Charles Champlin

Back There Where the Past Was

VTR Date: May 14, 1989

Guest: Champlin, Charles


Host: Richard D. Heffner
Guest: Charles Champlin
Title: “Back There Where the Past Was”
VTR: 5/14/89

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on THE OPEN MIND…and since we’re going to talk today about small-town America rather than about life on the fast track here in the big city, I’m going to admit right up front that I am a New Yorker, born and – for the most part, in fact – bred right smack here on the Island of Manhattan.

In 1900 Woodrow Wilson had written that “the history of a nation is only the history of its villages written large.” And now my guest today reminds us that: “We are all from somewhere else, some other time and, more than likely in our transient society, some other place.” And, chances are, that other place might well have been a village or small town…let’s say one like Hammondsport in upstate New York where writer, film critic, Los Angeles Times Arts Editor Charles Champlin grew up – as the title of his just plain terrific new Syracuse University Press book has it, Back There Where the Past Was…A Small Town Boyhood.

Now fifteen years ago, when I began to commute between Sin City East and Sin City West (New York and Los Angeles), one thing made it all so much easier: that is, I began to read Chuck Champlin’s insightful film reviews, his always provocative commentary on the arts in general, and – joyously – from time to time, I could savor those wonderfully evocative pieces he would write either when he actually went home again (and he could, incidentally, and did so occasionally) or when he simply visited and revisited Hammondsport in the life of his gentle memory and shared those visits with his readers. My guru in nostalgia…that’s the way I came to think of today’s guest. And, actually, back five or six decades ago, I, too, spent what I’ve always considered the best years of my younger life – two of them, anyway – away from the Big Apple, sharing what Mr. Champlin characterizes as the pleasures of a small-town boyhood (in Tucson, Arizona, not Hammondsport, New York of course). So that with him for this next half hour I’d like to go – as he titles his warm and so very welcome new book – Back There Where the Past Was. Thanks for joining me today, Chuck.

Champlin: Delighted, Dick.

Heffner: You know, in your book you make the point, and I know that it’s true, that for all of the things you’ve written…what you write about Hammondsport has continually brought forth comments from all those people out West, out in the wooly West, who not only…who didn’t…not just those who came from the East, but those who have, as you say here, “my Hammondsport evokes their somewhere else,” and I wonder whether that’s a theme that runs through your professional life?

Champlin: I’m not sure I it runs through the whole professional life, but it just astonished me when I began to do these occasional columns, usually out of desperation for an idea. Pleasant things happen by accident. Then I would hear from people who said, “Gee, that really is like life in Port Angeles, Washington, or Bedford, Iowa,” or wherever it was, and I find that…sure, I think people make connections, and I think that they…the thing that happens in the relationship between a newspaper writer and his readership, is that they do establish connections, they figure they know you, and they probably do. And I think that…I think that growing up in Hammondsport has left it’s traces on me, even now, forty-odd years later, since I’ve lived there, and I think the people identify with that, and they say that, “Yes, his…his memories are the same as ours in certain ways.”

Heffner: You think that today younger people, not us, Chuck…younger people…

Champlin: Even younger people.

Heffner: Are going to have the same kind of sense as they look back on their earlier years as we have, particularly in terms of this small town.

Champlin: Yeah. I don’t think so. I mean I think that…I think that the shift from the small towns to the cities, and the middle size cities, wherever it is, has been at a cost, and I think that people are aware of that cost. They sense it, they sense it in what they read, maybe they sense it in what…when they read my columns, I don’t know. But I think that there is…maybe now there’s beginning to be a reversal. I think people are beginning to think that maybe can go back to those small towns. Or just go to those small towns if you never lived there, and maybe figure out some way to make a more modest living, but still do it. I mean you keep reading about people who are going back and establishing goat-cheese farms, after a career on Wall Street, or whatever it is. And so I think that there is that sense that we have lost, a feeling of community that is harder to achieve. Now you evidently have achieved it in Manhattan, but I think it’s much harder to find it in the big cities, even if you have a neighborhood. It’s not quite the same as feeling the whole weight of a town’s history on your shoulders.

Heffner: Gosh, no, I haven’t achieved it in Manhattan, I keep thinking about those two years in Tucson.

Champlin: Ahh.

Heffner: And it’s true. I think of them, just two years, as you thought of your…what…seventeen…

Champlin: Yes.

Heffner: …in Hammondsport.

Champlin: Sure.

Heffner: But you know, when you begin the book you say, “Someone has said that the best prescription for a happy childhood, is a bad memory”…

Champlin: (laughter) Yes.

