In the 23 years since his first ”On the Road” features, Charles Kuralt — the traveling teddy bear of CBS News — has created a unique role for himself in TV journalism. Designated wanderer of back roads and byways, explicator of the homespun and celebrator of the offbeat, Kuralt has done more than any other reporter to counteract the homogenizing tendency of the medium — to remind us that there is still an America out there beyond the shopping malls and the opinion polls. An America that Mark Twain or Charles Dickens, to mention just two famous 19th-century travelers, would recognize. One nation, indivisible, but if anything even more variegated and complicated than ever before. To hear him tell it in A Life on the Road, there is a paradox at the heart of Kuralt’s career: For all his skill in chronicling the virtues of localism, of ordinary people rooted in time, place, family, and community, Kuralt himself is essentially rootless, by his own admission unable to settle into the sort of life his journalism celebrates.
A native of North Carolina, Kuralt was offered a job as a staff writer for CBS radio news in the mid-’50s, not long after finding himself denounced as a Communist in the state legislature for writing editorials in the University of North Carolina’s Daily Tar Heel advocating an end to segregation. He quickly formed the most ardent and enduring bond of his adult life, his professional relationship to CBS.
After a fairly standard career as a correspondent, Kuralt began his ”On the Road” series in the fall of 1967 — at the outset of one of the most tumultuous and divisive eras in recent American history. What he found out there was almost the opposite of what he expected: ”To judge from the news of the day,” Kuralt writes, ”(Americans) were bitterly divided along racial or political lines, contentious and angry. But the people I actually met seemed neighborly and humane…. I read the papers every day. The front pages were full of selfishness, arrogance and hostility toward others. The back roads were another country… In that first year on the road, I fell in love with my native land.”
Readers seeking information on the inner workings of television news will not find it here. What they will find is a crisply written, episodic, often funny portrait of a painfully honest and fundamentally decent man discovering himself as he discovers his country. A reporter, Kuralt insists, is merely ”a stone skipping on a pond, taking an instant to tell one story and ricocheting to the next, covering a lot of water while only skimming the surface.” If his memoirs have something of the same quality, that seems to be exactly as Charles Kuralt would have it. B+