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 such guileless pomposity. But more than style is a problem here. The stories he found in Hamilton are precisely the ones he was looking for—marriage and morals, work and leisure, politics, crime, and so on—and it was tough luck on Hamilton that he chose to find them there.
Worse, his hope of “using not only fact but fantasy” encourages a suspicious reader to look for some rigging. One of the book’s two central episodes, both juicy crime stories, develops out of a description of a particular policeman’s shift of duty on a particular (but undated) evening. Although Davis never says outright that he was riding with Sergeant Chuck Furman on the night in question, he reports Furman’s rounds very circumstantially, and since he also records Furman’s comments on various criminals to someone else who seems to be in the car, it becomes easy to assume that Davis himself was there, on that night.
As it happens, Furman is called (at 11:11 PM) to respond to a reported “shooting involving two white males at 2132 North K Street.” At that moment Furman (and his putative interviewer-passenger) vanish from the narrative, which moves into a long account of the events leading up to what turns out to be a sensational murder case, one which (according to Davis) epitomizes the unequal distribution of human opportunities in Hamilton and America. In watching TV or a movie, of course, we know that a good deal of cutting and splicing is implied in what we see; but readers of a narrative in print may raise some questions. Did Davis just happen to be in Hamilton, on the right night, in that police car, when such a useful crime offered itself? If so, he was remarkably lucky, especially since the circumstances so happily suited his sociological purposes. Or did the murder take place before he went to Hamilton (he was clearly at the trial, but that’s easier to manage), so that he had in effect to provide an establishing sequence, by (perhaps) riding with Furman at some later time and weaving in details from the dispatcher’s log for the murder night? Whatever the case, a reader may want to know what is “a dramatization” and what Davis directly witnessed.
This is not a major objection—the story of this crime and its punishment is instructive and troubling however it is presented. But in Hometown Davis’s concern for the cinematographic necessities of dramatic immediacy competes with his social and moral seriousness. He came to Hamilton, he tells us, because the demographer recommended it as representative—big enough yet small enough, Northern (industrial) and Southern (rural) and Western (once on the frontier) and Eastern (with enough of a history) all at once. Hamilton is asked to be all America, and that’s too much for any one town to be. And the evidence Davis looks for is highly representative—class conflict between the indigenous industrial bosses and the newcomers (Appalachian whites, blacks) who now do most of the work, the high incidence of divorce just as in California or New York, the decline of public school enrollments and of population generally in the old industrial cities, the renascence of Protestant extremism, all those disturbing problems that are worried about on serious talk shows.
These of course are disturbing problems, and Hamilton, Ohio, no doubt has its share of them. But Davis’s way of merging social research and story-telling creates problems of its own. The vivid presence and telling juxtaposition on which the filmmaker’s imagination thrives cause noticeable strain, as when he tries to make modern Hamilton’s interest in the rumored sexual peccancies of its handsome young mayor seem parallel to the town’s excitement in the 1820s about the struggles of a local hollow-earther, one John Cleves Symmes, to win international recognition for his Theory of Polar Voids. The connection eludes analysis, and others proposed in the book are at least a little frail. Davis the storyteller is too receptive to the dramatic possibilities of the lurid—the gossip about the charismatic mayor and his dismaying death, the murder case, the bitter conflict over the school board’s efforts to dismiss a music teacher accused of exposing himself in a department-store men’s room—to leave enough space for the soberer modes of social research.
It seems curious that Davis, himself so indebted to the techniques of television and movies, should display what seems to be a conventional moral and perhaps political dislike of them. Though he allows that TV, because it “has no will of its own,” can’t be a directly bad influence on us, he seems pleased to remark of the murder case that “it would be hard to imagine a crime to which television was more intimately connected,” since it hinged on a separated couple’s dispute over who would get the TV set and since the killer would not have encountered his victim on the fatal night if he hadn’t got bored while watching a baseball game. (Insufficient evidence, since it would be hard to imagine any domestic event in America without a TV somewhere in the picture.)
