ABOUT JOHN BASKIN
From Gene Logsdon’s
Mother of All Arts: Agrarianism and the Creative Impulse,
The University Press of Kentucky, Lexington, 2007
John Baskin comes close to being the archetypical modern agrarian writer—except that modern agrarian writers are not typical of anything, especially archness. When I moved back to Ohio, disgruntled because I wanted to be more than just a writer of prosaic articles in how-to farm magazines but knew no one who could help me, John was senior editor at Ohio (he later became editorial director), a general interest consumer magazine. He took an interest in me, and we became friends. For the first time I learned something about the art of writing, thanks to John, and if I didn’t write anything worthwhile after that, that was his fault too because I sure tried to imitate his knack for using the perfect detail described in the most perfectly winsome way to make a point.
In his writing (not to mention his conversation), John has a way of making the sorrows and injustices of the human condition more poignant by steeping them in gentle humor. He writes about rural life more penetratingly than James Agee and with as much telling humor as Mark Twain, something entirely lacking in James Agee. I expected Baskin to become a household name in American literature, and why that hasn’t happened yet is another art mystery. After knowing John for more than thirty years, I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s probably because he has no ambition for the glitter. He shuns every occasion for fame that comes his way.
I first met John in the same place I met Wendell Berry: the in-box on my desk at the Farm Journal. His book New Burlington, or, actually, a manuscript version of it, landed there one day with a note from my fellow editor Laura Lane saying: “You gotta read this.”
I did read it and kept returning to it. New Burlington was an Ohio country village that drowned in the 1970’s. Literally. By the time the book came out in 1976, the village, or what was left of it, was under thirty or more feet of water, thanks to one of those big artificial lakes that society takes as evidence of progress when in fact they are signs of our descent into overpopulated hell. What was first of all remarkable about the book, and the first lesson that I learned from it, was that not once did John, a farm boy like me, blast the Army Corps of Engineers for covering good farmland with artificial lakes or for making tax-paid toys for urbanites to play on. Although John said he was “full of complaint” when he started writing the book, he soon concluded that such an approach “presupposes a villain and is therefore to be rejected:”
While we would all like to name the enemy and fight him hand-to-hand, it cannot be done. There are no more villains (in the sense of our archetypes, snake-eyed men in dusty streets), or in the event there might be, such should be regarded almost kindly, as antiquities. The modern condition of villainy is, I think, a manifestation of the circumscribed life. Forgive us, Father, we know not what we do. In this way, I came to see the army engineers as nothing more than a visitation of the villagers’ interior life. This may be viewed in a political context: we deserve those we elect because they are us.
This statement had a powerful effect on me, not because I necessarily agreed with it wholeheartedly (my contrary nature was to presuppose villains behind every tree and then kick the crap out of them verbally), but because approaching New Burlington his way, using a restrained and gentle humor, John arrived at a more devastating and insightful statement about the village’s demise than rage or bombast could ever have achieved.
To write his story, John moved into New Burlington in its last couple of years and befriended the people remaining there. He became, in fact, the village’s last resident. Firsthand knowledge. Then he let the people and their memories tell the story of the village and the farms around it. He said he thought of what he was doing as writing “the great American obituary.”
What he wrote was a masterpiece of journalism in a time when journalists think that if they visit a place long enough to need a change of underwear, they can write knowingly about the people living there. John did not write down the first thing people said and rush back the home office; rather, he listened for weeks and months on end, sifted through the letters and histories of the living and the dead, and only then, having developed an ear for their language and an eye for their outlook on life, arranged the testimony of New Burlington into a heartbreaking but also heartwarming account of the town’s life and death. He gave voice to true American agrarianism as few writers have ever done.
I tried to get some of John’s writing first in the Farm Journal and then in Organic Gardening and Farming. My attempts were hopelessly naïve and sidesplitting in retrospect because the world of John Baskin’s mind and art, and, indeed, the world of his countryside, was unnumbered leagues distant from the typical overly literal editorial mind-set, including his essay on the increase in rural crime, which seemed to me something farm magazines might find appropriate. But, in the first place, neither magazine liked the idea of admitting a dark side to the countryside, which both wanted to appear idyllic. More than that, the editors were uneasy, as most magazine editors are, in my experience, with any sly use of humor. (Harold Ross, the longtime editor of The New Yorker, worried constantly that James Thurber was putting sexual innuendos into his humor that he, Ross, didn’t catch.)
