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 stand people.
E. B. White was good at the New Yorker sketch because he could make the absence of people seem not to matter. But Trillin is committed to reporting back to town as though what he had seen were people; and these sketches when combined were supposed to tell us something about America. Start with Dale Noyd, the air force captain who had served with NATO for almost a decade when he told his superiors he would not help to train young officers to fly in Vietnam. There is a story here, obviously, but Trillin cannot afford to try to find out what it is. He can offer some details of Noyd’s court-martial, he can be sympathetic to Noyd and to his prosecutors, he can begin to show how hard it is for military courts to deal with the polite, willful disobedience of otherwise model officers. But that is all.
A careful consideration of the conjunction of the legal, military, and moral matters involved might take a book, and a writer as good as Sybille Bedford; a full account of Noyd himself, the boy from eastern Washington who began to read Tillich and Camus, would probably take a whole novel to avoid cliché; an attempt to record the confusions and contradictions inherent in the knowing reporter caught in a world of strangers and mysteries would simply wreck the New Yorker manner. Harold Ross used to insist his magazine was not meant for the little old lady from Duluth, but when the subject, in effect, is that lady herself, she may demand her due. Some incomplete sentences, maybe, some baffled endings. But look at the last sentences of Trillin’s piece on Noyd:
For a while, when the court seemed to be taking a long time bringing in the verdict, some of Noyd’s friends even allowed themselves to think that perhaps religion and propriety had managed to melt completely the disagreement between Noyd and the Air Force. But, as the law officer had observed while discussing legal definitions with opposing counsel, “a man may be guilty of willful disobedience even if he says, ‘No, sir.’ ”
That simply is not the point, but rather a way to wind things up. The good manners of both Noyd and the law officer were not in question, though at moments they may have seemed to express much, while Trillin’s good manners are evasive.
Whatever else this country is, it is a place where one can travel with composure only if one acts like someone in an advertisement for an airline. I suspect that in fact Trillin does not travel this way, but he writes as though he did. To be as clean, clear, and crisp as he can be is also to be forgettable.
Bill Moyers had nothing like Calvin Trillin’s obligation to be strict to a form, but he gets into similar difficulties nonetheless. His great weakness is that he seems not to have remembered or recognized the consequences of his being Bill Moyers, former director of the Peace Corps, LBJ’s best adviser in the days before Vietnam turned to quicksand for American schemers, trustee of the Rockefeller Foundation. Moyers can get lots of doors opened to him, and the very ease with which he can get those doors opened limits him as Trillin’s format limited him. Go to a political convention and talk to the bosses, go to Earlham or Antioch and talk to the president of the college, go to a small town and talk to the mayor and the newspaper’s editor, go to a ghetto and talk to the black leaders and take a ride in a patrol car—come to Seattle and talk to executives of the Boeing Company in an interview I couldn’t get in a hundred years.
If, as well, you are a decent man and have the ability to listen, these people will talk easily. But they all end up giving set speeches because all are as articulate as one might expect and all want to talk to Moyers. As a result, they are all rather predictable and after a while the scenarios of Moyers’s travels seem to write themselves.
The most striking example of this comes during Moyers’s visit to Lawrence, Kansas. He had stopped there and interviewed the people he knew could give him an angle: the editor of the paper, the ex-druggie who runs a semi-clinic for kids whose lives have gone blurry, the former mayor who knew how to become involved in the university and the drug scenes. Then, that night, a policeman shot a young black and hell broke loose. Here, if ever, was a chance for Moyers to lose his composure, to be frightened, to try to describe the way trouble smells. But instead Moyers is impeccable as he interviews all sorts of new people: a number of policemen, the president of the University of Kansas, blacks of many different persuasions, hippies who demonstrated in protest of the shooting.