Heffner: …”I can’t help being sentimental about my Hammondsport past, if only because I have tried to remember how things looked to a child’s eye, and in childhood things seem, for that fleeting moment, to be simple even if it is evident, all too soon, that they aren’t simple, and never were.” You think that’s part of the appeal of this nostalgia?

Champlin: Yes. And oddly enough I think it’s the appeal of old movies, too, because they presented life as being simple, and while it may have been simpler, in those days than it is now, it was never as simple as either the movies made it, or as my memory made it (laughter). But I have tried to look at Hammondsport also with a certain unsentimentality because I knew that times were tough, it was the Depression, for one thing, and I…I had that image, which I talk about in the book, of the “gray men,” the hobos coming and showing up at the back door, and terrifying us, but just, just wanting a meal, and getting, too, as a matter of fact. So that…there was a, there was a side of if that was very difficult, and I …even my child’s eye remembers all that as well. But I think that, nevertheless, I think there was a sense of cohesion in the community, and something else that even the small towns have lost, which is that sense of being independent. I mean I think that Hammondsport, only twelve hundred people, nevertheless was a self-contained economic unit. It was lucky it had a locally owned winery, and a locally owned aircraft factory which was unusual…champagne and airplanes at a certain point, which not all small towns can claim. (Laughter) nevertheless, I think it did give you a feeling of not simply being a suburb connected by a dotted line to Elmira or Rochester or Syracuse.

Heffner: But you know, we have to deal with the question, however we come out on this, of was it better? Let’s not, let’s not disclaim the notion that I get from reading your wonderful book that, by gosh and by golly, it was better, we have lost a great deal in the years…

Champlin: Yes.

Heffner: …since Hammondsport.

Champlin: I wouldn’t deny that for a minute. I think we did…I think the quality of education I had at Hammondsport high school, as it was called, although it was all 12 grades, I think was terrific. I was still taught by women who had been…my Mother and I had the same teachers for first, second, third and fifth grades, you know. They were maiden ladies who went off to normal school and came back to Hammondsport, and taught until they retired, and then they taught Sunday School. It was a, it was a pattern, and you got an absolutely wonderful education, and I…and that was true right up through high school. And I think that’s something that we’ve lost, too. I don’t mean to demean the present educational system in Hammondsport or any place else, but I do think that there was a difference, and I think there was a feeling of community which is more abstract, and yet I think it’s, it’s very important, and a sense of self-help and interdependence, and it was kind of wonderful, and you had a kind of…also I would say, generally speaking, a crime-free tranquility, which was absent even from small towns these days. I mean I think there are drug problems now in small towns. I know in…I think I dare say this…even in Hammondsport, that three of the chaps in high school one year got busted for pot. I was absolutely shocked.

Heffner: You didn’t even know what it was.

Champlin: I didn’t even know, I had to look it up in the dictionary. (Laughter) of course, which is difficult. But, yeah, I think so, too, and I’ve…as we were saying, or I say in the book that my six children have been born in four states and two countries, and they know Hammondsport only as the kind of the legend I have created for them about it, and I regret it. I would give anything in the world if they could have had that sense of the past, that sense of continuity that you get in Hammondsport life. Now they have something else, they have a kind of self-reliance that I didn’t have. You could be very much sheltered by the past…your family had been there for three or four or five generations, something like that, you were sort of buoyed up by that, maybe indecently so, and so that when you were moved at all, that you did find the kind of independence you didn’t know you had.

Heffner: But, you know, it’s so interesting. You say you would give anything if they had that sense that you had.

Champlin: Yes.

Heffner: Would they? Does it have meaning for youngsters? I mean your children are not little kids…

Champlin: No indeed.

Heffner: Does it have meaning for their generation?

Champlin: I think…interesting enough we’ve never talked about, and they feel a great affection for Hammondsport that they’ve seen very little of, really. And they know it as simply the place where their parents came from, but I think that they sense a certain kind of transience in their own life. I think they…yes, I think they do…they wish, at least sentimentally, if not realistically, maybe that they had Hammondsports of their own. Now we’ve lived in the same house for 25 years, that’s fairly stable, and that’s unusual in Los Angeles, as in Manhattan…the same roof. We did until they left the nest, but I think that they still feel themselves more transient perhaps than they’d like to be.

Heffner: With what consequences? What consequences, let’s say, for their children, your grand-children?

