Peter Davis

American Values

VTR Date: March 4, 1982

Guest: Davis, Peter


Host: Richard D. Heffner
Guest: Peter Davis
Title: American Values
VTR: 4/2/82

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on THE OPEN MIND, which today will be rather offbeat, somewhat different from the other programs we’ve done, for it’s about what kind of people we are, asked as a question, not stated as a proposition. De Crevecoeur had asked that question centuries ago. What kind of people are these new men, these Americans? Alexis deTocqueville did too, in his classic nineteenth century study of Democracy in America; and Charles Dickens, Ludd Brice, and many other foreign travelers observing the American way. Then half a century and slightly more ago, Robert and Helen Lind wrote their famous study of Middletown as a visible cross-section of American life; came back some years later to Middletown in transition. And now a brilliant Academy-Award-winning film director and television producer has created a Middletown TV series and has, in somewhat parallel fashion, written one of the most stunning books I’ve ever read, Hometown: A Contemporary American Chronicle, just published by Simon and Schuster.

Peter Davis won the Academy Award for his brilliant and controversial film, “Hearts and Minds”; got a great many people angry with his television documentary, “The Selling of the Pentagon”. Now I think he’s going to delight everyone and read Hometown.

Peter, thanks for joining me today.

DAVIS: Thank you.

HEFFNER: I meant every word that I said. I don’t always say that. But it’s an extraordinary book. And I was impressed as you began the book and you attempted to identify a town, finally, Hamilton, Ohio. You said to the census man, “Tell me where I can go to combine categories of social research with techniques of storytelling. Where I can observe activities the way an anthropologist might, as Robert and Helen Lind did in Middletown, and then tell about them as Sherwood Anderson did in Winesberg, Ohio”. And I think you did just that.

DAVIS: Thank you very much, Dick.

HEFFNER: How much is fiction?

DAVIS: None of it’s fiction. All of the people who are in the book really live or died in Hamilton, Ohio during the period of time when I’ve been researching the book and writing it. It’s taken me six years and I feel like someone who’s just about reached the shore now after being out in a rowboat that’s threatened to sink.

HEFFNER: It’s strange. I identify you always with “Hearts and Minds”, and with “The Selling of the Pentagon”, both controversial films, television documentary, one. There is something so incredibly gentle and kind and giving about your new book.

DAVIS: Well, I loved Hamilton. And when I finished “Hearts and Minds”, I wanted to continue studying America. I think I was studying America to a degree in “Hearts and Minds”. But after that, while I think the whole country was still reeling from the defeat in Vietnam, the scandal of Watergate, I had a sense that we were turning inward, or at least that they weren’t our loss. I wanted now to k now what kind of society I was living in. And so I asked the question that occurred in Tocqueville and others. It seemed to me a number of them were Frenchmen. And in the beginning of the book I quote a Frenchman, Alle Trevault, who said, was America a blessing or a curse to mankind? He asked in 1780. If it was a blessing, how can we conserve and enhance the benefits? If it was a curse, how can we get rid of it? And so I wanted to ask those same kinds of questions. Only I’m not a sociologist, and I didn’t want to ask them and then try to do a statistical analysis. I wanted to tell stories about people in crisis, people at times of their lives who were coming up to a moment – the big basketball game or a murder, after which no one would ever be the same.

HEFFNER: But it interested me that where someone who had focused on the military and on war in America, that this study of Middletown that you call Hometown really does not touch on the impact of war or thoughts or war.

DAVIS: Well, in one chapter. In one chapter there is a man who lost a leg…


DAVIS: …in the Ashaw Valley in Vietnam, and who wants to learn the lesson of Vietnam. He comes home and tells the teacher, he wants to know the lesson of Vietnam by each semester with his high school students…he one day takes off his leg and passes around the classroom. And so in a way, I think I was still, I am still interested in what happened to us there. But there are so many other things going on in America that are tumultuous and wonderful and terrible, that that’s what I wanted to study.

HEFFNER: Peter, one day each year, I, thanks to your generosity, show my students “Hearts and Minds”.

DAVIS: Yes, you do.

HEFFNER: But war looms much larger in my sense of what one does with students than it does here. And again, I wondered why, for someone who focused on war in his films and television work.

DAVIS: Well, we need to go on to something else. I mean, that’s the simplest way to put it. And what I wanted to go on to were in the crises in ordinary life, the extraordinary moments in the life of – I hate to say ordinary people, it sounds like the movie – but of normal people like us who are living and trying and succeeding and failing in one community, so that I could try to get the measure of that one community.

HEFFNER: All right. I don’t want to drop this just yet. Does it mean that as you came to understand your Middletown, that war and thoughts of the world outside, that those thoughts do not loom quite as large as they may for people in a large metropolitan area?

