Thomas A. Edison had it wrong. Genius, he said, is "1 percent inspiration and 99 percent perspiration." That may be true of tinkerers and inventors. But in the world of creativity, written and verbal, it is nonsense. And nothing proves it like the life and career of Charles Bishop Kuralt.
I had the good fortune to see Charlie's genius when it was still partially concealed in the chrysalis of youth. When we met for the first time in the offices of The Daily Tar Heel in Chapel Hill one day in 1953, we both were college sophomores. At that age one is still too rawI was, anywayto see far beyond the immediate evidence. But in his case the signs of what was to come were unusually obvious.
Our mutual friend, the witty and learned manager of Graham Memorial, Jimmy Wallace, had already nicknamed Charlie "Mellifluous," a label implying a flow of words vaguely specious. Jimmy was wrong, and so were all those who failed to detect something quite unusual. I knew Charlie then as a friend. He was that genial and slightly pudgy young man with the splendidly resonant voice who had been anointed Rolfe Neill's successor as editor of the Tar Heel. He still faced an election, but that proved to be a formality, as expected, especially after Charlie took the pledge before the University Party caucus that the Tar Heel would mute its scolding of what we called "big time" (commercialized) athletics. It did no such thing, of course, but the scolding became far more urbane and good humored at Charlie's hands.
As his associate editors, Louis Kraar and I could see that Charlie had a special touch at the typewriter. His portable, as I recall, wore a reminder: "People don't always have to clobber each other." His mentors and models were journalists like Eric Sevareid and E. B. White, who mused more than they shouted. Their influence came through in small but telling touches. When Fred Weaver, the elegant and friendly dean of students, issued a sudden decree suspending all consumption of alcohol in fraternity houses, Charlie was ready. With a wry glance across the Atlantic, he wrote perhaps the only three-word editorial ever to grace our garrulous editorial columns. "Pierre, meet Fred," it said in its entirety, an allusion to the milk-drinking campaign then being waged, to great notoriety, by the French prime minister, Pierre Mendes-France. Mendes-France sought to wean French workingmen from their murderous daily wine-bibbing: "Never more than a single liter of wine a day" was the motto. I have forgotten the outcome of Fred Weaver's campaign, and Pierre's too, for that matter. I haven't forgotten that little squib of an editorial. It was a trademark Kuralt product.
Now, let's fast forward some 15 years. It is now 1970, or thereabouts, and Charlie, well past his apprentice days as a scriptwriter for the Douglas Edwards news program on CBS and stints here and abroad of reporting, had found the form that would forever carry his patent: the "On the Road" series. He toured the country in a van with a cameraman looking for those vignettes of American life that busier, more conventional reporters tended to miss. It might be something as slight as boys rolling happily in autumn leaves in a small New England town, or the dedication of a craftsman who had been hand-making brick in North Carolina for many decades: tremendous trifles, as G. K. Chesterton might have called them. The discovery of the form seems to have been something of an accident. Walter Cronkite has confessed that he was a bit skeptical at first. But the form was an instant success because it engaged all of Charlie's special strengths: an ingenious ability to sound an "ordinary" scene with the radar of his own character and to translate the returning signals into rich and fetching whimsy. Amateurs at writing sometimes patronize whimsybut only because they haven't tried it. What seems so effortless demands the surest touch, whether one thinks of E. B. White's best New Yorker "casuals" or their visual equivalent in Kuralt's "On The Road" pieces.
Under close analysiswhich as Wordsworth said of over-examined poetry, would "murder to dissect"we would see that the key to what came out was what went in. Charlie's pieces, whether written or televised, were in a special way reflections of his personal and God-given slant on the world. Never has the French adage been truer: Le style , c'est l'homme lui-meme; the style is the man himself. Charlie as I knew him for more than 40 years was an enjoying man, touched by wanderlust and longing for experience, with the patience to probe until he penetrated beyond the obvious and touched that indwelling strain of uniqueness that we like to think is intrinsic in all of usif only we had Kuralts to find it. The savor of his writing, brief or at length, stemmed from Charlie's capacity to define the core and essence of what he saw, and never at second hand. "Make it new," Ezra Pound advised poets. "See it new" might have been Charlie's watchword, not that he needed to be told.
And he did have words to go with the pictures. Seeing and writing were, for him, opposite sides of the same coin. The tone, the choice of words, was always exact and often enchanting. Which is, incidentally, why most of the imitators falter. I remember once when Charlie was talking about his boyhood in eastern North Carolina, when everybody had a stick horse to ride. "And then there was my friend Charles," he said, a boy from a wealthy family, "who had a horse for a horse." The same wit that I had known for many decades was at play on a November evening in 1994, when the National Press Club in Washington gave Charlie its coveted Fourth Estate Award. Four friends, of whom I was one, had been brought in to reminisce. I said that Charlie's view of life was so benevolent that had he stumbled into Shakespeare's "Macbeth," he probably would have done an "On The Road" piece about the "weird sisters," the witches, and found something to like about them. Charlie, who knew my streak of pedantry from way back, retorted: "Yoder still needs an editor." Calvin Trillin, another of the speakers, said his piece; and it was witty and funny. Could Charlie top it? He could. Trillin, he said, had once been a real journalist (the Kuralt pose that evening was that of the five speakers he was the only authentic journalist) but now had become a "swell," nearly as well known as, say, Margaret Truman, whose name appeared with his on a list of well-known Americans. "He writes poetry for The Nation," Charlie said drily. He paused. "It is minor poetry."
Perhaps what I am talking aboutand surely it will emerge in the valuable and vivid reminiscences of friends and colleagues that Ralph Grizzle has put together hereis a point that Edison missed, at least when it comes to art and craft. Occasionally, and too rarely, there comes among us a voice destined from the cradle to practice alchemy on our common experience. What may seem ordinary, base metal, even leaden, becomes at his touch transformed so that it glimmers with the polish of pure gold. It is of course a form of magic, and Charles Bishop Kuralt was a magician.
Edwin M. Yoder Jr.
USA Today Editorial
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