Shortly after entering wedded bliss a quarter-century ago, my wife, a Los Angelena, told me that she wanted to see two cities: Utica and Cleveland.
I, as is my wont, made her dreams come true.
This fall I had the good luck to revisit the literary capital of the Mohawk Valley twice in a matter of weeks. First I spoke at Utica College, under the aegis of the school’s Ethnic Heritage Studies Center and the Alexander Hamilton Institute, in a celebration of Utica and her faithful literary son, Eugene Paul Nassar. Upstate New York literature maven Frank Bergmann and Hamilton College history professor Bob Paquette arranged the event, which afforded me the great pleasure of meeting Gene Nassar. (As a biographer of the Anti-Federalist Luther Martin, who despised the nationalist Hamilton and defended his murderer Aaron Burr, I got a real kick out of the Alexander Hamilton imprimatur.)
My other Utica venture was to pay homage at the Forest Hill Cemetery to Harold Frederic, novelist and bigamist, whose story “The Copperhead” I adapted for a film to be released this spring. Details—and Oscars, surely—to follow.
Every small American city deserves a Gene Nassar. Mr. Nassar grew up among the Lebanese Christians of East Utica. As an adult, he established himself as a noted scholar of such poets as Wallace Stevens and Ezra Pound while remaining rooted in the old neighborhood as a professor at Utica College and historian of his city, which he loves, sins and blemishes too, with the ardor of a native son.
Utica was once a baseball rival of Batavia’s in the New York-Penn League, and I like to think that the minor-league qualities of such cities—their intimate scale, the blending of the homely and the idiosyncratic, their unexpected tolerance of eccentricity—are the true soul of America. And of baseball. The majors are built on home runs and TV timeouts and $20 parking fees. To hell with ’em. To hell with the empire, too.
The glory and richness of America come not from its weaponry or wars, which debase us as much if not more than the relentlessly vulgar and witless products rolling off the entertainment industry’s assembly line. Rather, our numen is found in our regions, our little places, the unseen America beyond the ken of our placeless rulers.
A national culture exists only if fed by a thousand and one local, particularistic streams. American culture without Utica and her sister cities is … what? Ke$ha? Katie Couric? Entertainment Tonight?
William T. Coggeshall, state librarian of Ohio (and later a Lincoln bodyguard), explained three years before the War came that “It is not enough…that a national literature exists. It is required of a nation, which combines wide differences of characteristics, that each shall have its own representation. A Republic of letters may be a confederacy of individualities, [just as] a Republic in politics may be a confederacy of States.”
Before any potent or meaningful decentralist political movement develops in this country, we’re going to have to rediscover the places in which we live. We have to remember why we love our country—and the reason isn’t that “We’re Number One!” or that we can sprawl out on the couch chanting “USA! USA!” as the bombs drop and the televised chickenhawks cackle.
That isn’t patriotism. It isn’t even a parody of patriotism. It’s an allegiance to … nothing.
America, the myth goes, is a land of perpetual motion, of restless pioneers striking out for the West, or in our time, of restive television addicts lighting out for Las Vegas, with the mini-set in the SUV playing “Two and a Half Men” DVDs so that unlike the Joads, members of this family don’t have to talk to one another. We are, supposedly, always moving, never stopping, consumed by what William Cullen Bryant called “the vain low strife that makes men mad.”
And yet the best American writers—even those who follow their characters on rafts down the Mississippi, even those who write books titled On the Road or You Can’t Go Home Again—are almost always attached to a place. Not a home page, but a real, individuated place that is different from any other place on earth: Sarah Orne Jewett in South Berwick, Maine. Sinclair Lewis in Minnesota. Wendell Berry in Henry County, Kentucky. Thoreau in Concord.
The regionalist impulse in American letters is greater now than at any time since the mid-1930s. Backwoods New England. Romantic North Dakota. East Utica. Writers are looking homeward. Standing on what they stand for, as Edward Abbey used to say. Only good can come of this. The Little America ain’t dead yet.