DAVIS: No. I think they don’t loom as large when there is no war, and there has not been a war during the time I spent in Hamilton writing Hometown, which would have been from 1976 until now. I think most of the people, I think including in the large, in the big cities, most of the people in New York and Chicago and Los Angeles don’t spend every day even going to stay in school, if their job is going to be better, if their life is going to be interesting, if their love affair is going to be worthwhile. And what about the rumor of the fact the people next door…I have a chapter on rumor which courses through town like winged steeds. I tell a sort of two rumors that happened 150 years apart. The first one, somebody in Hamilton thought that the earth was inhabitable in the poles, in the north and south poles. If you could just get to the South Pole or the North Pole you could go inside. There was a hole there, an dif you went there you would find a green and sunny land with animals enjoying themselves and another race of people. He convinced Hamiltonians he was right. And he raised a fair amount of money in Hamilton to do this. But he couldn’t get the funding. He was hooted and egged in rostrums all around the country, but in Hamilton they loved him. And 150 years later the mayor was rumored that he had an affair with probably the most glamorous woman in Hamilton. And this was the most interesting talk in Hamilton. Are they or aren’t they? And they were both married. They were close friends. And indeed, no one will ever know the truth of that. But I like tracing those rumors through time, the ones in the past and the ones right now. And while I was doing that another interesting thing happened which is in the book. Social commentators, like people that both you and I know, Dick, spend a lot of their time talking about change in America. How many things are so different that our grandparents wouldn’t recognize it if they could come back to life in this country? And what I began to understand after spending a couple of years in Hamilton looking for these very changes and finding many of them – it’s easy to spot technological change from buildings to jet planes to computers to Xerox machines. What I found is that the people in the 1890s felt the same way you do now. They believed that their world had changed so dramatically their grandparents, even their parents wouldn’t recognize it. The telephones and electric lights and steam engines. And the people in, their grandparents in the 1840s thought that canals and steamboats and daguerreotypes would change the world forever. And they were always right. So what I concluded, very much against my will, was that there is far more continuity, permanence, relative fixity in American society than I had any idea when I started.

HEFFNER: This is something you would celebrate?

DAVIS: I don’t think I’m celebrating it, because that also applies to racism. Racism’s been in America for as long or longer than technological change. It’s just that every American generation has always thought itself a generation in transition. When did we not complain that a dollar was no longer worth a dollar, the boss didn’t know his workers by their first names anymore? This has been going on for a long time. So I think I am celebrating a lot of American virtues. I think though, primarily I’m trying anyway, to spot enduring qualities in America through these stories. Just like the man, you have the book…

HEFFNER: Peter Weinsberger?

DAVIS: Right.

HEFFNER: I was thinking, when Malcolm Calloway wrote his introduction to Shubert Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio, he said, “It is a work of love, an attempt to break down the walls that divide one person from another, and also in its own fashion, a celebration of small town life and the lost days of goodwill and innocence”. And I have that sense of celebration as I read Hometown.

DAVIS: It’s true. It’s true. I think a lot of times in Hometown, I am far less a quitter and far more a very fond observer of life in Hamilton, even though a good part of the book has sad things in it. A man who, the town’s favorite music teacher, gets arrested for a crime he had never admitted to. And it splits the community when everybody finds out and some people say they think they ought to tar and feather this guy. Others say, “No, no, no. He’s the best music teacher. Let’s keep him. And he didn’t do it, anyway”. And so this alleged crime has split the community. It became an opportunity for me to celebrate the town’s virtues, and also to point a finger at what seems to be the cruelties, not just in Hamilton, but in our society at large.

HEFFNER: Yes, but Peter, each time that finger was pointed at the cruelties, there was a sense of not of acceptance of the cruelties, but a sense of understanding. And I couldn’t help but wonder whether print was the factor here, as I think about “Hearts and Minds”, and I think about “The Selling of the Pentagon”, does print make you kinder and warmer and more accepting?

DAVIS: That’s a wonderful question. Blake said, “Opposition is true friendship”. And so, as Malcolm Cowley said about Sherwood Anderson’s book, “This is a work of love”. Yes, this too is a work of love. Hometown is a work of love. And it does have opposition and criticism in it. And that is the other way I express my friendship towards the people in Hamilton.

HEFFNER: But let’s go back to the question of the difference between what print brings out in Peter Davis and what film and television bring out in Peter Davis. Maybe you’ll say, “No difference. Loot at the television series on Middletown and you’d see the same thing”.

DAVIS: I think you will. I think perhaps that as I’ve become less oriented towards investigative journalism, which certainly “The Selling of the Pentagon” was, and more inquiring, more wondering about people’s motivations, which was part of “Hearts and Minds” also. It was a good part of “Hearts and Minds”. It is an inquiry, but this is even more an inquiry. I guess I developed a sense that people have a right to be the way they are, especially if they’re not hurting other people.

