“I am on the one hand a kind of New York State Republican, conservative. On the other hand, I am a kind of a Bohemian type. I really don’t obey the laws. I mean to, but if I am in a hurry and there is no parking here, I park.”
Batavia’s wandering native son left this vale of tears fittingly, in a motorcycle accident on a dusty country road near Susquehanna, Pennsylvania. If his shade should return to Batavia, he’ll have little trouble finding a legal parking spot in one of the sprawling asphalt maria that border shut-down plants and vacant retail stores. Alas, he’ll be lucky to locate a copy of The Sunlight Dialogues or The Resurrection.
A prophet, the good book reminds us, is ever without honor in his hometown. Even in the Burned-Over District of upstate New York. John Gardner’s Batavia (and mine) is a city of 17,000, seat of the county of Genesee, jewel of the empire that the speculator and Declaration-signer Robert Morris sold to the Holland Land Company. We lie at the western edge of New York’s Burned-Over District, that fertile swatch of upstate land, stretching from Utica to Buffalo, which blazed with white-hot fanaticisms throughout the first half of the 19th century.
The Burned-Over District incubated a score of social and religious enthusiasms, few of which survived the Jacksonian era. Here in upper York, along what the poet and hardy regionalist Carl Carmer called our “psychic highway,” Joseph Smith entertained the Angel Moroni; John Humphrey Noyes preached the Perfectionist creed to his comely disciples at Oneida; Ann Lee’s “Shaking Quakers” writhed in celibate ecstasy; Jemima Wilkinson, the “Publick Universal Friend,” was worshiped as an incarnation of Christ; Susan B. Anthony took up the equal-rights cudgel; and hundreds of lesserknown prophets and seers and lonely antinomians scorched the ground.
Batavia’s contribution to the Burned-Over stew was modest: the old town was home to William Morgan, an apostate Mason whose eagerness to divulge the order’s secrets got him tossed into the Niagara River (though probably not over the Falls) in September 1826.
The Burned-Over enthusiasms were pretty well drenched by 1850, yet they bequeathed the region a curious, contradictory legacy. The millenarian firestorms triggered a reaction by the yeomanry: the shrinking band of utopian zealots were gradually swallowed by a conservative majority that clung tenaciously to the eternal verities.
Upstate New York’s Civil War experience is instructive. Birthplace of the abolitionist Liberty Party, home to Frederick Douglass and Gerrit Smith, the Burned-Over District helped New York supply the most men per capita to the Union Army. At the same time. New York’s Governor, Horatio Seymour of Utica, acted as the North’s anti-Lincoln lightning rod—denouncing the draft, the suspension of habeas corpus, and various of Father Lincoln’s other infringements upon the Revolutionary liberties.
The principled dissident Seymour was execrated as a traitor. But he remained popular upstate, and his example inspired fellow Utican Harold Frederic to compose a milestone of Burned-Over fiction, his 1893 novella The Copperhead. (The book sympathetically describes an upstate farmer whose adherence to Jeffersonian principles leads him into a bitterly anti-Civil War stance. His son deserts him, he is banished from the town’s commercial life, hotheads burn down his barn . . . until the Mohawk Valley comes to its collective senses, and the protagonist is readmitted to community life by a chastened town.)
With Frederic’s death, a silence overtook Burned-Over tongues, and despite the best efforts of the late folklorist Carmer it grows more oppressive with each passing year. Why are the sons and daughters of the Burned-Over District so timorous in asserting themselves in cultural matters? Is it because we fear the disfavor of Kitty Carlisle Hart, or Billy Joel, or Gordon Lish, or the rest of the downstate defilers of Parnassus? Is it because the last knight to challenge the Manhattan Gorgon, John Gardner (can’t you see that beautiful native son, leatherjacketed, white-maned, swilling vodka, roaring down Route 63, gravel spraying in his Harley’s wake?) was reviled as the “hippie Moral Majoritarian” after he threw down the gauntlet to the neurasthenic archons of modernism in On Moral Fiction?
Or is it because the belletrist is a stranger in this land, a practitioner of a craft that his neighbors view as illegitimate? Carl Carmer threw up his hands in frustration: “To the disgust of the living artist, the Yorker, whether rich or poor, refuses to look upon him as a natural product of the people of his region but insists on regarding him as a biological sport, a not-to-be-expected growth from the soil of upstate civilization.”
My theory, for what it’s worth, is that the Burned-Over District’s artistic void is due to the disappearance of regional patriotism. Up here that word manifests itself as New York City-hatred. Our forefathers, bless their souls, detested the Babylon on the Hudson. (The City of New York, after all, served as a Tory bastion while upstaters were consecrating the Revolution with their blood.)
For whatever reason, that resentment didn’t stick. Sure, the Burned- Over populace gets riled up now and then at some downstate outrage, but our boys and girls routinely sell out to the enemy. The Batavia Daily News recently profiled a local lass who’d risen to stratospheric heights—as secretary to George Bush! Somewhere in nightmarish Northern Virginia her condo doubtless desecrates some Civil War site. She wanted to say hi to all her friends back home, and vouchsafed that she couldn’t understand how some lost souls “just stay there.”
In saner times, such a turncoat would be pitied by the community. Today, she is emulated. Look! See how this plucky gal overcame her Genesee County upbringing and is at this very moment typing documents crucial to the extension of the American imperium!
Mr. Bush’s Burned-Over minion knows well that moment at which the exiled colonial faces a choice: abandon the province and pledge allegiance to the metropolis, or dig in your heels in defense of a home and a culture that elite opinion has encouraged you to renounce. For most choosing expatriation, home recedes quickly, until it becomes nothing more than a joke. (Western New York-born choreographer Michael Bennett: “Buffalo and suicide are synonymous.” Ha ha.)
