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The Utica Club

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.

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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.”

[1]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.

 

11 Comments (Open | Close)

11 Comments To "The Utica Club"

#1 Comment By peter On February 15, 2013 @ 8:51 am

Great topic. You are right, of course, about the importance of mid-sized cities to our country and our culture. Sadly these cities have, almost without exception, been in decline since the suburbanization of America started at the end of WWII. For decades, we hoped we could save these cities via easy highway access and plenty of downtown parking, instead of making them good places to live and work. Large sections of many of these places were torn up for freeways and to build concentrations of low-income housing. Saving these places and making them vital and financially resilient again is a great challenge of our time with implications for our economy, culture, health and environment (see Jeff Speck, James Howard Kunstler, and Charles Marohn).

#2 Comment By Joseph Gilman On February 15, 2013 @ 3:23 pm

Bill Kauffman never disappoints, his writing is superb. He never fails to bring to life his subject matter and his columns always end with me wanting more.
Thank you Mr. Kaufmann.

#3 Comment By ben On February 15, 2013 @ 6:47 pm

Cities like Utica were taxed out of population. I should know; I was born there and left; too much taxing, to little prosperity. Dempcrats are keeping it up. Utica has lost something like half its population since the 1960 census. I left in 1980 and did not look back in anger, just sorrow…

#4 Comment By Dimitry Aleksandrovich On February 16, 2013 @ 2:27 am

My Little America is San Francisco’s West Side also known as “The Avenues” (Sunset District, Richmond District).

#5 Comment By Chris in Appalachia On February 16, 2013 @ 9:41 am

I live in Centarl Appalachia. I can drive for three hours and still not reach a location of major significance. That being said, I have always felt distant from mainstream American pop culture, because it is created by people from large East and West Coast cities who disregard the tastes and preferences of the Americans between the coasts. This arrogance and perceived superiority is no suprise to me, though. What is suprising is how many residents of Middle America accept this foreign culure anyway. How can someone from rural Nebraska relate to “Friends” or “King of Queens” or “Two Broke Girls?” But I guess they watch it anyway.

#6 Comment By Ed On February 16, 2013 @ 12:44 pm

Many of us went through a “back to the land” or a “small is beautiful” phase — at least intellectually, if not in practice. And yes, massive, complex societies and their elephantine bureaucracies have weaknesses that make them collapse under their own weight.

But back to the land traditionalism does become a sacred cow for some people, like the Chronicles set — something people pay reverence to without questioning, an idol that may not have much to do with how we or our fellow Americans live, a goal that either can’t be attained or wouldn’t make us any better off if it were attained.

I’m not attacking the idea of localism, but I have to wonder how sincere, how practical, how central the idea is to present day America, and whether it’s not just so much pretty cant, more esthetic than moral or political. It’s something that deserves as much scrutiny and analysis as celebration.

#7 Comment By Thomas O. Meehan On February 17, 2013 @ 3:02 pm

Too bad there wasn’t a bit more about Utica in this piece on Utica.

I left northern New Jersey as it became indistinguishable from New York. Then I left Princeton for the same reason. Now the cosmopolitan pests are invading Bucks County.

Where next, Montana?

#8 Comment By Sam M On February 18, 2013 @ 9:04 am

“Where next, Montana?”

Not so far West. Just head to northcentral PA. It wasn’t settled until after the Civil War, when a railroad came through. There wasn’t even any significant native presence, except in the river valleys. The land repelled a glacier, for heaven’s sake.

Manifest Destiny basically leapfrogged the region. The California Gold Rush happened long before we got settled. To this day, it’s not quite the Northeast, not quite the MidAtlantic, not quite Great Lakes.

Sure, the timber barons chopped down all our trees, but we grew new ones.

Also, nearby Kane, PA, was settled by General Thomas Kane. His story, along with that of his brother Elisha Kent Kane, are probably the greatest stories never told in America. You could do a lot worse if you were looking for awesome creation myths.

#9 Comment By Thomas O. Meehan On February 18, 2013 @ 2:18 pm

Sam M, I was guilty of hyperbole regarding Montana. I can’t help agree with you regarding the wild hinterland of Pennsylvania. I haven’t been to Kane County but I have explored the region to the South of Erie, including Venango County. The town of Franklin is a gem. That whole western PA territory is very impressive.

In this age of internet connectivity, does it really matter where one lives in rural America as long as the people are actual natives? Our country is full of college towns with libraries, cultural events. If only the colleges themselves weren’t pestholes!

#10 Comment By Kat On February 19, 2013 @ 5:38 am

You are a man after my heart– Sarah Orne Jewett, Harold Frederic, and Sinclair Lewis.
Why is The Damnation of Theron Ware largely forgotten? Hopefully your film can spur a revival. I look forward to it.

#11 Comment By Ed On March 26, 2013 @ 1:48 pm

Utica Club? One of those local or regional beers that survived the rule of Big Homogenous Beer. You should have gone to the Fort Schuyler Club, a rare survival of the early nineteenth century social club. Horatio Seymour and Elihu Root were members. Edmund Wilson wrote in his diaries about the club and the textile mill owning families that kept it going. It would have been interesting to see how much has changed since Wilson was around.

It’s nice to think that there’s some deep richness in every small city or town that artists or sensitive individuals need only tap into to “blow your brains out” as Wallace Shawn said, or some rich tradition that would redeem us if only we could connect with it, but that hasn’t been my experience. Back to the land, back to the provinces is appealing as a slogan, but if we go back and have real success in connecting with the past we take so much of what we’ve become that we can’t help but turn venerable survivals into Disneylands or Williamsburgs.