An interview with Bill Kauffman.
The University Bookman is pleased to feature this interview with Bill Kauffman. Bill, a proud native of Batavia, New York, has been one of the most articulate advocates for a renewed American localism and a true son of his hometown, through books such as Ain’t My America and Bye Bye, Miss American Empire. His new venture, the feature film, Copperhead, for which he wrote the screenplay, focuses on the Civil War and its effects on a small New York town. The film will be released nationally in theaters on June 28.
Bill, thanks for speaking with us. Tell us how you came to the story in Copperhead?
Ron Maxwell and I have been friends for years. Ron, director of Gettysburg and Gods and Generals, is our foremost cinematic interpreter of the Civil War. In a conversation it came up that we had both read and loved Harold Frederic’s 1893 novella “The Copperhead,” and, well, after a long and winding road here we are.
I should say something about Frederic and his book. He was a native of Utica, which pound for pound is the literary capital of New York State. He was later a London correspondent for the New York Times but was best known for The Damnation of Theron Ware (1896), a tale of a simple Upstate Methodist minister’s crisis of faith, which F. Scott Fitzgerald called the best American novel written before 1920. (Does that mean before This Side of Paradise? Never mind.) Frederic’s short stories of the Civil War “differ fundamentally from any other Civil War fiction I know,” wrote his admirer Edmund Wilson. There is in these stories not a shred of “Battle Hymn of the Republic” Northern righteousness nor “Dixie” Southern moonlight and magnolias romanticism: they are hard, spare, unblinking accounts of life on the Upstate New York homefront. Stephen Crane, another admirer, said of Frederic’s Civil War stories that they illumined “the great country back of the line of fight—the waiting women, the lightless windows, the tables set for three instead of five.” In other words, they limn the domestic consequences of the war. You find a different kind of nobility, of heroism, back home—but there is no glorification of carnage.
The national mythology tells us that the Civil War was a necessary evil, with Lincoln our secular, nationalizing savior. How does the story told in Copperhead complicate that just-so story told to us by our elites?
For much of my career, if that’s not too stately a term to apply to what has been a shambling affair, I’ve been guided by a remark of the great New Left historian William Appleman Williams, a patriot of Atlantic, Iowa: “So let us think about the people who lost.” Those people have ranged from anti-expansionists to defenders of small rural schools to those who say “No!” to war. Antiwar Northerners, like those Southern Unionists who did not want to break up the union over slavery, complicate the Accepted Narrative. The more fervent among them were called “Copperheads,” after the poisonous snake. (Dissenters from wars and other massive state projects are typically dehumanized.) Their pre-eminent academic interpreter is the late Frank Klement, long-time professor at Marquette and a product of the University of Wisconsin’s legendarily Middle American-populist history department. Our movie is not a study of the Copperheads, or the antiwar movement in the North; Lincoln is mentioned only twice, I think. We focus not on the men who made the decisions to send boys off to war, but on the boys themselves and the places they left—the homefront, which is always the forgotten casualty of any war.
Some might think the movie’s focus on a northern resister to the Civil War means that he was a slavery sympathizer. What’s the real story?
Abner Beech, the resister-farmer, is an old-fashioned Upstate New York Jefferson-Jackson Democrat—a constitutionalist. He’s never seen a slave, nor has he any affection for the institution. Though he’s a substantial man in The Corners, his settlement—an insular, agrarian, socially egalitarian community—and though he reads widely, the war seems to him a menacing abstraction that threatens the peace of his little place. Some viewers will think that he’s blind to the great evil of slavery that lies beyond his ken; others may see him as a misguided idealist; still others may consider him a patriot and man of peace. Ron Maxwell and I don’t believe in message movies, or bludgeoning people over the head with political polemics. And I sure don’t think American movies need a libertarian Stanley Kramer. But I . . . well, no spoilers. Viewers can judge for themselves.
How difficult was it to create the local feel in the movie?
Ron had scouted King’s Landing, a “living history” museum in New Brunswick, Canada, for a previous film. The architecture and layout is classic mid-nineteenth-century Northern American: a perfect place to film. The actors—it’s a tremendous cast—absolutely inhabited their roles. One sidelight: the dialect coach had them study, among other things, speeches by me. We have no tapes of Upstate speech circa 1862, but certain pronunciations have lingered. The first week or so (I was on location for about four of the seven weeks) some of the actors would ask me, “How do you say apple? How do you say Corners?” That sort of thing. My wife (who’s from Los Angeles) said that to get the Upstate accent all they’d have to do is ask me to say “Halle Berry.”
Your books evocatively have brought to life an alternative American history, bringing back groups as disparate as the Loco-Focos, populist old right, new left patriots, and anti-imperialists of every stripe. What is your assessment of the health of that tradition in light of our seemingly endless wars in Afghanistan and Iraq? Are there conservatives who are shaking off the centralizers of both Right and Left?
In one sense, we are utterly routed. War, militarism, a centralized and bureaucratic state, rootlessness, and its manifestations: these seem to have won the day. But the alternative tradition you mention, while we’ve been destroyed politically, remains a potent and healthy cultural force. You see it today in everything from community-supported agriculture to farm markets to the resurgence of regional literature to local brewing . . . a lot of very welcome developments and promising currents that have no political expression—yet—but that reveal the widespread awareness that things have gone terribly wrong, and a yearning to a find a more humane, human-scale way of living.
You have often counseled young conservatives to “go home” and “stay put.” Why should they?
Well, I have an aversion to telling people how to live their lives, but for me, a life without anchorage, without “land under us/to steady us when we stood,” in Wendell Berry’s phrase, is evanescent, transitory, meaningless. There are many ways of going, to quote another poet, and I don’t mean to suggest that one must live in or repatriate to one’s hometown. But I like what Booker T. Washington said: “Cast down your bucket where you are.” Make for yourself and your family a home in a place where you matter, whether it be a little hamlet or a big-city neighborhood.
Do you think there is an appetite for more stories like those told in Copperhead?
I hope so. Popular books about American history, especially the Founding era, often dot the best-seller lists, which suggests not only an appetite for these stories but also a desire to recapture certain lost American ideals. Our history has been of minimal interest to most American filmmakers, but the success of Steven Spielberg’s film Lincoln, whatever its merits (I haven’t seen it), suggests the same hunger among moviegoers, or at least those who aren’t lost in the multiplex.
Conservatives, especially those in Washington and New York, too often focus on policies and intellectual positions rather than the stuff of culture: Community, farmers’ markets, and the like. How would you advise younger conservatives to move a true localism forward?
Belong to the place where you live. Learn its history, its secrets, its sins, its color, its music, its flora and fauna and food. You’ll become a defender of that place, its champion (though not blind to its faults). Your political angle of vision may change, as you’ll see that a vast multitude of policies and programs, whether perpetual war or No Child Left Behind or making seemingly every contentious social matter a “federal issue,” are erosive of your community.
Bill Kauffman, screenwriter for the upcoming feature film Copperhead, speaks with the Bookman about localism, war, and his forthcoming film.