ABOUT a month ago I drove from New Orleans to Cambridge in a Volkswagen, ostensibly for very sensible reasons involving the conveniences of can travel. There was, however, more to it than that: I wanted, in part, to find out What America Is Really Like, and I thought traveling on highways from the deepest South to New England would be a good way to do it.
I ended up, of course, disappointed. What I learned about America was that there are more trees and fields in the South and more factories in the North, and that besides slight differences in vocal inflection the people you run into driving a car are very much alike.
Maybe my mistake was that I didn't make enough of a concerted effort to put my finger squarely on the pulse of the nation by seeking out the grassroots experience and earnest, probing conversations that would have given me the insights I was looking for.
That, at least, is a mistake Bennett Kremen, a New York journalist who a couple of years ago had become, he says, "uncertain of what America had become," avoided. Kremen took off for a few months in search of the real America, having decided beforehand that "to pass through the country like a tourist with a tape recorder and a journalist's notebook would simply prove worthless." Instead, Kremen went hitchhiking around, spending a few weeks as a factory worker, a few in college towns, a stint in the South and a time living with blacks. His intentions were purely noble, but he made one crucial error: He didn't leave behind his tape recorder and notebook, as he had promised, and as a consequence has published a chronicle of his travels purporting to explain what it all means.
Kremen is tremendously pleased with himself throughout Dateline: America for embarking on his journey, which he feels certain will yield forth all the profoundest truths about America. He is like a spy for The New York Times's reading world, whose job is to report back on what real people are like.
So everywhere he goes, every chance he gets, Kremen is asking people the Big Questions--and because the people he talks to are real, grassroots Americans, he presents everything they say as deeply momentous. Unfortunately, it doesn't always come out that way. Here is Kremen at Ohio State, the campus of America's heartland, talking to a student:
"So it's over for you," Kremen muses.
"What's that mean?"
"Just that people are as fed up as ever around here. Nothing's settled in this country."
"Settled? Like what?"
"Man, you want a list!"
Kremen is, I guess, what the boys over in William James would call a participant-observer. He's fiercely determined to cram as much experience into a soujourn away from New York as possible, reveling in bars and dirt and cheap hotels and the like. Anything that smacks of either youth culture or the working class or, best of all, a combination of the two, sends him into ecstasy. Smoking marijuana, for instance, especially in a factory or a commune, is always tremendously meaningful: "The smoke striking into my lungs sends my blood leaping. And soon the flying sparks, the hot steel, the raging, exploding furnaces above us seem like mere frivolities on a carnival night."
BUT AT THE same time, Kremen can never resist pulling out his notebook in any situation--a drunken college party, a pool game in Louisiana, a car he gets a ride in--that might possibly give him some pearl of wisdom that will help him in telling us what's going on out there. He's always sidling up to someone and asking the provocative questions that will get to the bottom of it all--except that more often than not, his questions are designed to bear out his own assumptions about what people are thinking. Here is Kremen on his first day at a U.S. Steel plant in Chicago: "Hey,' I whisper to the fellow next to me with the big, blond mustache, 'are there always so many spades looking for jobs around here?"" Kremen is so determined to expose white workers for their racism that he asks one every chapter or so what they think of the "niggers," but he never seems to get the bigoted response he's looking for.
Dateline: America isn't just only Kremen's interviews. He throws in a lot of economics--particularly the theories of his hero, Paul Samuelson--and public-opinion poll results in an effort to explain the broader patterns that provoke the answers people give him. His general theory is that the baby-boom generation is about to take over America, and that it doesn't believe in all the moral and working codes its predecessors did. Therefore, when the younger generations takes charge, the country will drift leftward and somehow deal with economic and population problems in ways that reflect a lessening of concern with money and status. Young people are the key to all this and hence anyone under 30 achieves oracular status in Dateline: America.
Kremen ended his voyages with a new beard and long hair, the better to achieve solidarity with the youth culture he admires so much, as well as what must have seemed to his a battery of new perceptions about America. But nothing else really new emerges out of Dateline: America other than a few interesting interviews with young people and a few boring ones, all romanticized. overblown and laden with dubious significance by Kremen. There is no cohesive vision of what's happening to the country.
Traveling around America for a few months with the idea of getting a better understanding of it is all well and good, but writing a book purporting to explain it all is pure self-indulgence.