American Journey: Traveling with Tocqueville in Search of “Democracy in America”
It’s not often spelled with a “k” these days, and after two decades of doubt and disaffection many people seem able to hope that “America” is no longer a dirty word. In their new books about the state of the nation neither Peter Davis nor Richard Reeves adopts the mood of our present rulers, but both cautiously assume a continuity in the American character that would not dismay Ronald Reagan.
To most of us the 1960s and 1970s seemed endless, and indeed they comprised a good tenth of the duration of our national existence. It was as if the collective American self during those years was enduring something like what overprivileged young men and women have to endure between the ages (roughly) of fifteen to seventeen: the first strong emergence of, and resistance to, adult consciousness, with its unwelcome discovery that what one does and says has consequences for oneself and for other people, that the sources that have fed one’s desires are not limitless, that one must work for, or appear to be working for, at least some of what one hopes to get or keep. Having learned the hard way that we are no better or brighter than the rest of the world, Americans now face a kind of self-examination different from the older uncertainties, so amusing to foreign observes, of a people without a history, tradition, or intelligible style.
Peter Davis, a successful and seriousminded television and film producer (Hearts and Minds, The Selling of the Pentagon, Middletown), approaches the present condition of America as if making a documentary. Hometown portrays a small midwestern city, Hamilton, Ohio, in ways that would work well on screen—he shows us a lower-middleclass wedding, a basketball game between the town’s “good” (mostly white) and “bad” (racially mixed) high schools, a strike at a local tool factory, a comparison of a fundamentalist minister with a police-court judge as dispensers of “justice,” a virtually stenographic rendering of the gossip at a beauty shop, and so on. The continuing theme is tension, the disparity between hopeful public surfaces and the personal and social antagonisms they mask.
Davis explains, in a rhetoric familiar from television, that his purpose was to “map the passions of one American town,” and, wanting to do things right, he asks a government demographer where to look for some mappable passions:
Tell me where I can go to combine categories of social research with techniques of storytelling. Where I can observe activities the way an anthropologist might, as Robert and Helen Lynd did in Middletown, and then tell about them as Sherwood Anderson did in Winesburg, Ohio. Stories of marriage and morals, work and leisure, politics, crime, punishment, religion, caste and class. Stories of real people using not only fact but fantasy, not only information but impression, attitude, legend—diverse tidings that disclose particular truths in a community.
Since Davis doesn’t enclose this in quotation marks, I suspect he didn’t really make his request with …
This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.
Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.