There is an old journal called The University Bookman, founded long ago by Russell Kirk, which ought to be more widely read. Its current issue is devoted to regionalism and localism, and it's magnificent. Like all good and noble localism, it is quirky but profound, pugnacious but openhearted, idiosyncratic but informative; to fierce polemic the writers add heavy dollops of levity, and they crown a certain playful crankishness with sparkling wisdom. The flavor of all this can be grasped, perhaps, in the fact that editor Gerald J. Russello contributes a short essay defiantly celebrating, of all places, Brooklyn. Or consider the marvelous opening lines of Jeremy Beer's uproarious ode to an unjustly forgotten Indiana writer by the name of Tarkington:
During a recent lecture, the eminent and usually trustworthy literary critic Joseph Epstein befuddled at least one audience member (me) by referring to Theodore Dreiser as the “greatest American author of the twentieth century.” Huh? Dreiser was not even the greatest twentieth-century author from Indiana.
But fear not, dear admirer of Epstein (I count myself as one), for the localist's generosity wins out in the end:
Joseph Epstein is an intelligent man. Theodore Dreiser’s adulation of power, modish leftism, and crackpot theories surely must not impress him. So why the admiration? In his talk, he mentioned that Dreiser wrote as the “ultimate outsider,” which gave him a comparative advantage in illuminating the American scene. Maybe. But I’m inclined to think that Epstein’s judgment is colored by the fact that Dreiser both began his career and set his best work, Sister Carrie (1900), in Epstein’s native Chicago. This must be a case of rank hometown prejudice. As such, I honor and respect it.
There is, indeed, a lot to be said about the localist's basic generosity. Unlike the universalist or the imperialist, he is quite prepared to give other places their due. He is not all full up on today's fashionable patriotism of supremacy. He is perfectly content to acknowledge that other locales, other regions, other countries have their virtues and their greatness. Or, even if they appear to have very little of either, he is still prepared to acknowledge that men can love even broken and subjugated places. His patriotism does not seek to crowd out everyone else's with the rhetoric of universals; there is nothing in him of that ideological fervor to bring everyone into conformity with the latest theories of human thriving.
In a word, the object of his patriotism may be small, but his heart is warm and full. He is moved to love for his home like decent men are moved to love and sympathy for frightened children and lost dogs. It is smallness, vulnerability and above all the tragedy of fleeting things that engenders his patriotism. One day the object of his love will be gone, and his solace is in the God who said that the created world is good, even its broken and subjugated parts.
Now here I have gone and added a little polemic to what was supposed to be just a notice about a fine publication. No matter. These essays will surely delight, amuse, challenge and inform you, whether you agree with my polemic or not.