The Today show is twitted for doing a laudatory segment on a “back to basics” movement in the Hamilton schools without saying or even knowing that the Superintendent whom they interviewed on camera was then leading a vendetta against an allegedly homosexual teacher. The local paper’s candor, which some Hamiltonians thought smutty, in quoting words like “erection” and “masturbation” from the testimony in that case is explained: “In its vividness, the Journal-News was possibly grafting another species of writing onto responsible journalism, adapting an alien form to new uses. But it was not pornography, only screenplay.” This sounds like irony, but its target isn’t clear—“responsible journalism”? prudery? or just screen-writing? But I know where I am when Davis, in one of his social-protest moods, calls television one of “the tranquilizers of the poor,” though I wonder if he thinks the rich never watch it.
Hometown has its virtues. Davis can be a good observer and listener, and he is fair-minded. He gives, for example, a surprisingly complex and sympathetic potrait of “Boss” Beckett, a backcountry aristocrat who is the town’s leading citizen, and reality cooperates nicely when Beckett, a reactionary on social and economic issues, affirms his personal decency by siding, against most of his peers as well as some of the local liberals, with the poor teacher the school board wants to fire. There are other good things in the book, enough to make me wish all the more that Davis hadn’t been so eager to make Hamilton an image of “America” and to apprehend its life in ways that would “play” on the screen.
While Davis strongly dislikes much that Hamilton and America now contain, Hometown offers some cheer. We are not so different from our ancestors, he suggests magniloquently:
Blinded by speed, inventions, new means of transportation, we focus on change to the exclusion of permanence. What generation since the founding of the Republic has not thought itself living in transition, has not longed for the time when children obeyed, a dollar was worth a dollar, the boss knew all his workers by their first names? It is hard to escape the conclusion that permanence, continuity, relative fixity are paid insufficient attention in a society that, even when fearful of it, reveres and generally profits from change, we overlook what is continuous; one of the most enduring features of the American landscape is change itself.
Some of these continuities are of course discreditable; Davis has in fact just been quoting a nineteenth-century Hamiltonian orator who praised his pioneer forebears for being not idealists or reformers but “practical eradicationists” who understood that “the most certain road to successful competition with savage man and beast was to exterminate them.” But invoking “permanence” is philosophically bracing, the touch of uplift that cushions bad news, and it can be as useful to a journalist like Richard Reeves as it is to Davis.
“Traveling with Tocqueville in Search of Democracy in America,” the subtitle of Reeves’s American Journey, sounds encouraging. What better guide to present complexity than that astutue, entertaining Frenchman who long ago defined our character and institutions so enduringly? Reeves undertakes to celebrate the sesquicentennial of Tocqueville’s American visit by retracing his route and comparing America today with his then.
This is a pleasant idea, if perhaps a risky one for a long book—it is not meant as an insult to Reeves to say that the more he gives us of Tocqueville, the less attention we pay to Reeves. Following Tocqueville geographically is sometimes awkward for him, too. He starts at Newport, Rhode Island, simply because Tocqueville did so; but Reeves can’t find much to say about Newport except that there’s a lot of information in the air there—seventy-nine radio and eight television stations are receivable, not to mention a store that sells 250 different magazines. This states an important if not very fresh fact about America, but it doesn’t distinguish Newport from Council Bluffs or Fresno.
Reeves shares both Davis’s conviction that “America” is everywhere you look and Davis’s way of uttering that conviction with a rise of the voice that for my generation eternally evokes Life magazine and the worthy Edward R. Murrow. Reeves tells us he has been living in California and first thought of doing a Tocqueville out West:
But, soon enough, I learned that the questions and the themes—mine and Tocqueville’s—were the same everywhere in the great land…. We were, I found, one people: Americans. There were no regional answers to questions of war and peace, of equality, of justice. The question was still American democracy: What had it become? Did it work? Could it peacefully translate the will of the people into life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness for each of those people?