HEFFNER: Okay. But then I’m admiring of that point of view, but then I’ll come back to the question that you quote and raise in your book, which you mention before. “Was the discovery of America a blessing or a curse to mankind? If it was a blessing, by what means are we to conserve and enhance its benefits? If it was a curse, by what means are we to repair the damage?

DAVIS: It was both. I mean, I don’t want to be equivocating about that, but it’s actually clearly has been both. Now more of a blessing, and at other times something of a curse when you’re doing a bully, either in our hemisphere or in an eastern hemisphere. But I think it is also a blessing, in that we were a safety valve in a way for the rest of humanity. And we still are.

HEFFNER: What do you mean, “safety valve”?

DAVIS: They could come here. And incidentally, this term, this does also inform the television series “Middletown”. These are films of admiration and celebration of various stages of life, just as the book is. So I don’t think it’s so much the difference between print and film s it is the difference between the way I was ten years ago and the way I am today.

HEFFNER: If you have as yet reached middle age, I would say it was middle-age crisis. But you haven’t.

DAVIS: Well, maybe I have, but that’s why I liked writing the book so much, because I’m in my forties, and I’m an experienced, some people might even say – I hate this word, but – veteran filmmaker. But I’m a young…and it’s so much fun to be in your forties and be new at something. I’ve just started.

HEFFNER: You mean this is the age of innocence?

DAVIS: The age of both, as Blake would say, “Innocence and experience”. I think I have a bit of both.

HEFFNER: You write, “The good thing as anywhere is still to get ahead. The next thing is not to fall too far behind”. And you write that not in a condemning fashion, but that is a quality that is in the past.

DAVIS: And it’s something I’m very fond of, too. I mean, I have…

HEFFNER: Getting ahead?

DAVIS: No. The quality in people that makes them keep striving. And they do that as much in Hamilton as they do on Madison Avenue. And this is why it’s really not a book about one small community. It’s a book about our society. And I picked this small community because I felt that I could best understand American life by looking at it when you’re small.

HEFFNER: Peter, do you think that…

DAVIS: …Just as you write a play about one family. It’s really what I was trying to do.

HEFFNER: Well, that was the question I was going to ask. You say, “Play”. I was thinking about Weinsberg, or I was thinking about Middletown, the original writers. Do you think there is as much of a relationship of a proximate relationship between those stores, the plays that Stuart Anderson is responsible for, the books that the Linds did, as much of a parallel between their descriptions of Middletowns or small towns in the west of America as there is today? You seem to feel that your Middletown is America.

DAVIS: It could be found on State Street in Chicago or in West Los Angeles or in the small town that I grew up in, in Upland, California.

HEFFNER: Do you think that’s truer today, that relationship than it was 50 years ago?

DAVIS: You mean the homogeneous quality?


DAVIS: No, I think there’s a continuity. It’s not truer, but it is also true today, as it was 50 years ago, that the kind of life, we may be a little bit more homogeneous because of television. I sense that you feel we are. But I think that the signature on our social contract was equally clear 50 and 100 years ago and brings very deeply back to before I mentioned it. Americans started to feel like Americans sometime in the 1750s, and not like British. And I think, and I’m not saying, not like the Native Americans, the Indians whom they found here. They started to feel a different sense of civilization than men had felt in Europe. And I think that we have continued from that time.

HEFFNER: What would you tick off as the qualities, if you were answering De Crevecoeur’s question, “Who is, what is this new man?”

DAVIS: To get more for your kids than you have. To stake out new territory for yourself which your father didn’t have. To see the frontier not as a border which stops you as in Europe – and that’s what frontier not as a border which stops you as in Europe – and that’s what frontier means in Europe, you can’t go beyond it – instead we see the frontier as existing out there. It’s a horizon that stretches as far as we can imagine. It’s partly to do with the size of this continent. But that too, the size of the continent has had the effect on Americans for a long time. Okay, the urge to get bigger, expand your business, to sell, selling, to migrate. And we have emigrated all the time in this country. You know, we can get across the country in six hours. It used to take six months. But we were coding it then. We’re doing it now. All the advertising, the urge to advertise, to see what I’ve got to you, and to prove to you that you need it. These are, I think, quintessentially, almost genetically American qualities.

HEFFNER: Which you seem to embrace.

DAVIS: They’re mine! I mean, I might criticize them, I might think that they’re faults, or some of them, I might think that they’re great virtues. But whatever they are, they’re ours.

HEFFNER: You don’t think of them as the product of the twentieth century?

DAVIS: Not at all. Not at all.

HEFFNER: You talk about them as being genetic, almost.