Life is very sobering to editors, hounded by publishers who do not want to disturb readers’ peace of mind. (At the end of my working days at Ohio magazine, after John left, I was asked by a new editor to rewrite an article because what I said “would trouble readers and troubled readers don’t buy.”) In the case of the Great Folly—trying to get John Baskin into Organic Gardening and Farming—I decided that the editors just didn’t grasp, much less appreciate, the penetrating conclusions hiding in his humor. Bob Rodale’s reaction was typical: He wanted so much to agree with me that John’s essay was good stuff, but just could not. Even if he did see the seriousness beneath the humor, he was afraid readers wouldn’t. To absolve himself of blame, he took the essay to the sociology department of a nearby college, where the sober men of science decreed that Mr. Baskin had not included any sobering statistics about rural crime and so had demeaned the seriousness of the problem.
So was lost the chance to publish in a farm magazine a really penetrating and compassionate essay on rural crime, one that John eventually published in the New York Times. Or maybe it was the Washington Post. I forget. He was contributing to both. These essays finally came to rest in his collection, In Praise of Practical Fertilizer. One of them began with this sly but unforgettable paragraph:
A young man nearby has just been sent away for breaking into a number of homes, most of them near his own. There were so many burglaries for a while that the culprit would have soon betrayed himself, in the manner of one of the local teenagers a few years back, who took some large fireworks and in a spate of abandon, blew up all the mailboxes along his road. Except his father’s, a fact he recognized momentarily, then soberly set off to blow up that one, too, as a way of destroying the evidence.
Because he had grown up on a farm around people like those in New Burlington, John could describe them with their own words in ways that made them immediately real. Ronald Blythe’s Akenfield and James Agee’s Let Us Now Praise Famous Men may represent the best of this genre, but New Burlington equals their evocative way of describing human tragedy and outclasses them by employing a gentle, playful kind of humor that renders tragedy even more poignant.
In the introduction to the 2000 paperback edition of New Burlington, John describes his literary crossbreeding of playful humor and the stark pain of life. Referring to his relationships with the farmers he was writing about, he observes: “I liked their drollness, the understatement taught by the capricious seasons, which instructed country people as to their tenuously proper place on earth.” I suspect that neither Agee nor Blythe really loved or understood their country people the way Baskin does his.
John graduated off the farm and, after being dismissed from Mars Hill College in western North Carolina for what he refers to as “general high-spiritedness,” took a job as a reporter on a small daily newspaper in North Carolina. In that job he covered the 1960s race riots, which, he later told me, occasionally meant “being shot at in various piedmont furniture towns.” He then returned to Mars Hill, actually graduated, and entered Fred Chappell’s MFA program at the University of North Carolina. He was much influenced by Chappell, who also writes wonderful and whimsical books about rural life. (His novel Brighten the Corner Where You Are is a good example.)
One of the best lessons John learned in graduate school was “never again to write a traffic accident story that begins ‘Death lurked on a windswept curve of Highway 109.’” John then embarked on his journalistic “career,” going from one newspaper to another in North Carolina and then Ohio, endearing himself to some of us who knew him by getting fired four times and lasting only briefly at three other jobs, all in a matter of ten years. “I did not believe in some of the sturdy rules of newspaper journalism, and that got me in trouble,” he said. “I lasted at the Dayton Daily News almost a year until I disagreed rather vehemently over the number of words staffers were permitted to use in their opening paragraphs. It seemed to me that my paragraphs were free to choose their own limitations.”