Champlin: Hmmm. Well, I think they’ve adjusted very well, of course, and I think they do fine, but I think they just have some vision of…although I’ve talked about pot in Hammondsport, nevertheless, I think that they worry about public education in the city because there are, even in the upper class high schools, and maybe particularly in the upper class high schools, there are drug problems, there is a sense of a decaying of certitudes, and I think that they feel that, that, too. That’s not related to the high schools, it’s related to the life in the cities, it’s related also, I think, to national changes, too. I don’t think there’s any question but that Hammondsport of the ‘30s and even into the early ‘40s was a time when there were great assurances. I mean there was no cynicism attached to patriotism, for example, and not that it was Right Wing or anything like that. I mean the American Legion didn’t have a monopoly on patriotism, they just carried the flags on parades, you know. But…I think that you just took it for granted that the verities that were spoken on the 4th of July were true. They were, indeed, verities, and one did not have the ambiguous wars that were to come later. And I think that things were clearer. I say that probably too often in the book, and yet I think it’s true, I think that partly, I suppose because of my young eyes, that things did seem clearer, and I …

Heffner: Well, you know…you say “say it too often in the book” I don’t think you could say it enough, you say it enough, you say it often, Chuck…

Champlin: Yes.

Heffner: …but not…you, you…now you talk about the decaying of certitudes, and back in that section where you say “My Hammondsport evokes their somewhere else, their town in Indiana or Nebraska, Iowa or Oregon. Hammondsport bandstand in the park might have been theirs; the 4th of July oration sounds quite like the one that they heard; Labor Day was the same kind of melancholy punctuation in their young lives.” Now this business of the decaying of certitudes, you don’t want to apologize for making such frequent reference to the fact that there were certain, really, underlying certain values in our day that it’s harder to find today?

Champlin: No, I don’t apologize for it. I regret it. And I think it’s true, and I don’t think it’s a function of Hammondsport, I think it’s happened in the society. I mean I think that the difficulties that…for example, organized religion was really the, the structure of Hammondsport. I mean I think that the churches, everybody, you know, the town was divided along church…not divided, but I mean it was identified by church lines, among other things, and the fraternal orders, and I think that it’s difficult, I mean the Presbyterians haven’t been able to get enough money up to replace the steeple that burned down one time, and I think that there are troubles with organized religion, and I think that people…the whole New Age thing is people looking around for some kind of substitute for those theological certitudes or hierarchical certitudes that they felt, and I…so I think they’re…yes, I think it’s not to be apologized for, it’s to be regretted. There are certain gains, I think, that in perhaps the area of sexual mores, perhaps, I think that there’s a, perhaps, a good deal more wisdom and a good deal less hypocrisy than there used to be. I think there have been gains. I think that all of us who grew up in the thirties, under the influence of the movies and the Hayes Code had many things to relearn about life in the real world. But I think that…while there have been those gains, I think that decline of values has been sad.

Heffner: Of course I think your chapter on sex in Hammondsport is hilarious…

Champlin: (Laughter) Thanks.

Heffner: …and very, very touching. And reminiscent, I suppose of all adolescence then.

Champlin: Then, yes. Right.

Heffner: But now, not so true.

Champlin: Not so true, now. Now I can, you know, see that in my own children simply in the sophistication and the age at which they attain some reasonable sophistication about the fact of life.

Heffner: You know what, what…what comes out in…keep saying “this wonderful book”…only, not because you’re here, Chuck, but only because it is so…I read it with tears in my eyes at many points, and I don’t think that’s just because we’re more or less contemporaries, you’re much younger than I am, but we’re more or less…

Champlin: (Laughter)

Heffner: …contemporaries…

Champlin: I’m lucky if I’ve got a month on you, I think.

Heffner: No, it’s a little more than that, Chuck, but in this matter of certitudes, you…in simplicity, “I can’t help being sentimental,” you write, “about my Hammondsport past, if only because I have tried to remember how things look to a child’s eye,” again, and I’ve read this, and it’s this matter of simplicity. “Even if it is evident all too soon that things aren’t that simple and never were. I yearn for the innocence that began to erode when I was four, maybe five…”

Champlin: (Laughter)

Heffner: …”yet I also try to remember Hammondsport as it really, truly was. An invention,” as you write, “not exclusively of Norman Rockwell or Judge Hardy, but not, on the other hand, a Peyton Place or a case study for Stephen King.” And I wonder whether it’s possible to grow up today, without being touched by the Peyton Place…

Champlin: Yes.

Heffner: …and the Stephen King. Whether one could live the way you did in Hammondsport, and for a couple of years, anyway, I did in Tucson? Whether our childhood hasn’t been stripped from us, partially by the medium of film, and partially by the medium of television, making it all one big mass audience, not separating the youngsters from the oldsters.

