Listening to America
Calvin Trillin writes for The New Yorker, Bill Moyers for Harper’s; both live in or near New York. Yet because Trillin is originally from Kansas City and Moyers from east Texas, when the news and pressures of the Sixties led them to think something large was happening in the country, they set out, away from the big city, toward the heartland, which had once been home. Somehow, they seemed to imagine, their considerable journalistic “eastern” skills might be combined with their back home ways and knowledge to produce a record of what was happening. They wanted to talk to people, to see things, nothing big except in so far as it impinged on ordinary people. Presumably theirs was an impulse like Eugene McCarthy’s when he came out of the committee room and said that what he’d heard was so crazy he had to go to “the people.” These men knew what they could learn from the big city, and somehow that was not enough.
The impulse is understandable and honorable; it partakes of much that good men can believe in about American democracy. But the result in each of these books is not very satisfactory, because the combination they sought, of journalistic habits with the impulse to withdraw from the sphere in which those habits were learned, turned out to be impossible, perhaps in ways neither could have foreseen. As the people and events “out there” are rendered to make them clear to the readers of The New Yorker and Harper’s, most of what these writers sought gets lost.
Of all journalistic forms, the New Yorker sketch is one of the most thoroughly established and least capable of adjustment. There are thirty-two such sketches in Trillin’s U.S. Journal, and he knew while writing and we know while reading each one that after about two thousand words the piece will end soon; a short sketch runs six pages, a long one eight. As he travels about the country Trillin must look for whatever can neatly be subsumed into the form: no confusions, no mysteries. A first ride on a 747, the man who advertises himself as the World’s Strongest, a group in South Carolina who call themselves Turks—these fit easily. But the killing of a hippie by a police undercover agent, or a hearing in Atlanta at which some fearfully impoverished black women speak—these can be made to fit only because anything can; the form is all wrong.
A good test is the giggle because, as all readers of The New Yorker know, when everything is in its place and the writing is predictably smooth, then giggles are both appropriate and easy. But when the form is wrong, then even a New Republic editorial would be better because it at least doesn’t pretend to be more than crude and vaguely informative. Trillin can do a human interest story very well, but he is working within a form that just can’t …