(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 13)

Peter Davis is well-known as a writer and producer of fine documentary films, including his Academy Award-winning Hearts and Minds (1974), about the Vietnam War; the television documentary “The Selling of the Pentagon” (1971); and his six-part public television series “Middletown” (1982). Although Hometown is Davis’ literary debut, he is on familiar ground, presenting the residents of Hamilton, Ohio, with almost television-like immediacy. Hometown is not a strictly sociological study, such as Robert and Helen Lynd’s study of Muncie, Indiana, in Middletown (1929), although Davis does use the sociologist’s framework to paint the life of Hamilton: family, religion, work, play, crime, and politics. Nor is it the fiction of Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio (1919), for in Hometown, the reader is conscious of the marriage of the storyteller and the documentary filmmaker, a fusion that prompts questions about Davis’ control over his material—questions which are not easily resolved—and earns the work the designation of “creative nonfiction,” a term that warns a reader to differentiate fact from fiction in this apparently documentary work.

In the opening chapter, Davis explains how Hamilton was selected. Davis wanted “to understand America by going into one community and penetrating its society as deeply and widely as possible.” This may be asking the impossible, overlooking, as it does, the sheer size and variety of America. Nevertheless, a statistician at the Census Bureau gives him a sensible answer: Hamilton, a city of sixty-three thousand people, is “northern enough to be industrial, southern enough to have a gently rural aspect, western enough to have once been on the frontier, eastern enough to have a past.” With this answer in mind, Davis spent two and a half years living in Hamilton, recording the life there as it presented itself to him, yet without a camera or microphone.

The town’s mayor, Frank Witt, describes Hamilton as a community “deeply fragmented” within itself. The mayor’s description rings true throughout the book, beginning with the ironic account of a wedding ceremony in which Bobby Jackson, a carpenter, marries Nancy Sloneker, a young teacher from the wrong side of an illustrious Hamilton family. The marriage ceremony in the small Presbyterian church proceeds with formal precision, uniting not only Nancy and Bobby but also the Slonekers and Jacksons; the scene that follows at the reception is illuminated with a cold, harsh light. Here, Davis draws on his documentary experience, allowing the reader to eavesdrop on each family’s complaints and using flashbacks to provide background on the families and on life in Hamilton. What is presented is no surprise to the reader: although the marriage ceremony unites two members of the community, it serves only to heighten the fragmentary nature of the community as a whole. Here, in describing the reception, Davis gives the reader an inkling of the social barriers separating two families of similar economic standing yet of different social backgrounds. “The Wedding,” in spite of its promise for a bright future, ends pessimistically with the hinted-at future portrait of Nancy as a bride who will be happy “most of the time.”

“The Game” more clearly and completely defines the social boundaries in this community. Remarkable for its vividness and drama, this chapter recounts the crosstown rivalry between Taft and Garfield schools. Taft’s students are from prominent families and affluent neighborhoods, while Garfield’s student body comprises mainly blacks and Appalachian whites. Like the families from which Garfield’s students are drawn, its basketball team is an underdog to the very successful Taft team. The action of the game plays like an adventure film, with the underdog Garfield team barely missing a come-from-behind victory. For a moment at the game’s end, the score and the social barriers are forgotten as representatives of both sides hoist the star Garfield player to their shoulders, but the unity is part of the frenzy of the moment, and it is clear that after the game, Hamilton will again...

(The entire section is 1716 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 13)

Christian Science Monitor. May 14, 1982, p. B3.

Commonweal. CIX, October 22, 1982, p. 573.

Library Journal. CVII, May 1, 1982, p. 899.

The New Republic. CLXXXVII, July 5, 1982, p. 39.

The New York Times Book Review. LXXXVII, April 18, 1982, p. 9.

Psychology Today. XVI, April, 1982, p. 86.

Saturday Review. IX, April, 1982, p. 63.

Virginia Quarterly Review. LVIII, Summer, 1982, p. 91.