The last job, before he won the Alicia Patterson Foundation grant that sent him on to his book about New Burlington, was a writer for the local Wilmington, Ohio, paper. With the kind of talent he possessed, he could have gone on to some big-city paper, as usually happens with promising journalists. But John never left Wilmington except for stays in the countryside. This is most interesting because when we talked (as we did often) about devotion to one’s place, almost a fetish among agrarians, John would discount the value of his idolatry of home grounds. He saw it as false sentimentality. Yet he came to a place, Wilmington, Ohio, as a young man, and there he stayed, brightening the corner where he was.
Even when he went to work for Ohio magazine, headquartered in Columbus, he would not move from Wilmington. That’s one reason why he never became the head editor, although that’s what he was in everything but name. He was the only editor or writer I knew who could articulate, as I could not, what I wanted to do with words. I found that intriguing. He would say something about writing, and I would say yes-yes. He would say something else, and I would reply yes-yes again. An intelligent, one-sided conversation.
But one thing mystified me. He told me that I had “a voice.” At that time, I didn’t know what that meant. (I’m still not sure.) “I can hear you talking when I read your prose,” he answered. Was that good?
“Not necessarily,” he replied. “But not every writer has one.”
When I asked him what a good journalist should do, he answered: “Hang around the people you are writing about until they think you are family and forget you’re taking notes.”
He could go from writing really poetic prose to making hard-nosed decisions in the publishing business—a trait he probably inherited from farming. That’s how farmers life: one moment possessed of poetic visions of great profits to come, the next trying to scrape together enough money to plant another crop. He thought we were blood brothers culturally because I had suffered through ten years of Catholic seminary training and he twenty years of hell-and-damnation Protestant sermons. When I asked him for his favorite quote about art, he recalled one from James Whitcomb Riley: “Speakin’ ’o art, I knowed a fellow over in Terre Haute who could spit clear over a boxcar.”
As a writer he could, seemingly without effort, toss off witty but perfectly appropriate observations. For example, in Ohio, one of the enduring issues from about 1980 on, and one I was writing many angry articles about, concerned animal factories—where thousands upon thousands of farm animals were raised in crowded, confined installations without a proper sewage treatment plant to process all that manure.
The odor of manure has always been a problem in civilization—I had a theory that prejudice against farmers originated at the dawn of agrarianism when cities became distinct from farms and urban people suddenly realized that shit stinks. In the giant confinement operations, the stench can be unbearable. Anyways, John approached the subject in his inimitable style. Remarking on hog smells emanating from a farm near where he was living outside Wilmington, John observed: “I don’t mind the windborne smell of Mr. Hewitt’s commerce very much, and suspect things even out when the wind blows back his way, carrying with it the high odor of an overripe manuscript.”
John confessed that he once entertained the notion of doing standup comedy. He would have been a success. Listening to him on the phone or receiving a letter from him is always a treat. For example: “I am writing at the end of the spring editing season, which for me is that time of year when the great migrations of misplaced modifiers darken the skies before they settle in to build their nests on all the chimney pots of the town.”
This kind of humor lurks in all John’s prose. Remarking in the introduction to the paperback edition of New Burlington on the precariousness of taking notes out in the countryside, before recorders, computers, and copying machines, he said:
There was—impossible to explain in any succinct fashion—a moment when a goat ate part of my chapter draft entitled simply, “God.” So I made a trek to the distant city, commandeered a copying machine, and duplicated everything I had collected, which included part of the draft of “God.” I tried to read nothing much into this event. Earlier, he (the goat) had chased a pair of Seventh Day Adventists down the lane, and when amidst their hasty exit they dropped their pamphlets, he ate those as well. The goat’s appetite seemed nonsectarian, which was, in my experience, benignity.
Under his witticisms, John was deadly serious about his journalism. But he would not allow himself, or any of us writing for him, to indulge in righteous criticism. He absolutely disavowed preachiness. I tried to argue once that the innate bullheadedness of the human animal occasionally required the verbal equivalent of a two-by-four over an ass’s withers. But that was not going to happen under John’s tutelage. His own criticism of human foibles was so veiled that the careless reader might skim right over it. He liked to use some small detail in a scene or event to symbolize the whole. At the end of New Burlington, when most of the town had been torn down or carted away and only a few people remained, including stubborn old Lawrence Mitchener, who had also refused to leave the town to go to war and so went to jail for two years instead, John gives this glimpse of the town’s last winter:
In late January, only the post office is open. Three families remain and Lawrence Mitchener, who is waiting for the water. “Big changes coming,” says a man at the service station west of the village. He sweeps his arm in an arc over the land the water will cover. “Five years from now nobody’ll know it. Me, I’m going the other way. I’m going to Idaho. I hear there ain’t enough people to bother anybody in Idaho.”
