THE XEROX CORPORATION, selling at 63 1/8 on the New York Stock Exchange, recently paid Harrison Salisbury $40,000 for a long magazine article about America as a public-spirited bicentennial observance. The article appears in this month's Esquire, flanked by two full-page ads ("low keyed," Xerox calls them) that identify Xerox as the sponsor of a journalistic first, a "special in print." There has been a certain amount of fuss about all this, which Salisbury may have anticipated ("A first I thought, gee whiz, should I do this," he said). In the Ellsworth (Maine) Times, E.B. White said he detected "the shadow of disaster" in the Salisbury-Xerox nexus and wondered if next we will see Gulden's Mustard commissioning Craig Claiborne to write about "The Place of the Hot Dog in American Society."
All that was before the offending Esquire hit the stands. But here it is: turn to page 28 and you see Harrison E. Salisbury, former foreign correspondent and associate editor of The New York Times, in blue jeans and crew-neck sweater, standing earnestly before a gray, American landscape. The article is called simply "Travels Through America," and it begins with a short description of the autumn New England wind, the red-brick factories and the lawns on Route 128. Salisbury starts to tell the story of his great-grandfather's brother, Hiram, who lived around the turn of the 19th century in Chepachet, Rhode Island, farming and sometimes building sleighs for $17.69 each. Before he gets too far into it, Salisbury interrupts the part about Hiram to explain what he is up to, and you soon begin to wonder if his researches were worth all the fuss or the money.
"Today I sit," he writes from an airplane (Xerox gave him an extra $5000 for expenses), "notebook in hand, eyes to the window-aware. I am looking down at a continent, my continent, my America.
"For months I have been searching out this continent, traveling forgotten trails...talking to the old and the young, looking for my country, my American land, spying it out as an intelligencer would, trying to find where it has been, where it has come, where it is going after two hundred years of success and sorrow. "...I have roved the world and I have roved my own country. I have seen it...in a lifetime of reporting, but never all of it, never as a whole, never as one America, the nation-continent of the world."
Now, right away it's clear that Salisbury has bitten off a mouthful, and he says so himself. Even the landscape--even what he sees from his airplane window--seems too big and varied to be understood in a few glib paragraphs, and so all Salisbury offers is his own personal view of America, an account of one person's journey to the burning heart of the American dream. "I have not tasted all the strata of our 215,000,000 lives," he says.
It's also clear early on that this story isn't going to be very well written--it sags with vagueness and redundancy, for one thing. And you get the feeling that in all his years as a reporter The Times never let Salisbury try out any metaphors. Caprice, rather than expressiveness, fathered such images as "the Colorado River, ballooning like an inflated condom," and sometimes Salisbury packs them in more densely than he should: "...a lost river to my generation of Americans locked to our freeway ribbons by steel umbilicals."
Faced with an experience that is often too rich and complex to pin down, Salisbury begins to wander between aimless lists ("the very names a litany--Prairie du Chien, La Crosse, Winona, Wabasha, Red Wing") and inconsequent facts ("that watercourse which Anthony Trollope thought the finest in the world"). His airplane-window view of America inspires musings on our manifest destiny--he looks out over "the watershed of the Mississippi, the valleys of Ohio and the plainslands of Missouri, a continent in itself as surely designed for America's use as a woman's womb for the seed of humanity"--and memories of the red loess in the mountains of Siam. The whole thing gets to be a little diffuse.
IF YOU LOOK AHEAD to the end, you see right away what Salisbury is aiming at. The United States has problems, some of which he witnessed during his travels:
We have ravaged the land. We have trashed some of our people. I have found dark stains on the nation's fabric, pessimism and alienation, bitterness at lack of leadership.
But he also believes that there is a unique American spirit that is going to carry us through. He quotes Tocqueville, who said this spirit was our "love of prosperity and spirit of enterprise;" beyond that, Salisbury puts his faith in a liberal spirit of equality and individual freedom.
Hiram Salisbury was an epitome of the self-sufficient individualist. He was a farmer, a peddler, a carpenter, a tax-collector and a member of the Rhode Island General Assembly, and everything he needed he seems to have made for himself. His great grand-nephew, Harrison, has an account book with records of all his financial transaction, so he knows more about Hiram's skills and vocations than about his thoughts, but Salisbury's pioneer ancestor remains a symbol for him of a pure, uncorrupt American optimism.
As he travels, Salisbury seeks others signs. Over and over, he explains that he is an optimist, and his optimism colors his perceptions of the people he meets, the people he tries to find his American spirit in. Charles Reich, author of The Greening of America, is someone he admires very much. "I told Reich that I was an optimist. He was delighted. His friends are optimists, too. He said this was a time when the consciousness people of the 1960s were out doing their own thing." There are nuances here, and ironies, that Salisbury is overlooking. Not that he has stacked the deck--on the contrary, he is clearly trying to confront the most troublesome parts of his American experience: he seeks out Hunter Thompson, Tom Hayden, black people and bitter taxi drivers, all symbols of something hostile to his earnest mediocre, and it is not equal to the landscape he wants to describe.
Hunter Thompson, at his Colorado ranch, sipped Wild Turkey and predicted more random violence for the seventies. On one level, Thompson said, we're totally doomed--"but I think there's a perversity in people that I kind of like and have great faith in." Salisbury must have listened patiently and seriously. He writes:
So there it all hangs out. Hunter Thompson, the man of doom, the cutting edge of the out culture of the 1960's, is an optimist on the survival of humanity.
TOM HAYDEN, playing at radical politics in California, disturbs Salisbury. Robert Bly explains his Freudian theory of the Vietnam War, and this intrigues Salisbury. A convention of elderly black worshippers in their finest clothes cheers him--they are "almost the only persons I met in the whole of the United States that I could truly call ladies and gentlemen." All of these people, in some way, seem to elude him.
Finally he comes to New York, a city he has loved for many years, and determines to explore the slums. There he hopes to find a reality that "social theorists" ignore. If America is corrupt, failing, this is where he will find the limit of despair. Instead, in Manhattan's lower East Side, he finds "an island of light on a dark street"--the Nativity Mission School, run by Father Eugene Feeney. Feeney says, "This is no big deal. We know we are just a small drop in a large pond."
But Salisbury believes differently. "I take the subway back uptown. The city may ba a jungle to some, but the beacon still burns...I believe New York and the other great cities of our country will find their way forward again. The light on Forsyth Street may be a small one, but it gives a spark that can set our hearts on fire."
Salisbury never pretends that his optimism is more than a matter of faith, but his walk through the lower East Side gives the lie even to that. A neighborhood that he remembers as part of Chinatown has become mostly Puerto Rican, and as Salisbury walks along familiar streets his mind begins to play tricks on him. He imagines that he hears the voices of Puerto Rican youths shouting after him. It begins to rain, and Salisbury thinks to himself, "not likely anyone will come after me in the rain." It is then that he reaches Forsyth Street and his island of light, and when he finds a beacon of hope in the mission school's dogged good work, you still smell his fear not far away.