Commentary Magazine


The Many Americas Shall Be One, by Harrison E. Salisbury; Out of Place in America, by Peter Schrag; U.S. Journal, by Calvin Tril

The Search For America

The Many Americas Shall be One.
by Harrison E. Salisbury.
Norton. 204 pp. $6.50.

Out of Place in America.
by Peter Schrag.
Random House. 247 pp. $6.95.

U.S. Journal.
by Calvin Trillin.
Dutton. 314 pp. $6.50.

Listening to America.
by Bill Moyers.
Harper’s Magazine Press. 342 pp. $7.95.

Yazoo: Integration in a Deep Southern Town.
by Willie Morris.
Harper’s Magazine Press. 192 pp. $5.95.

Off they go, our journalists, on their endless quest for America. Thousands of them, craftsmen and hacks, a few poets, surprisingly few propagandists, puffed-up TV commentators, moonlighting academics, novelists between novels, newspapermen doing a job, celebrities out to see or be seen. Off they go, with jet tickets and tape recorders, to look and to listen and bring America back to the folks at home.

It’s been under way since the beginnings of the nation, this search for America, and our craving shows no signs of abatement. We can’t get enough of our big, fascinating, confusing country. So we look to the professionals, the fellows who go everywhere and see everything and talk to everybody; we ask them not merely for facts, but for significance, for experience . That we will more often than not be disappointed goes without saying—but there’s always another newspaper, another month’s magazine, another TV documentary—and another season’s books.

The basic journalist, the one on whom we all rely and from whom other journalists borrow incessantly and shamelessly, is the daily newspaperman. Harrison Salisbury is among the most experienced and distinguished practitioners of that craft. In more than twenty years with the New York Times, he has reported from everywhere—the American South and the Vietnamese North, the streets of Moscow and the slums of Brooklyn. The Many Americas Shall Be One consists mainly of recapitulations of his major stories, which have considerably less impact here than they did on the front page of the Times . They are embellished with unexceptionable reflections on how much better things would be if we were all more courteous.

The good newspaperman’s prime attributes are energy, persistence, and a healthy desire to see for himself. Writing is rarely his strong point—which does not matter much in a newspaper but becomes noticeable in a book. Salisbury’s favorite stylistic strategy is the lecture-platform reminiscence: “I happened to be travelling in Eastern Europe at the time of Little Rock.” From which, he is likely to go into a punchy inventory:

But I have listened to rock music in Ulan Bator and Gangtok. I have played Beatles records on jukeboxes (German-made) in the Persian desert and on Soviet steamers traversing the Sea of Japan. I have studied the texts of decrees in Burma banning long hair and miniskirts; I have read Komsomol speeches delivered in Urals factories, inveighing against long hair and miniskirts. I have seen warnings from the Kuomintang against long hair and miniskirts, and I have seen the same from the Greek colonels. The continents and countries change but not the message.

For reasons suggested by the above passage, one ought not demand of the newspaperman his ideas about the events he covers—though he may insist on advancing them. See your daily newspaper for the once useful reporters who have been promoted to columnist, in which job they must labor several times a week to eke a thought out of their small stock of ideas. The newspaperman moves fast, from event to event, and as often as not will borrow his interpretations from persons who got their information from him in the first place. Here is the Salisbury inventory on ecology:

You may not see the immediate connection between the young people of Cambridge who have pledged themselves not to use the gasoline combustion engine and the young Zen acolytes begging on Fifth Avenue, between the resolute warrior-lawyers who fight Storm King and the Berrigan brothers, between beautiful girls pledged to bear no more children and the SDS. But I see a close and intimate connection. I see a society searching for basics, a society which has turned not against the substance of its truth but against the forms in which that truth has been containerized, a society which is at the one and the same time seeking and creating a new faith and a new mystique.

Harrison Salisbury is a decent-minded, admittedly old-fashioned gentleman, with quirkily old-fashioned views about respect for the flag. He comes out here for cooperation in preference to conflict, and change in preference to destruction. He has already done his reporting job well enough so that there was no need for him to try to do it again. This book ought not to be held against him.

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The lure of attempting to salvage one’s articles from the maw of periodical journalism snares magazine writers more often than newspapermen. (I confess to having been caught once and to being in imminent peril of snapping at the bait again.) It is not difficult for a magazine writer to persuade himself that the scores of pieces he has turned out over the years add up to something coherent, constitute a body of work, a statement of a philosophy, an overview of America, or some such thing. The rationale is usually offered in a preface: “It was not until I began to think of them [magazine pieces] as a group that I realized that each was an elaboration of a common theme . . .,” Peter Schrag tells us.

Most of Schrag’s articles come from the Saturday Review, and all the articles in Calvin Trillin’s U.S. Journal come from the department of that title in the New Yorker . They are fair representatives of their home bases—the relentless earnestness of the former, the wry understatement of the latter, except when it is publishing Charles Reich. (Despite major differences of approach, our writers’ opinions on most issues are not so far apart. Indeed, taking these five books as a sampling, the Vice President could advance his case that American journalism is in thrall to the radical-libs.)