His tone is sure, as though he is certain of an audience able to catch the inaudible measure of an unspoken rage, and understand. In New Burlington in front of the house of boarded windows a dog howls at midday.
John would say later that his years of editing magazines and publishing other writers’ books (he and Marcy Hawley own and run the Orange Frazer Press) were a mistake. He should have devoted himself entirely to writing. John is a perfectionist about his writing, pouring unbelievable amounts of time and research into his books. He wrote and published three during his editing days and then spent over ten years working on a fourth. When I interviewed him for this book, he said that he was back to writing almost full-time and hoped to finish his book “soon.”
It is monumental work for which he was compiled some four hundred computer files, traveled extensively in Europe, built a bibliography of fifteen hundred titles, and developed a personal research library of over six hundred books. “It gives me chilblains just thinking about it,” he says. But he can’t let go of it—like the old farmer who will not rest until he has cut every weed from his cornfield. As he wrote in New Burlington: “Such a thing (a book manuscript) is never finished but put out on the water in a bulrush basket, abandoned with a prayer, Give the kid a good home.”
His book tracks the life of a most unusual man, one who left thousands of pages of notes and diaries that John discovered in the man’s dusty, forgotten library in Wilmington. John, with his usual humor, calls his writings about this man “nonfiction fiction about the apocalypse,” or “how a Quaker hardware salesman from Ohio met Hitler.” The working title is A Superfluous Man. As an example of his thoroughness, John says that he consulted more than twenty books, in addition to the Quaker journals, just to write a two hundred words on the invasion of North Africa.
The result is a gold mine of the kind of anecdotal information that makes the history of the mid-twentieth century, and especially that of World War II, so much more meaningful than the studied documents of academe, the kind that focus on the pomposities and intrigues of the learned and the famous and then bring forth histories of elegant lies. True to his background and nature, John delights in what untutored people find interesting and significant about their times. He likes to assume the perspective of people reared on farms, especially for the solders in the war, as he does in this excerpt from his account of the invasion of North Africa:
The C-ration diet was particularly difficult for the Midwestern farm boys. For them, the egg was a fundamental thing. In their previous world, eggs were everywhere—sunny side up, scrambled, fried, boiled, shirred, deviled, coddled, pickled. And so the GI slogged his way east, and when his company stopped in what seemed to be an interminable wilderness, his own hat the highest point in fifty miles and nothing visible in any direction, an Arab would materialize … His left hand emerged slowly from his burnoose, and there, as if conjured, was … an egg.
It was held between thumb and forefinger, like a magician at a night club, said one correspondent, and the price would be inversely proportional to the distance from the nearest military post. The Arab, too, seldom sold his precious product in any quantity, which emphasized its scarcity. Sometimes the GIs wondered why none of them had ever seen a chicken. This prompted a riddle: Which came first, the egg or the Arab? Some of them speculated that the Arabs kept their chickens inside because they were too valuable to be allowed to wander around.
And so the GI made his offer.
The Arab’s hand withdrew, the egg slowly disappearing into the burnoose.
This would happen two or three times, before the dogface reduced the number of eggs he required for his transaction.
There would then be a moment of difficult reflection by the Arab. A great sadness appeared to fall over him. His posture suggested that he had been stricken by his poor bargaining, and he shuffled sadly off into the desert, as if in exile for trading away his last egg by the last chicken in all of Bou Saada.
John’s journal writer, “Burritt,” age fifty-three, first joined the war effort in Washington in 1942. Here, John describes him taking in the sights and sounds of the capital:
A few years ago, he recalled, the White House was just another public building. There were those who remembered a man pulling under the White House portico during a summer downpour to put up his convertible top. There were no gates then, and almost anyone could walk onto the grounds without a pass.