Each one of these people says so precisely what we would predict he’d say that it begins to seem that Moyers’s sympathy and skill at interviewing make his impartiality seem like blindness, a disease: I don’t know what the world is coming to; They’re going too far; It’s about time; If it’s not a revolution, what is it; It ain’t too late to start killing niggers; We don’t want any more trouble; You better keep passing through, honey. To read this episode is to feel that had Moyers traveled incognito, or allowed himself to open up more to what he felt, then he might not have found it so easy to talk to all those people and something more surprising might have happened.
The VFW in Richmond, Indiana, is not happy about Vietnam but tries to conduct business as usual; the hugely successful rancher in Wyoming thinks he lives in a great country; farmers in eastern Washington are angry about radicals on the Washington State campus; a cop in San Francisco sees terrible blindnesses and ravages among the footloose young; the Chicanos in south Texas are acting up. It just is not news.
The habits of reportial listening become so ingrained that when Moyers wants to open up he can’t find his own voice and simply adopts someone else’s. He begins his account of Houston by saying he finds it “one of the most exciting cities in the country” because it is “astir with the future.” It sounds very promising; we all know LBJ did a lot of boondoggling and have wondered if that meant death or life for Houston. But this is how Moyers goes on:
Off in the distance I could see new buildings glistening in the sun and steel shells of others under construction. Some predictions say it will one day be our largest city. The absence of fixed boundaries in the charter has allowed wild annexation of peripheral townships and acreage, and already 1.3 million people live in a metropolis of some 450 square miles lying a flat 41 feet above sea level. Still the city continues to spread. Its people earn $6 billion a year.
The Chamber of Commerce is talking, not Moyers. Whatever excites him about Houston, it can’t be that.
Bill Moyers is fascinated and disturbed by America, and his restlessness and desire to know and tell about it are admirable. He does not want to gobble up his subject, and, given his 13,000 miles of traveling, his sense of scale is good enough. But we should, after 342 pages, get more than the familiar outlines of these fascinations and disturbances, and we don’t. Perhaps a clue to why comes on page 342:
People are more anxious and bewildered than alarmed. They don’t know what to make of it all: of long hair and endless war, of their children deserting their country, of congestion on their highways and overflowing crowds in their national parks, or art that does not uplift and movies that do not reach conclusions; of intransigence in government and violence; of politicians who come and go while problems plague and persist; of being lonely surrounded by people and of being bored with so many possessions; of being poor; of the failure of organizations to keep the air breathable, the water drinkable, and man peaceable. I left Houston convinced that liberals and conservatives there shared three basic apprehensions: they want the war to stop, they do not want to lose their children, and they want to be proud of their country. But it was the same everywhere.
That is a fair enough, even an intelligent enough, statement of the obvious truths Moyers has elicited. But that Moyers can do no more than this is perhaps best revealed in that telltale phrase about the people in Houston: “liberals and conservatives.” The obvious point is that the labels are too crude to fit even the people in Houston with whom Moyers talked. But perhaps Moyers’s real trouble is that he would not have dreamed of talking to someone without trying to get his side of an issue, or of leaving town without trying to talk with someone of an opposing persuasion.
Issues make news; the good reporter listens to both or all sides. Behind that, America is the sum of all the issues and all the sides. These are the assumptions with which Bill Moyers and Calvin Trillin work, and they are so deeply assumed that they are probably not noticed by their authors. But, if I may be so bold, I think they are the assumptions of what Willie Morris calls the Big Cave that is New York, of the Times, of the television networks. Scrupulosity, impersonality, and fairness are great virtues indeed, as can be attested by anyone who lives somewhere in the America out there where he is subject to the narrownesses and caprices of bush journalism.
Furthermore, CBS and the Times have placed us all in their debt with heir recent reports on the knavery and the evil clownishness of the last two administrations, and we needed organizations as powerful as these to do the uncovering. When it comes to reporting on the feds there just aren’t enough I. F. Stones to go around, and even he could not have gotten the scoops that CBS and the Times got. But the subject at hand is not the feds but the people of America, and I would like to suggest that the kind of reporting offered by the Times and the networks, by Bill Moyers and Calvin Trillin, is practically by definition inadequate and inappropriate for the task.
