If one had to choose a modern, electronic journalism equivalent, of De Tocqueville or Mark Twain, it would have to be Charles Kuralt. While he does not have the eloquence of De Tocquevile, Kuralt shares the Frenchman's wonder at the marvels of everyday American life. He lacks Twain's biting insights into the pretensions of society, but has inherited the Twain ability to find gentle humor in otherwise mundane things. For the past 12 years on CBS television and seven on CBS Radio, Kuralt has given us weekly snapshots of daily American life. His observations on modern society are leavened with wry comedy or underscored with quiet resignation when he reflects on aspects of the good life lost to "progress."
I have enjoyed Kuralt's "On the Road," for years, often wishing, to no avail, that CBS would pull together his episodes into a special, (something they did this June). But now, Kuralt fans have something more permanent than the memory of trips to the byways of Maine, Kansas or North Dakota. Kuralt has a book, "Dateline America," with scripts mainly from his radio show, and with accompanying photographs by Mark Chester. It is a good book, unpretentious like Kuralt, with each individual segment merely a trifle, but all coming together into a lovely slice of 1970s America.
"Dateline America" covers the landscape, starting in Angel's Camp, Calif., and ending in Minneapolis, Minn. In between, Kuralt crisscrosses the country, from Connecticut to Colorado, from Alaska to Michigan, from Alabama to Washington. He reflects on the glories of molasses -- good old country sorghum -- in Gatlinburg, Tenn., and on the wonderful qualities of a good country breakfast, the type served only in Jonesboro, in the same state. He moans about the notoriously pallid coffee in Salt Lake City. He describes horseshoe tossing in Sioux Falls, S.D., and oyster dredging in Chesapeake Bay; the frigid winter in Mille Lacs, Minn., the fog in Castine, Maine, and the mud in Greenville, Miss. He remembers old school cheers in Madison, Wis. He profiles Noah Webster in West Hartford, Conn., and Booker T. Washington in Tuskegee, Ala.
Kuralt's essays can't easily be typed by subject or theme. He finds different places, and mixes social and political commentary with plain ol' nostalgia. He rarely tries to impress with fancy language or strings of adjectives (when he does in these essays, he loses his distinctiveness.) Some essays make one smile, others provoke laughter, still others bring sadness.
A word of caution, however. These are not conventional essays, written to be read. At first reading they seem rather empty. They are electronic essays, written to be said , and they hold together best when read aloud (or, even better, when one imagines them spoken in Kuralt's North Carolina drawl). Kuralt does not produce literary masterpieces that will live for the ages. They are not brilliant or stylish. But they are straightforward, wholesome and true.
This is a book of essays with photographs, not a picture book with text, but Mark Chester's photographs deserve a showcase of their own. Beautifully textured in shades of black and white, they remind one of those that Walker Evans did for the Farm Security Administration during the Depression. And they are as varied as Kuralt's essays. They make a good book even better.