Champlin: Well, I think that you’ve hit on what probably…among the most significant changes. I mean I think that what is incalculable, you’d almost have to go back and live there all the time for a couple of years, at least, to try to calculate the influence of television, particularly. Now we had movies there, there’s no question about that. The Park Theatre is where I discovered the magic of the movies, and I think that that had a kind of opening up effect. But the movies were so circumscribed that they didn’t deny any of the certitudes that I was talking about, in fact they codified the American dream if you will. And that certainly was my impression of the movies as I grew up, that the good guys would always win, or do no worse than break even, and crime would be punished and all those things that were guaranteed under the Hayes Code. I think that television has been the big opening up. Television has destroyed the hinterland, there’s no question about it. I mean I think that we are, indeed, all one mass. I think that regional differences are disappearing very, very fast. I think that they will get in Tupelo, Mississippi, which they get in Tonawanda, New York. I mean all the jokes are the same and the fact that the audience nationwide can listen to Carson and laugh at the same stuff, even if it would seem to be very “inside” I think is interesting, and I think probably a mixed blessing because you do have a much more…you do have much more information than they… I mean the small towns are tuned into the world in the way they weren’t before. I’m not sure how many of us could have told you, on December 7th, 1941, where Pearl Harbor was. I mean Zero Mostel used to have a routine and he said, “what was Pearl Harbor doing in the Pacific anyway?” (laughter), you know, and I don’t’ think we knew, really, that much, and I think that now that kind of innocence is destroyed by television. Sad.

Heffner: What’s the downside of the nostalgia that you provoke, stimulate, feed in those of us who read you?

Champlin: Mmmm. The down side, oh, I think is to idealize the past in a certain way and to suggest that it was more tranquil even than it was, and that…

Heffner: But it was, wasn’t it?

Champlin: But it was tranquil, yes. But I mean I think that to also suggest that it was trouble-free, I mean I don’t…I really don’t think it was, and I think that there is that kind of, that kind of danger, and I also…think that there’s probably a danger in assuming that the past will be there when you get back to it. I mean I know perfectly well that Hammondsport, I use this image in the book, exists mostly as a…the equivalent of a few shards in the Mesopotamian desert, you know. I mean it’s…it’s…you can’t expect to go back and find Hammondsport a it was. I mean there are traces of it and yet it’s different now. The car has made it different, I mean it’s not the same kind of self-contained shopping center that it used to be. So it exists and I think you just have to try to remember what was best about it, and be careful that you don’t ignore too much, what was maybe difficult in terms of hypocrisies.

Heffner: Well, but that’s really what I was driving at, that back there where the past was I gather you’re not making this a call to political judgment, “let us try to recreate what was,” it was, it’s never going to be again in that way.

Champlin: It was and it was…as wonderful as it was, but it was there, it is back there where it was, and we move on and we just hope that maybe there are some kind of truths that come out of it that we can hang onto.

Heffner: Chuck, the reason I raise that question is because I don’t think there’s any question but there are those how use the…use nostalgia as a political weapon, there are those who say, “those were the good old days, let us try to re-create them,” reestablishing perhaps the…or abolishing many of the changes that have taken place. It may not be true. You’ve proven that, you can go home again.

Champlin: Yes.

Heffner: but you can’t turn that clock…

Champlin: But I think you can’t turn the clock back. But I…in my film critic days there’s a last thought. I mean I was always asked why don’t they make movies the way they used to…Judge Hardy and all that, and I had a stock answer which I think is absolutely true: they don’t make movies the way they used to because they don’t make the world the way they used to. And just…progress may be our most detestable product, but I mean there’s just no way to avoid it. And I think that…no, and you can’t use the past as refuge, political or otherwise.

Heffner: Do you think people will try to do that? You know, again, reading and loving Back There Where The Past Was I couldn’t help thinking that there would be those who would take the sense, the warm, warm sense of what was past, and try to snuggle their way back into that, politically speaking, and that it…this…what the danger we run into is the political use of that nostalgia.

Champlin: Yeah. That’s interesting. I mean I really hadn’t thought about that, but I think it’s true, and I think that would be nefarious because I think that’s its own kind of hypocrisy, and I think that one of the things that may have come out of the changing years was an end to certain kinds of hypocrisy that were crippling and damaging and awful. I mean there are dark sides to the past in the small town life, too, and I think that Hammondsport may be have been better off than some places in its freedom from them, but nevertheless, I don’ think that you can crawl back into the past.