DAVIS: Almost. I think that we have a bloodline in America between one generation and the next, and stretching back to, well, before John Adams. But John Adams said that, well, one generation has to be soldiers so the next generation can be farmers so the next generation can be merchants so the fourth generation can be artists. And we have always regarded ourselves that way. Whoever comes to this country and fights for it is doing so because he wants his sons to be farmers or lawyers now, in cities or bankers and so that their sons can carry on learning and somewhere along the line, perhaps to produce an artist. If that’s what his value system is. But always it’s get more for the next generation.

HEFFNER: The flipside of that, though, is not activist, is not self-assertive; it’s aggressive. Now, you’re not doing that flipside particularly much in this book.

DAVIS: The aggressions?

HEFFNER: That’s right, the negatives. Nothing comes out as terribly negative here.

DAVIS: Yeah, well?

HEFFNER: Again, that’s why I use the word “celebration”. But is affirmation so…

DAVIS: Maybe it’s more of an affirmation than I knew when I was writing it. It’s so hard to write and to think while you’re doing it that you’re engaged really in a process of paddling across the ocean in a canoe. And maybe I wasn’t aware of how much I was affirming American society. I don’t think it is that, so I agree with you.

HEFFNER: I’m not asking you to reject that idea. I interested in other words, surprised, and delighted, but questioning. I’m a little bit puzzled.

DAVIS: Well, I don’t think I’ve gone soft, if that’s what you mean.

HEFFNER: Well, you wonder…

DAVIS: Either in the head or the heart. I think that where I have found injustice, small-mindedness, where I see aggressiveness which causes harm to other people, and I do in several chapters of this book, particularly in the last chapter, where the town tears itself apart over a crime that may not even have been committed. Just an alleged offense. And I think I am pretty strong in criticizing that. So I don’t think I’m throwing powder puffs yet, or even knuckleballs.

HEFFNER: It’s funny, because it is particularly in that last chapter where moral indignation can be summoned up and called for. Once again, I see you very understanding, very…In a couple of little points, the needle goes in. But I do feel that you are…

DAVIS: I put it in fairly deeply because I was trying to penetrate the society…

HEFFNER: I think it’s a penetrating analysis from someone who is celebrating. It reminds me almost of Travels with Charlie. It reminds me almost of Steinbeck’s great desire to accentuate the positive. And if that covers as a product, looking at Middletown in America, if it covers living with and looking at and analyzing middle Americans, that’s a great price.

DAVIS: Well, I…All right. Thank you for comparing this book to anything by Steinbeck. I think they’d know that when we Americans see ourselves as an experiment, that we are worthy of celebration. And when we see ourselves as God’s destiny, then I think we’ve gotten into trouble. And that’s where our aggressiveness goes abroad, and I’ve tried to criticize that during my life. Now, I’m happy to celebrate what we are at home.

HEFFNER: Do you find that, by the way, that sense of experiment, as you live in middle America?

DAVIS: Yes, that’s why I picked these towns. I mean, Hamiltonians may not like it, but that’s why they take risks. That’s why they say, “I’m not going to stick around and be a cleaner and dyer just because you’re in that business, or a toolmaker because you’re in that business or a mayor in a small town just because you’re here. I’m going to leave”. And a lot of them do. And they always have. Hamiltonians don’t realize often that their sons and daughters have been leaving town for 150 years. Because the only one that’s till there, of course, is the product of the fact that his parents did stay. But there’s always been this migration out from our towns and cities. New Yorkers, Bostonians have left for the west for 200 years.

HEFFNER: But you seem to be saying that Brave New World, 1984, we needn’t be quite so concerned about those because they don’t represent the American experience as you’ve seen.

DAVIS: That’s true. I think that 1984 is going to be much more like 1884 than we have so far made clear to ourselves. And that’s what I’m trying to do in Hometown, is to understand America in such a way so that we can see that we are not, s we like to say, in a whole new ballgame every year in America. We can do much better with our own lives as well as with our country’s in learning to understand that there are all these continuities in American life that we had better pay attention to. Because they all will be a celebration, but also because they can help guide us in how to live.


DAVIS: All right. If you know, if in the 60s when people were trying to change the entire society radically, if we had been more aware of what the texture of business, race relations, aggressiveness towards outsiders was in this country, things that were considered negative, if we had been more aware of how deeply ingrained these negative qualities or those that we regarded as negative are in the American character, we could have been much more friendly towards those people that we were trying to change instead of standing up and marching against them and holding up placards and burning their files and taking over their university buildings and stuff. That, in retrospect, was something where we weren’t wrong, in the 60s.

HEFFNER: I think it’s a wonderful, beautiful, and a very…analysis. Peter Davis, thank you so much for joining me today.

DAVIS: Thank you.

HEFFNER: Hometown is really an extraordinary book. Thanks for it, too.

DAVIS: Thank you, Dick.

HEFFNER: And thanks too, to you in the audience. I hope that you will join us here again on THE OPEN MIND. Meanwhile, as an old friend used to say, “Good night, and good luck”.