A neat if somewhat unfair comparison may help. The first item in U.S. Journal describes the killing of a Canadian film maker who was trying to shoot some footage of poor people living in a group of shacks in eastern Kentucky. He was shot by the man who owned the shacks and the surrounding land, and Trillin soon discovered that almost anyone who lived in the area could have told the film crew that the killer was likely to do just what he did if outsiders came snooping around. Trillin does what he can with the story, but it is one of those pieces where the subject hopelessly outstrips the form.
Beside Trillin’s sketch put a book that Trillin and everyone else who has read it knows as a classic, Harry Caudill’s Night Comes to the Cumberlands. The difference is far from being simply one of scope and length. What Caudill knows about the Cumberlands Calvin Trillin could not find out in ten or a hundred trips there; Caudill is not partisan or bipartisan or nonpartisan or any of those things because he is not a reporter reduced to facelessness by virtue of coming in from outside. His anger and compassion are informed with a richness of lore and knowledge and sense of place that makes Trillin’s piece seem not only small and limited, but wrongheaded.
And everyone knows this, really. People aren’t dumb. A book like Night Comes to the Cumberlands comes along and everyone knows right away that this is what we all want our essential reporting to be. Last fall a man who lives just north of me, Norman Clark, published a book called Mill Town about his home, Everett, Washington, and in no time everyone who read it knew it for the real thing, a fine piece of regional history.* Books like this implicitly rebuke books like U.S. Journal and Listening to America for the simple reason that the country is vast and mysterious and, even after two centuries of increasingly exerted federal power, still a collection of provinces, filled with known and little known boundaries.
Some of these boundaries you can see by driving because they are made by rivers or mountain ranges or the point at which suburb stops and countryside begins. Others are almost as important but it takes years of charting to find just where they are: how far north of the Ohio River does the South stop and the Midwest begin? In any event, the great reporters about the people of America are men who know their boundaries and the region enclosed, and few men ever know more than one or two. The good and decent visitor like Calvin Trillin or Bill Moyers is not in the usual sense a foreigner, but he seldom knows the right questions to ask and so must resort to being a competent interviewer and observer.
Perhaps, too, there is one other possibility, though one hesitates even to suggest it. To try to do what Trillin and Moyers tried and achieve a work of significance, to be moving always on the turf of someone else and yet see ways to make it one’s own while honoring its integrity, this is the province of geniuses and wild men. Such people usually are not scrupulous, passive, and fair, but cranks, eccentrics, like Henry Adams. Surely one reason people listened for a while to Jack Kerouac, and listen now (with more good reasons) to Norman Mailer is that they throw off all pretense of being reporters in Trillin’s and Moyers’s sense. They skulk around, emerging from the Big Cave from time to time to sound the depths of their own vision or fancy and call it America. The country is seemingly impossible to fathom, yet it is ours and we want badly to understand it, so we are sometimes tempted to concede such writers everything on the wild chance that their mutters and shouts will turn out to be right.
I suspect, however, that the rightness such writers ever do achieve is almost always transitory, and that for a fuller and more holding rightness it is writers like Harry Caudill and Norman Clark and Faulkner (when he is writing like them and not like Mailer) that can tell us most. I do not mean that regional or local history is necessarily better than any other kind, but only that such history at its best tells us about a place in ways that show us more about what it is to be any American anywhere. In the recent spate of books about California the good ones all take that bulging newness and instead of trying to make it news try to make it adhere to place and past, and it is worth noting that all the good books on ecology do this too.
Something we were withholding made us weak
Until we found out that it was ourselves
We were withholding from our land of living,
And forthwith found salvation in surrender.
At least it is true that what salvation we have achieved or might hope for is to be found only in such surrender. In Frost’s terms, Calvin Trillin and Bill Moyers are still withholding, and so their care, decency, and straight-forward prose would probably be better employed doing almost anything else than trying to see America steady and whole.
University of Washington Press, 257 pp., $7.95.↩
University of Washington Press, 257 pp., $7.95.↩