Out of Place in America leaves me with no doubt that Peter Schrag is an intelligent, thoughtful man with a serious interest in America’s schools and other complicated subjects, and he no doubt has something to tell us about them, if only he would allow himself to do so. But he prefers to impose portentous thoughts upon us: his subtitle is Essays for the End of an Age . He is a Don Quixote of journalism—perhaps he would feel insulted by being classed as a journalist at all—out in search of the Big Idea. Here are some of the trophies he lugs home:

Of a football game in the South: “It is an eternal celebration of time defied. The clock on the field measures no dimension except ritual itself, no continuity beyond the formal hour of quarters, halves and minutes to go. The clock is a liar. Individuals live in other continuities. . . .”

On Harlem: “The horror derives from the fact that insofar as race defines any set of social problems in America, the action, vitality, and initiative—and hence the freedom—are black. What this means, I think, is that Black Power has not only established itself as an idea, but that it has already begun to turn psychic tables on the whites.” (Oh, Norman Mailer, count among your sins what you have done to young magazine writers.)

On schools: “It is because they don’t deal in the fundamentals of life at all: birth, death, love, violence, passion; because they don’t recognize the brevity of human existence; because, in their passion for fundamentals, they miss the elemental: the tragic, the heroic, the beautiful, the ugly.”

The book is crammed with such stuff, and it is a pity because one can discern here and there within the clogged prose sensible observations about blue-collar workers, the people of Appalachia, and other subjects. Schrag insists on carrying every assignment up to a level of abstraction where there is no purchase for the journalist. As he wanders up there, among epochs and eras and civilizations and cultures and ritual and tragedy, everything comes out sounding like Max Lerner. And soon, because it becomes plain that the writer is infatuated with the Big Idea and somewhat impatient with mere facts, he risks losing the reader’s trust—at least Schrag lost mine. On a visit to a lower-class white neighborhood, for example, Schrag gives us this description: “Coming out of school in the afternoon the boys already resemble their fathers when the shifts change—rows of dark, tufted mail-order-house jackets, rows of winter hats with the earflaps laced above the head, crossing the road from the plant to the parking lot, from the high school to the waiting buses and bare-wheeled Chevvies.” I have watched children come out of school in at least a half-dozen states, as Harrison Salisbury might say, but never have they emerged in a manner so suited to my preconceptions.

Trust is at the heart of the journalist’s craft. If he loses that, he loses all—and in my estimation such is the fate of much of the journalism of advocacy that has been having a run in the past few years. An article may surprise us; it may go against our expectations; it may contradict our beliefs. Whether we accept or resist the contradictions will depend in some measure on the degree of trust built up by the writer—his manner, his marshaling of the evidence, his willingness to grant a point, to give all the devils their due. If he has no patience for such paraphernalia of reporting, then only brilliance can save him, and brilliance is not as readily generated as Big Ideas.

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To come to Calvin Trillin after Peter Schrag is like watching the fog lift. In addition to being a good writer, Trillin is a professional, no insult intended. Being a professional has its dangers—one may come to rely routinely on techniques that have worked before; one may keep worrying subjects that one stopped caring about several articles ago—but professionalism has its virtues, and these are prominent in U.S. Journal . Trillin’s range is wide—from conscientious objection in New Mexico to strip-mining in Appalachia to a school fight in Denver to an auction in Atlantic City; he reminds us of what the Big Idea men tend to overlook, that life still goes on along its varied and peculiar course in towns around the country. He is a professional, too, in not letting his hard work show. It is evident from this collection that he asks a lot of questions of a lot of people, then takes pains to compose an article rather than give us his notes embellished with higher thoughts; but no strain shows. Nor does he go clanking through his stories like some poor spirit desperate for attention or a pampered child at a party for grown-ups or a swinging journalist who can’t bear to get out of the way of his subject. When he brings in “I,” there’s usually some point to it. Moreover, he manages to resist the temptation to come off as superior to those he writes about—a temptation to which New Yorker contributors have been known to succumb. Some of the pieces are rather slight to warrant republication, but at his most successful, as in his report on a campus recruiter for Dow Chemical, Trillin recreates a scene, a time, a person, and leaves us better acquainted with a part of our world than when we came to him. And, as I was especially grateful to note after slogging through Schrag, Trillin resists the Big Idea. Instead of force-feeding us conclusions, he invites us to share his observations. He is pleasant company.

