream of the day my family can have only one car. I don’t see it ever happening, but it has force me to walk more and it’d be a lot cheaper. Of course, the insurance savings wouldn’t be that much. Insurance company actuaries long ago figured out that married people are safer drivers than single people, so they started giving reduced rates to married people. The federal government stepped in and said such rates were discriminatory, so they had to stop. Their way around it: Give two-car household discounts. If there are two cars, after all, there’s a much better chance that there’s a married couple in the house. Absolutely ridiculous, but such is life in these United States.

“[H]ypermobility . . . is the great undiagnosed sickness of our age.”

“Today we know Mother Jones primarily as the name of a magazine for consumerist liberals whose idea of a radical act is selling their R.J. Reynolds stock and buying Starbucks. The real Mother Jones—Irish-born Mary Harris Jones (1830-1930), the coal miners’ angel and raiser of holy hell who said, ‘I would fight God Almighty himself if he didn’t play square with me’—was to her namesake magazine as Thomas Jefferson is to The Jeffersons.

“The most dangerous people—the ones who will kill you for your own good—are those who subordinate the individual to abstractions: the class, the master race, the efficient economy.”

Kauffman is full of witty criticism, but does he have any solutions? Yup, and though they’re presently quixotic (everything today is quixotic, if you want to bluntly honest, except the pursuit of individual virtue), they’re simple: “My solution is no more ‘practical’ than a Dorothy Day prayer or Henry Thoreau spade. It is this: No statesman’s coercive power should ever extend over people he does not know.”