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A Boyhood in the Past Perfect : BACK THERE WHERE THE PAST WAS A Small-Town Boyhood by Charles Champlin; foreword by Ray Bradbury (Syracuse University Press: $18.95; 232 pp., illustrated)

June 18, 1989|Thomas Cahill | Cahill was for 12 years editor and publisher of the Cahill & Co. Reader's Catalogue. and

The best prescription for a happy childhood is a bad memory, Charles Champlin remembers someone saying. And when we consider 20th-Century fiction, all the Joyces and Lawrences and Wolfes, it is sometimes hard to bear in mind that countless human beings remember their childhoods precisely and fondly, sometimes even as the best part of their lives. Perhaps it is true, as Pound remarked, that hatred, rather than love, is more often the driving force of literature. Perhaps contented souls are less tempted to take up their pens.

All the more reason, then, to be grateful to the Garrison Keillors and Charles Champlins in our midst. Hammondsport, N.Y., has been to a still-unfinished series of Champlin columns in the Los Angeles Times what Lake Wobegon, Gateway to Central Minnesota, has been to Keillor's monologues on American Public Radio. But whereas Keillor has tried to sight his childhood mythically, as if it were a constellation in the heavens, Champlin, sticking to the discipline of fact, keeps his earthbound.

Champlin's Hammondsport is set in the Finger Lakes of New York's Southern Tier in what must be the most underratedly beautiful landscape in the Northeast. And though Hammondsport is small-town by anyone's standards, it has long had connections to the larger world, both as a center of aviation (local scion Glen Hammond Curtiss flew the world's first seaplane over Keuka Lake) and, more anciently, a wine-making district and home to the vineyards of Taylor and Great Western (a Champlin family enterprise).

The picture Champlin paints for us is modest, grave, and yet, at this distance, almost fantastic. In towns like Hammondsport, the '20s never roared, and the '30s, though they wiped out savings, did not erase the simple rituals of civility: the uncles in their dignity, the aunts bustling quietly, the dedicated maiden-lady teachers, the gang down at the gas station, the little railroad, the bandstand in the park (and the cars that honked their appreciation at Saturday-night concerts in summer), the humble movie theater, the many-layered preparations for Labor Day, Thanksgiving and Christmas, the importance of the churches. Champlin remembers a way of life that flourished in this country from the end of the Civil War to the beginning of World War II. It was a life dependent on small details and small pleasures, and, except for the inventions of auto, aircraft and cinema, a life that seemed like one continuous woven cloth. "No one," writes Champlin, "who has not tended a coal-burning furnace--shaken its grates, started it from scratch when it went out, shoveled its ashes (and lugged them to the street), been enslaved to its hourly needs, learned to bank the fire so it would last the night--no one who has not coped with these mystical rites has experienced life fully."

I am especially grateful to Champlin for his elegiac evocations of French-American and German-American family life, as represented by his mother's family. It seems to me that, like the beauty of the Southern Tier, the contributions of these two ethnic stockpots to the flavoring of American culture have long been ignored, in favor of louder and brasher contributors. The Germans, in particular, who bestowed upon us such characteristic American products as frankfurters and lager beer and who raised the Catholic Church in the Midwest to a level of civilization that the Irish and Italian immigrants in the East rarely approached, have been undervalued. How very much poorer would our Advents and our Christmases be without their genius for festive ornament and domestic conviviality.

Champlin is hardly an aggressive writer, and, given the contemporary style of verbal overkill, it is easy to miss his quiet effects: the "root-heaved sidewalks"; the "semaphore eyebrows" of his aunts; that all adult family friends were "aunt" or "uncle"; that every other man in Upstate New York seems to be known by the initials of his first and middle name.

Today Hammondsport boasts much less in the way of locally owned business. The vineyards were consumed by Coca-Cola, then by Seagrams, then by a management group called Vintners International. The local bank is now "the least branch of a vast conglomerate financial institution." The local telephone company is a memory only. Champlin mentions twice the contemporary phenomenon of homelessness, which bothers him greatly. I wonder: Is our loss of local control over our own destinies anesthetizing us to the "lost" members of our society? Does the loss of a sense of place (even in urban neighborhoods) mean that the homeless belong nowhere and to no one?

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