How does one revive a longdormant regionalism? Loyalties to towns, villages, counties exist, but any greater regional awareness has vanished. There is no Burned-Over sectional character, just as there is no extant Burned-Over literature. The footsteps of Frederic and Gardner and the anti-Masons are obscured by time and indifference; even the most ancestor-minded Burned-Over son will have trouble finding his way.
A few gusts of anti-urbanism still whistle through the district, though they are pooh-poohed by provincial elites and ignored by New York’s mandarins, when the upstate serfs roared protest over his mandatory seat-belt law. Governor Cuomo dismissed the opposition as “NRA hunters who drink beer, don’t vote, and lie to their wives about where they were all weekend.” (High wit from a man who sees St. Francis of Assisi’s imprint all over the Department of Health and Human Services.)
For a time, the Attica prison riot of 1971 cleaved the state along geographic lines. As refracted through the New York City media lens, Atticans appeared to be gap-toothed inbreds just aching to join some hillbilly lynching party. When Governor Rockefeller ordered the storming of the prison, killing 11 hostage-guards and 32 inmates, Attica forever after became a byword for racism.
Lost in all the bloviating postmortems was the social and sectional significance of Attica. In the Burned-Over District, the inmates are not seen as the prime villains in the Attica riot. Most locals were aware of the squalid conditions inside the prison, as well as the occasional brutality of some guards. The real criminal was the hated Rockefeller, symbol of the inexorable forces of downstate tyranny. The dead, said a relative of one murdered guard, were killed with “a bullet that had the name Rockefeller on it.”
Tom Wicker, back in the days before a legion of “researchers” wrote his lifeless copy, backhandedly commemorated Wyoming and Genesee counties with A Time to Die, his account of Attica. Wicker’s impressions are about what you’d expect from a cultural turncoat: when apprised of his assignment to Attica, he whines that he’s being sent to “such a remote part of New York territory.” When he witnesses a hysterical woman berating black Buffalo Assemblyman Arthur Eve, he chalks her rage up to “the drudge life in Alexander, New York.” When he sups (to satiation, I would guess), he can’t help “watching cheerful Batavians enjoying themselves at the local hot-spot,” which, yuk yuk, turns out to be “a bowling-alley restaurant.”
They filmed ole Tom’s book a couple years back, and an attractive girl of my acquaintance—a lifelong Geneseean—sought a spot as an extra. She didn’t make it. “Not hick-looking enough,” the Hollywood casting person told her.
Predictably, Burned-Over influence on state politics has dwindled to nil over the last century. No one much cares. Oh, the seat-belt law still rankles, as do the tax and bond referenda that the corporate-state managers sneak onto the ballot (in indecipherable prose, to discourage voters from reading ’em). But why get involved in politics? Downstate dominates the ever-widening public sphere, resistance is generally futile, and statewide elections are a joke. As an alternative to managerial state Democrats from New York City, the GOP offers millionaire suburban patroons from Long Island or Westchester County, take your pick. Most sensible folk don’t.
Still the embers in the Burned-Over District do erupt into glorious flames at fitful intervals—witness last winter’s heroic fight by the citizens of Wayne County to save it.
The protagonists of Progress and Privilege, i.e.. Saint Mario, the Chamber of Commerce, and Albany’s swollen bureaucracy, betook a flashy effort to attract the multibillion-dollar supercollider boondoggle to Wayne, the second-largest apple-producing county in the country. (The supercollider is the perfect Reagan-era public work: subsidized employment for upper-middle-class white engineers.)
More than 12,000 acres of land, much of it devoted to apple orchards, were to be destroyed. As many as a thousand homes were to be razed. The Hill Cumorah, a sacred Mormon site, was to be sacrificed to the Moloch of science.
In an instant, the Wayne precinct of the Burned-Over District was ablaze. The governor was hung in effigy. The lieutenant governor, a token upstater from Jamestown, a turncoat quisling collaborating student council president of a man, was spat upon. The jellyfish pols, sensing that the Cuomo/ Chamber of Commerce juggernaut was encountering fierce and potentially violent opposition, jumped ship, the slimy lot of them burbling about nature’s pristine beauty, the will of the people, blahblahblah. Remarkably, the state gave in. The supercollider would have to profane some other site, in some other state.
Secession is the obvious remedy. The prospects for a severed New York are actually far brighter than exist in any other state. As recently as the late 1960’s, Norman Mailer and Bella Abzug were proposing statehood for New York City. Mailer made secession the keystone of his 1969 mayoralty campaign, though Brooklyn’s bard of fugging slighted the prospect of gaining upstate support for a split: “While the separation could hardly be as advantageous to New York State as it would be for the city, it might nonetheless begin the development of what has been hitherto a culturally undernourished hinterland, a typically colorless national tract.”
Unlike, say, Flatbush.
At all events, secession is an excellent idea that ought to be revived. Gothamites can keep the name “New York,” which always struck me as an aristocratic hand-me-down appellation anyway. Perhaps we’ll opt for Genesee, or Iroquois, or some other apt old Indian name. We’ll even give Long Island and Westchester to the new urban state, to keep New York Times editors, equestrian competitors, and minimalist fiction writers from littering our landscape.
Someday—soon I hope—the sons and daughters of the Burned-Over District are going to learn the pyrographic skills of their ancestors. Foreigners may assume that the arrayed forces of city and state will be too much for a gang of backwoods and hick-town fire-eaters, but consider this: Gordon Lish and Nelson Rockefeller are on their side, but John Gardner and the Angel Moroni are on ours.