This is an odd way for a tough-minded reporter to be talking, especially if he’s been reading the witty and illusionless Tocqueville, but I suppose it shows the reviving power of words like “America” and “democracy” to turn thought into rubber.
Like his great model, Reeves seeks a panoramic view of American attitudes and institutions, and the present scene strikes him as at least as ambiguous and uncompleted as America seemed to Tocqueville. American Journey is a kind of anthology of our difficulties, challenges, and follies. At his best Reeves is a smart and diligent journalist, and he is better than most when he writes on the press and television, on the behavior of political and economic leaders, the condition of racial minorities and women, the changing modes of work and worship and leisure.
Some of his details are splendidly sharp. Invited in New York to dine with Mayor Koch, he finds that the other guests are the mayor’s subordinates or cronies, and bent on self-congratulation, just as they were when Mayor Walter Bowne had Tocqueville to dinner in 1831. (“These people seem to me stinking with national conceit,” Tocqueville wrote to his mother.) Thinking about corporate agglomeration in the information business, Reeves reflects that Tocqueville’s itinerary now would permit him to read twenty-eight Gannett newspapers and wonders how that might affect the power of a free press, which Tocqueville found so impressive, to counter governmental oppression. When told by Reeves of a fanatical right-wing evangelist he’s heard on local radio, a well-known Louisville newspaper publisher says, “I don’t know why they allow things like that on the air,” evidently forgetting that, as Reeves later learned, his family’s corporation owns the station in question.
Tocqueville’s presence in the narrative is consistently useful. In Nashville, pondering the popular music industry. Reeves wickedly recalls what Tocqueville wrote when he heard America singing: “We spend our life enduring howling of which one has no conception in the old world.” At a very different level, the comment of Felix Rohatyn on a grave present concern—“The treatment of poor blacks is the test of our democracy…. Democracy may be a great luxury that works only so long as there is growth to allocate. The system still hasn’t been tested in allocating sacrifice. Will the middle class sacrifice to keep black mothers on welfare? I don’t think so”—reminds us of Tocqueville’s warning that “the most formidable evil threatening the future of the United States is the presence of the blacks on their soil.”
Tocqueville’s wondering discovery that American democracy undertook to offer Americans “a continuous and unending amelioration of social conditions” is grotesquely fulfilled in Reeves’s story about a private club in Saginaw, Michigan, which had to close its squash courts because, in violation of federal and state regulations, the doors were too small to allow access to people in wheelchairs. Reeves’s sober account of present-day feminism gains amusing historical point in Tocqueville’s amazement at how docilely American wives (“those charming recluses”) submerged their being within their mates’—“the eldorado of husbands,” he called America in a teasing letter to his sister-in-law.
But even Tocqueville can’t quite make American Journey what Reeves wants it to be. For all his shrewd comment, his subjects remain the staples of serious popular journalism, and his tireless interrogation of witnesses causes a problem of focus. The people whose views he records, however questioningly, are mainly on top of the system, not those who have to cope with it from within or below. Visiting the prison at Auburn, New York, he accumulates facts (it costs $9,736 a year to maintain a prisoner, for example) and offers a theory of not much interest (that prisons are a little like universities), but while he quotes one prisoner, who says it’s dangerous in there, his conception of the place comes mostly from interviewing the warden.
His main sources are business executives, publishers and editors, political leaders, professors, lawyers, and financiers, as if the country were a comicopera army with more generals than privates. He of course doesn’t believe all he hears from these sources, and I can see that when you come to an unfamiliar place, you naturally seek help from those who know how it works, and who are usually the people in charge. But he describes the anatomy of old power facing new challenges, his major subject, in the vocabulary of the overclass, and the very presence of that vocabulary keeps us from seeing things from other perspectives, the kinds that Oscar Lewis or Studs Terkel or for that matter Peter Davis (who’s very good on how Hamilton’s ordinary people talk and feel) could provide.