Heffner: You know you say there were some aspects that were dark. What interested me so much, of course, is my awareness that there is another tradition of writing about the small town in America…

Champlin: Yes.

Heffner: “Thank god I got away from it,” literature that has to do with escape.

Champlin: Yes. Sherwood Anderson and many, many other people. Well, the joke used to be “I come from a resort town, people would resort to anything to get away from it” (laughter)you know. But…and I think that’s true, I think there have always been people who have been impatient in small towns, and maybe writers particularly. But I must say I found life in Hammondsport so rich that if I could have made a living as a writer, I probably would have stayed there.

Heffner: Do you think Hammondsport is in the picture in your mind, in your mind’s eye, a luxury that very few of us can afford?

Champlin: Interesting question. Yes I suppose it is. I mean I think you can’t invent your Hammondsport, unfortunately. I think it probably has to have been there. But maybe you can find another one someplace. Start from scratch, I don’t know. But it was…certainly as far as I’m concerned, growing up in Hammondsport was a luxury, and I’m very grateful because I think it’s…I guess, part of what the book is about as far as I’m concerned. It shaped me. I quote Willa Cather at some place as saying “Everything she ever wrote, she had absorbed by the time she was fifteen.”

Heffner: You write, too, “I might daringly argue that…at that..Rockwell,” when you wrote about Norman Rockwell and Judge Hardy, “Rockwell and the Andy Hardy movies came a little closer to the truth than the darker visions. Hammondsport had its share of sinners and villains, but evil incarnate was in just as short supply as savings.”

Champlin: (laughter)

Heffner: Now, are those rose-colored glasses?

Champlin: Ahh, no I don’t think that’s rose-colored. I think that’s…I think that’s a fairly balanced vision of it, Dick, I really do. There were hard times, I think of very little villainy. I can think of a lot of really hard times, people who were, you know, really in tough shape, and that’s certainly a memory that I have of the town. But, no, I think it…even the bullies tended to be terribly kind. (Laughter) Read my lips, you know.

Heffner: Now, you were not one of those bullies.

Champlin: No, I certainly wasn’t. No.

Heffner: You put so much emphasis here upon being slight and not all that physical. What happened to make you the strong man you’ve become?

Champlin: (laughter) I have…I have never developed enough coordination to think and walk at the same time.

Heffner: Chuck, the…seriously, because we’re coming to the end of our program…you write here, “In the days I have been writing about there was a kind of umbrella of shared certainties,” and you referred before to the decaying of certainties, “over both Hammondsport and the larger society. A whole set of agreed values of right and wrong, good and bad, the verities spoken of on the 4th of July were understood to be true.” We talked about that at the beginning of this program. Think those days are gone forever? Is there a…is it impossible living outside the framework of the smaller community you’ve written about to have those common ideals?

Champlin: I worry about it a lot because, again, I think that television and a rising level of general education, for example, of continuing consequences of the GI Bill, for example, I think have created a kind of suspicion and a cynicism about, for example, the processes of government. I think it very alarming. I don’t think there is that same…could you make Mr. Smith Goes to Washington today? I don’t know that you could make it as a film that audiences would find credible. I’m not sure, and I worry about that kind of thing because I think that people have withdrawn, I think, more into themselves, and I think that they are less confident of democratic processes, for example. Look at election turnouts.

Heffner: When Newt Minow was here the other day he talked about cycles, and talked about almost the inevitability of moving back. Do you think we will in this regard? The sweeter, kinder, gentler society?

Champlin: Moving back physically to small town?

Heffner: No, no, no.

Champlin: Or just back to values?

Heffner: In terms of values.

Champlin: Yeah. Well, I think we’re more likely to move back to small towns than we are back to those shared values. I think people espouse those values, but I think it’s just a question of they’re not at all certain that they’re achievable.

Heffner: There’s one way you can achieve it. Read Back There Where The Past Was. Thanks so much for joining me today, Charles Champlin.

Champlin: Thank you. I’m glad that you liked the book.

Heffner: I did, indeed.

Champlin: Wonderful.

Heffner: And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you’ll join us again next time. And if you care to share your thoughts about today’s program, please write to THE OPEN MIND, P.O. Box 7977, FDR Station, New York, NY 10150. For transcripts send $3.00 in check or money order. Meanwhile, as another old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck.”

Continuing production of this series has generously been made possible by grants from: The Rosalind P Walter Foundation; the M. Weiner Foundation of New Jersey; the Thomas and Theresa Mullarkey Foundation; the New York Times Company Foundation; and, from the corporate community, Mutual of Omaha.