By John G. Mitchell

Nebraska. 368 pp. $24.95

IF YOU THINK you can predict how an ace reporter for Audubon and Wilderness magazines would shade his coverage of classic environmental issues, this book might surprise you. John G. Mitchell is the ace in question, all of his pieces collected here first appeared in one or another of those house organs, but what's this? -- an affectionate portrait of a Canadian fur-trapper? A not-too-begrudging admission that, for all the homesteads it razed and open land it consumed, the interstate highway system has been a national plus? Some surges of admiration for the eponymous dam-man?

These stances are a tribute to Mitchell's open mind (not to mention the forbearance of his editors) but also, I think, an illustration of the insights to be gained from empathisizing with someone whose goals you disapprove of. In the end, Mitchell parts company with Robert Panero, the hubristic engineer with plans for the Amazon, over his disregard for the likely side-effects of his projects. (Panero is the schemer who proposed that New York City sell off the south end of Central Park to developers, level Harlem, and replace it with Central Park North!) But the reader finishes the essay with a sense of how heady it might be to flip a protractor across the map of a whole continent.

In addition to South America, the book includes visits to Alaska, Cumberland Island, the Catskills and Kentucky coal-mining country, as well as an informed look out the author's rural-Connecticut window into the swamp beyond. The writing is animated, though periodically cuteness wriggles in. "Skedaddle," for example, is a mannered verb that a lucky writer might get away with using once in a career; Mitchell drops it into these pages three times. Still, his savvy and fair-mindedness help produce a rare set of likenesses -- developers and profiteers without fangs.


The Origins of a Cultural Style in the American 1950s By W.T. Lhamon Jr. Smithsonian. 286 pp. $19.95

THOUGHT there was something odd about Little Richard's lyrics. For one thing, why is Long Tall Sally, who's got everything Uncle John needs, also known as "Baldhead Sally"? Because he/she is a transvestite, suggests W.T. Lhamon Jr., in this poorly written but fitfully insightful study. Richard Penniman made his early music in gay bars and traveling minstrel shows, sometimes decked out in a frock, and Lhamon skillfully traces the influence of this uninhibited milieu on his streak of brazen rock 'n' roll hits in the mid-1950s.

Lhamon's main point is that in the '50s high and vernacular culture penetrated each other in a big way and that, behind the decade's vaunted illusion of 18-hole tranquility, both neighborhoods were jiving with experimentation. He manages the feat of fingering common impulses in the artistry of Ornette Coleman, Jackson Pollock, Chuck Berry and Thomas Pynchon without blurring the obvious distinctions among their works. He makes the delightful charge that Henry James loved kitsch, especially Uncle Tom's Cabin.

But, oh, that prose! Let two examples stand for hundreds of maladroit passages. "{Ralph} Ellison wanted to leap the black community's hedges which the attention of {Richard} Wright's stories had paradoxically made the more impassable even while protesting them." "Moreover, {Berry's} musical instincts further rooted him in a substantial culture, aided him to a signature guitar line that remains as distinctive today as when 'Maybelline' appeared, and ballasted his essentially pop optimism."

Such writing should be delivered like software, with an 800 number so that the befuddled reader can call for help.

THE CONSCIENCE OF THE EYE The Design and Social Life of Cities By Richard Sennett Knopf. 266 pp. $24.95

TOQUEVILLE, Rothko, Avedon and Baudelaire -- one can make passable free verse with the surnames of thinkers consulted in this wide-ranging book. Its subject is what might be called urban psychology: the human motives that shape the design of cities. Its author, Richard Sennett, is a sociologist and novelist whose polymath expertise allows him even to draw distinctions between New York and Parisian graffiti (the French do these things better).

Sennett identifies two strains in the American sensibility as inimical to the growth of varied and engaging cities. One is the puritanism that seems to endow "the designers of parking lots, malls and public plazas . . . with a positive genius for sterility . . ." The other, a fear of the different and unfamiliar, has led architects to sprinkle the urban landscape with "bland, neutralizing spaces, spaces which remove the threat of social contact: street walls faced in sheets of plate glass, highways that cut off poor neighborhoods from the rest of the city, dormitory housing developments."

So far so good. But it's hard to visualize what Sennett proposes as alternatives. The book comes sans illustrations, which surely would have helped. And Sennett isn't always careful about tying in his intellectual set-pieces with his larger themes.

For instance, he addresses the charge that Richard Avedon homogenizes his subjects in In the American West by photographing them all against the same whited-out backdrop. Not so, Sennett argues persuasively: The absence of foil sharpens rather blurs the physiognomic distinctions among those ranchhands and working women. Somehow Avedon's technique is supposed to demonstrate the possibility of designing variously amid constraints, but after several readings of the passage I'm still not sure how he wants the example to be translated into architectural terms.

Nonetheless, The Conscience of the Eye contains so many dazzling passages on such an eclectic array of designers and artists that one hardly minds strolling with the author down the occasional cul-de-sac. THE HOLLYWOOD EYE What Makes the The Movies Work By Jon Boorstin HarperCollins. 319 pp. $19.95

Industry insider's book is organized around an interesting question: How has Hollywood maintained its world leadership while so many other American industries have fallen off? In answering it, he draws on two decades' experience as screenwriter, producer and longtime collaborator of director Alan J. Pakula ("All the President's Men," "Sophie's Choice").

One of Boorstin's most illuminating discussions concerns single versus multiple camera shots -- that is, shots of one actor alone as opposed to those in which two or more hold the screen together. Single shots enhance control and dispatch: Bogie and Bacall can be photographed making eyes at each other in a series of singles, and if Bacall blinks only her side of the exchange need be retaken.

But this efficiency can exact a price -- loss of spontaneity and chemistry between actors, narrowing of scope. Boorstin's counterexample is the delicious scene in "Annie Hall" where Woody Allen produces Marshall McLuhan in the flesh to refute a jerk who's been misinterpreting the Master's thought in public. The outraged Allen leads the offender over to McLuhan himself, "who tells {him} he's a pompous twit." In fact, Boorstin notes, McLuhan garbled his line. Yet the movie audience's laughter at merely seeing him always drowns him out anyway, and the scene gains immeasurably from being photographed in one crowded, imperfect two-and-a-half-minute take.

Elsewhere the author notes the importance of film timers (technicians whose work in the developing lab shapes the color values seen onscreen); discusses the difficulty of shooting dialogue in the front seats of a moving car; and explains why "1941" is Steven Spielberg's only flop -- because of its monotonously frenetic pace.

Boorstin answers his book-shaping questions with the observation that while filmmakers in other countries tend to discount the value of movies with mass appeal, he and his colleagues are more democractic: "Hollywood filmmakers know deep in their gut that they can have it both ways -- they can make a film they are terrifically proud of that masses of people will want to see, too."

One can believe that Hollywood is fooling itself in this regard without at all detracting from the insights and sheer enjoyment to be gained from reading Jon Boorstin's crafty book.

Dennis Drabelle is a Washington critic and writer.