American Journey, like Hometown, is weakened by arbitrariness, by being too quick to treat observations as metaphors for the list of Big Subjects the observer brought along with him. Reeves knows what items belong on any such list in the 1980s: the shift of population and economic strength from Tocqueville’s part of America to parts south and west; the domination of local life and work by distant powers—the national government, big labor, agglomerated business, and homogenized information and entertainment; the dangers of entrusting the productive mechanisms to the bottom-line mentality of accountants and lawyers, instead of to those who can make and sell usable goods; the shift from treating work as a measure of personal value and a means of offering future opportunity to one’s descendants—and, through them, to the community and the nation—to treating it as support for a “life-style,” with “freedom” increasingly coming to mean “free time”; the frightening prospects for poor people in a system that may not be willing or able to pay for justice or even decency much longer. Such subjects need all the attention they can get, but their urgency isn’t fully served by Reeves’s rather loose ways of attaching some of them to the places he visits, or by his continual appeal to voices from afar—the experts he’s consulted in Washington, New York, Cambridge, or wherever—to tell what’s really happening out there in humbler parts of the Republic.
In an important sense, as Reeves and Davis say, we are of course one people, figures in an intellectual and moral intention, “democracy,” which most of us, routinely or thoughtfully, accept and value. As usual, Tocqueville explains that intention better than anyone else. First he asks us to be clear about what we want from society and government. Do we want them to raise us to “an elevated and generous view of the things of this world,” “a certain scorn of material goods,” in order to improve manners, foster “poetry, renown, and glory,” achieve “powerful influence over all others,” attempt “a great enterprises” and leave “a great mark on history”? If so, we should not support democratic government.
But if you think it profitable to turn man’s intellectual and moral activity toward the necessities, of physical life and use them to produce well-being, if you think that reason is more use to men than genius, if your object is not to create heroic virtues but rather tranquil habits, if you would rather contemplate vices than crimes and prefer fewer transgressions at the cost of fewer splendid deeds, if in place of a brilliant society you are content to live in one that is prosperous, and finally, if in your view the main object of government is not to achieve the greatest strength or glory for the nation as a whole but to provide for every individual therein the utmost well-being, protecting him as far as possible from all afflictions, then it is good to make conditions equal and to establish a democratic government.
For Tocqueville’s neoclassical mind, the choice is in effect between epic and pastoral, and in the necessary messiness of practice things are not quite so clear. But his words suggest how far two decades of imperial presidencies have taken us from the moral center of what democracy originally had in mind. The philosophical and economic incompatibility of national “reason” and national “genius” are only too evident in the cross-purposes of Reaganism, and of most of those who oppose it as well.
To the extent that Hometown and American Journey depart from the conventions of up-beat popular journalism, and look closely enough to see America as caught in a confusion of aims that may be inescapable, they are both worth reading. But finally the “America” they consider seems an abstraction, and it comes as something of a relief to realize that we are not, or at least not yet, one people, that our diversities of class, religion, region, ethnicity, sex, and personal taste remain more strange and interesting that either writer admits. The large questions are not the only ones, or necessarily the most important ones, to be asked about American life now. Perhaps it’s that both authors are “coastal” people—Reeves born in Jersey City, trained in New York, now living in California, and Davis born in California, living in New York, now living in California, and (presumably) working in both places—but whatever the reason, I feel sure that Hamilton, Ohio, is much more (if not inevitably much better) than Davis’s verbal cinema can show, and that the places Reeves visited must feel, to most of their inhabitants, quite different from what he heard from their potentates. This is good to remember in times as bad as these, as it is always good to remember how much of life eludes the categories we try to apply to it. Both Davis and Reeves, to their credit, are at least trying to think seriously about America within the customs of their crafts. It’s just that, as usual, so much remains to be said.
July 15, 1982