On the Road with Charles Kuralt

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 10)

Charles Kuralt is a professional wanderer. He has been all over the place and seen just about everything, and he wants to keep on doing it. If you ask him what he is, he will tell you what he is not. He is not a real reporter, neither the kind his boss at CBS wanted him to be nor the kind that informs on moonshiners in Tennessee. He likes old folks. He will tell you that—and when he goes on the road, he is drawn to them. They tell him about the way things used to be, what they did when they were young, and what their grandparents taught them. Best of all, he tells us.

On the Road with Charles Kuralt is the second collection of vignettes of Americana adapted from Kuralt’s regular segments on the CBS Evening News and Sunday Morning. The vignettes seem to be transcripts largely taken directly off the air. Most readers will be able to “hear” Kuralt as he interviews his subjects, and those who have watched some of the “On the Road” segments will be able to “see” them too. For fans of Kuralt, the book is nothing less than a series of meetings with old friends. At the same time, the absence of the video portion of the interviews is a significant handicap for those new to Kuralt’s work, because their original visual freshness and sparkle simply cannot be transferred to the printed page.

Kuralt says, “I was a real reporter once, but I was not suited for it by physique or temperament.” In 1966, when he first suggested to Fred Friendly, president of CBS News, that he would like to roam the country looking for stories rather than covering “hard” news in places such as Vietnam, Friendly sent him to the North Pole. By the time he got back, things had warmed up at CBS, and the new boss, Richard S. Salant, let him go on the road with only a few words of wisdom: “Keep the budget low.” Since then, Kuralt has sent back stories from anywhere his motor home can take him, relying “on dumb luck and letters from viewers” to find them. The popularity of both the television and book versions of On the Road attests the success of this approach.

Kuralt has come across a variety of “Unlikely Heroes” in his travels. The doctor who accepts apple strudel or a jar of buttermilk as payment for his work and the man who repairs dozens of bicycles so that even the poorest kids in his neighborhood can ride one are heartwarming stories, but only mildly surprising. That the liberator of Bulgaria is named MacGahan and came from New Lexington, Ohio, comes as more of a shock.

Kuralt has also come across many characters who march to the beat of “Different Drummers,” perhaps because he does so himself. Along with the “Dreamers” Kuralt has met on his travels, he lets them demonstrate the independence of thought and diversity of attitude of the American people. As Kuralt puts it, “You can’t get your thumb on America’s mood. I never try.” Yet without trying, he has come as close as anyone has since the famous wanderers he admires, Alexis de Tocqueville and Mark Twain. “Each of them caught a little bit of the truth about America and wrote it down.” So has Kuralt. The mood is upbeat; the attitude is step to the beat you hear; and who is in Washington at the moment does not much matter.Hardly a week goes by that I don’t come across a poet at some country crossroads. I don’t mean a writer of verse. I mean somebody who has inside of him such a love of something—farming, flying, furniture-making—and talks about it so lyrically and intensely, that in telling you about it, he makes you love it, too.

That is a good enough definition of a poet for most people. The poets that Kuralt encounters, the lover of steam engines, the builders of the Golden...

(The entire section is 1532 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 10)

Booklist. LXXXI, July, 1985, p. 1476.

Kirkus Reviews. LIII, July 15, 1985, p. 700.

Library Journal. CX, September 15, 1985, p. 71.

Publishers Weekly. CCXXVIII, July 12, 1985, p. 43.

TV Guide. XXXIII, August 3, 1985, p. 40.

Variety. CCCXX, September 18, 1985, p. 92.

The Wall Street Journal. CCVI, October 1, 1985, p. 30.

Washington Post Book World. XV, October 13, 1985, p. 10.