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Bill Moyers, too, has done a considerable amount of traveling, by design and chance and whim—13,000 miles worth, according to the dust jacket of Listening to America . He has listened to the president of Antioch maundering about today’s youth; to insurgent truck drivers in Indiana who read Saul Alinsky and Dale Carnegie; to students and police in Lawrence, Kansas, during a “tense situation”; to a conservationist in Idaho; to Orville Faubus campaigning in Arkansas; to a lot of people in Texas. He evidently has a knack for getting people to talk to him. Most of the passages are interesting; several are more than that. A few are moving, particularly his visit in Clear Creek Valley, Wyoming, with the parents of a Peace Corpsman who died in a plane crash at the age of twenty-two. If there is a central concern in this random sampling of conversations—where, oddly enough, the good guys always come out much better than the bad guys—it is the pain and confusion that people everywhere are feeling as they try to figure out how they fell into the generation gap. The only thing they are sure of is, it hurts.

For a writer to take the several parts of this book and make of them a whole is not an easy job. It would require more gifts than Bill Moyers brings to his work. De Tocqueville went forth equipped with considerable experience of men and ideas; Moyers had a tape recorder. Despite his credentials as an intimate of Lyndon Johnson, his acquaintance with politics seems shallow—and his observations lean to the banal: “But only in the midst of adversity—in the good-natured optimism of the people waiting in line for their unemployment checks, in the pride and courage of the Streets, Carrolls, and Metcalfs, and in the honest self-questioning of the man who bared his soul at Boeing—did I find those qualities which are the bedrock strength of America.”

After completing an enlightening series of interviews in the company-town of Johnsonville, South Carolina, Moyers typically signs off with: “But, however haltingly, an awareness has come to some people that it is no longer necessary or wise to keep things as they always were. And there are people here, black and white, who believe they can work themselves through the dilemmas of their culture, even if they have to do it by the seat of their pants. Some have fought hard battles and have been tempted to leave, but they remain.” He adds nothing—but he has already given a good deal. Listening to America is an illuminating piece of journalism.

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Yazoo, finally, shows what can be accomplished by a writer of intelligence and sensibility involved with a subject of manageable proportions. Willie Morris’s return to Yazoo, the Mississippi town where he was raised, was more than an assignment: “Why,” he asks at the end of this small book, “after seven years in Texas, three and a half in England and Europe, four as editor of a magazine [Harper's, from which he has since resigned] with one of the most distinguished histories in the nation, am I still a son of that bedeviled and mystifying and exasperating region?” Such feelings are not unique to Mississippians; most of the writers mentioned above exhibit a need to come to terms with their earliest experiences—Salisbury in Minneapolis; Trillin in Kansas City, Missouri; Moyers in Texas; Schrag, as a Jewish boy in Nazi-held Europe. We are all expatriates. Still, the South seems to have its special power, particularly for the literary imagination, and in a series of quiet conversations and reflections, Morris works his way into the contradictions of the home town which he fled but cannot escape.

“Who gives a damn about the South any more?” he asks. “Who, for that matter, gives a damn about integration?” He is asking the question from New York, where causes are used up by high-flying thinkers the way vacation spots are used up by the jet set. A part of intellectualdom got bored with integration a few years ago and has been hustling to catch onto other slogans as they whiz by. But in Yazoo, where blacks and whites have to live together, Morris found plenty of interest in integration, many changes, and remarkable instances of tolerance for human failings. A brave white storekeeper who sided with a Negro boycott, says: “People try, you know. They really try. Some whites come into my store even now. They’re fightin’ against themselves. Some of these whites have been gallant. I understand. Believe me, I do. Friday and Saturday nights, when the blacks are here shoppin’ with their welfare checks, some of the whites feel squeezed out. I understand.”

A black girl in an integrated school says: “Things are better than they used to be. Now they’ll walk beside you in the hall. They won’t say, the way they used to, ‘That nigger stinks.’ In class some of the boys would open a window and say, ‘I’m lettin’ out some nigger air. Every time I stand in a mixed line at the water fountain now, I can’t help rememberin’ my first year. I’d be standin’ in line and they’d . . . say, ‘Don’t drink that water, a nigger’s been drinkin’ there.’”

Today, the problems of benighted Yazoo seem easy compared with those of enlightened New York or Newark. “Yazoo is not like some of these other towns,” a priest tells Morris. “Beneath the surface I don’t think relations are so bad. The bad part’s all been on the surface.” One need not take this comment, or the book itself, without a bit of skepticism; yet perhaps one of the things that draws Morris and the other writers back home is the recollection of youth as a time when life consisted of dealings among recognizable people, before we became sufficiently educated to see conflicts as reflections of forces beyond the reach of ordinary men, out of control, susceptible only to influences on the grandest levels, or to violent overturns of custom or to the abrupt shattering of accepted relationships. A necessary lesson gained; a valuable truth lost.

“Homegoing” books have a melancholy air; only in science-fiction is the past recapturable. Yet Yazoo is heartening because it reminds us, without the hint of preachment, that some injustices, even those which excite the most violent passions, can be alleviated, and that it is within the capacity of ordinary men to play a part in that process. (Maybe that’s what Bill Moyers and Harrison Salisbury were getting at, too.) For how this happens or why it does not happen, see your favorite journalist.

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