And an anecdote to warm them the heart of any agrarian:
Burritt remembered one of his acquaintances from Ohio, a Chester Township farmer, visiting Washington. The farmer found himself walking down Pennsylvania Avenue, and on a momentary whim, walked into the White House, where he told the receptionist he would like to see the President. He had a few thoughts the President might find pertinent, he said. When he did not get an audience with the President, he toured some of the other public buildings, where, dazzled by the immensity of the Rotunda, he paced off the chamber and figured it would take 241,873 bales to fill it to its domed copper ceiling.
Ever the practical farmer, as he had been in earlier years, Burritt observed an alien culture in Washington:
He spent much of the week in conferences. When the presentations were long, his attention drifted, and he found himself watching the shorthand machine, which recorded all conversations between businessmen and officials. It was an instrument smaller than a typewriter, converting words into little code marks on a two-inch-wide roll of paper. The stenotypist rested the machine on her knee while she worked. The paper came out endlessly, folded itself flat about every six inches, and produced an odd, oblong manuscript that no one ever read.
Burritt, again the practical agrarian, was no surprised when wartime efforts to communicate by carrier pigeon were not always successful:
British Intelligence, seeking information from the Resistance, dropped pigeons from airplanes over France. They floated to the earth in little cages suspended from small parachutes. Each bird had a rice paper questionnaire n a capsule attached to its leg. The finders were asked to answer the questionnaires, replace them in the capsules, and release the birds so that they might return to England. The times being what they were, however, the French ate most of the pigeons.
And my favorite:
The temperatures outside were exacerbated by the emotional temperature of contending forces within. Washington’s synthetic rubber program was late, and 90 percent of the country’s rubber had been imported from Japan. The President asked the public to turn in old tires, rubber raincoats, garden hose, and bathing caps. In New York, a carload of chorus girls from the cast of a Broadway musical drove up to the collection point at Nat Jupiter’s Service Station and deposited their girdles. It was a magnanimous gesture—and a compelling photo opportunity—but the sober technicians in the OPA (Office of Price Administration) office quickly figured that it took the rubber of 3,400 girdles to make one Jeep tire.
If John Baskin writes that it takes the rubber in thirty-four hindered girdles to make one jeep tire, or that, between the attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941 and the following April, the government hired 39,763 typists and stenographers, or that a harp contains twenty-four hundred different parts and six kinds of metal needed by the defense industry, you can be sure that those figures have come from somewhere other than John Baskin’s imagination.
John was pleased that I noticed. “Even my characters’ dreams and thoughts have footnotes,” he said.
Although he did not mean to be doing so, exactly, in his essay “Crime and Punishment I,” John gives a good definition of agrarianism:
The old farmers, their workable holdings down to a garden beside the farmhouse where the world exists in craftsmanlike miniature, admire the elaborate machinery in the nearby fields. But the admiration seems reserved, the admiration of a certain distant respect. The allegiance of the old farmers seems elsewhere.
Some might call this “nostalgia.” Yet nostalgia may be only a misused word, grabbed involuntarily by one who feels a nameless pain (this is a time, one must remember, of verbal pesticides, of mists of conversation in which the language browns and falls in wilted clauses). “Nostalgia” may be only the suggestion that our present rhythms are untenable. The body, fragile enough, begins to vibrate.
In the earlier days of his tenure at Ohio magazine, John dreamed of making it a work of literary and visual art. Under his guidance, the magazine did start winning prestigious awards from the high courts of journalism. But his sense of the artistic was not attracting enough advertising to please the money lords. (Probably for the first time ever in a consumer-oriented popular magazine, and I think the last, he illustrated an article—mine—with the photograph of a cow flat out defecating right in front of the whole civilized world.) Eventually, he and I and the rest of his staff were gone, a repeat of what happened to me at other magazines. I remembered, looking back on the days of our dreams, how John would scold me when I complained about how as a writer I was barely making enough money to live on.
“If you remain faithful to your writing, you are probably not supposed to make much money,” he would say.