The Magazine

Cooke's Tour

A keen eye and sharpened pencil in wartime America.

Jun 25, 2007, Vol. 12, No. 39 • By TRACY LEE SIMMONS
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The American Home Front: 1941-1942

by Alistair Cooke

Atlantic Monthly, 336 pp., $24

Just before the millennium turned over in 2000, a set of audiocassette tapes appeared for the first time, September 21, 1939: A Day from the Golden Age of Radio, an aural record of every second of one day's broadcasting over the airwaves of WJSV, a CBS affiliate in Washington, D.C. Much in the spirit of the time capsule sunk deep into the earth that same summer at the New York World's Fair, these tapes constitute a time capsule in sound. The producers inspired to press this recording--back then a more painstaking task than flipping a digital button today--chose the date more or less at random. Leaving aside the political drama of President Roosevelt's address to a joint session of Congress on American neutrality in the three-week-old European war--carried live that afternoon--they gunned for a prosaically normal day in the late-Depression life of the capital city.

And achingly normal it was. For the impatient and incurious, listening to these tapes provides hour upon tedious hour of some of the most tired entertainment, cornpone commercials, and sketchy news ever broadcast. Benumbed by our own spoon-fed flashiness, today's listeners may find themselves hoping that golden radio got a bit more golden than this bland, crackling hash reveals.

Yet for astute listeners with a taste for the sharp tang of history as it's experienced, those tapes offer up a lavish, nostalgic banquet. We move with the pace of Arthur Godfrey's morning wake-up talk and casual whistling, snicker over the jokes, pause with the jingles for soap powder, strain to catch faintly spoken lines from daytime serials, get the hard sell on the new 1940 models, and follow a baseball game. As we settle in, we saunter to a different, slower rhythm; the past takes on color and character.

This is what time capsules are designed to do: They preserve the artifacts of time to show future aliens how those objects once breathed among the living.

The American Home Front would fit snugly in a time capsule sealed, say, in 1945. It's nothing less than an artifact from the same pivotal, though quickly fading, era, now brought back unaltered and pristine as though it had been lodged untouched in a vault. And in a sense it was.

Back in 1941, Alistair Cooke--newspaperman, radio commentator, and, much later, genial host of Masterpiece Theater on PBS--was a onetime British subject in his early thirties, newly naturalized as an American, hoofing the pavement as a reporter for the BBC and based in New York. The young journalist's beats comprised everything from diplomacy to the intrigues of Washington deal-making to movie reviewing to jazz. But after Pearl Harbor, Cooke set off across the American landscape on the broadest of assignments: to collect and record the gaudy, gritty sights and sounds of a somnolent behemoth just roused from its slumber to mobilize for worldwide war. Cooke mined thoroughly what he learned over those months for his dispatches, both newspaper and broadcast. But while keeping up his other reporting for the duration of the war, he was also writing up his account of the journey as a longer, more coherent narrative, and planning for its publication as a book.

By the time the war ended, though, nobody on either side of the Atlantic cared to look back at what most people preferred to forget. The book, completed but unpublishable, was pitched in a closet and there it remained, forgotten and hidden, even to him, for almost 60 years. And so, just weeks before his death in 2004, his enterprising secretary spied the old manuscript while combing through Cooke's papers and bestowed it on its astonished and gratified author, then a man in his mid-nineties.

Now it's in the hands of the reading public at last. The story of this book's recovery is a minor but enticingly charming one from the files of the literary lost and found. But the better tale is that of the trek itself.

"Travelers always find what they're looking for," Cooke often said over the years, and while collecting pre-fab hunches and confirmed biases might be acceptable for freewheeling travelers, it's not for reporters out to see accurately with fresh eyes. This lone excursion of discovery is ground-up journalism, a tight set of stories about little people in little places bobbing on a gargantuan wave of history. It's a relic of the days when journalists took to the road to gather their sticks of information--the kind of reporting that Internet surfing and other instant gee-whiz gadgetry might render obsolete before long. Here a man with pointed literary skill, and a finely tuned sensibility, does the observing and reporting, not an impersonal cipher wielding a manual.

This wartime journey began, retrospectively, a few weeks before Cooke knew he was going to take it. War had not yet begun for America, but rumors buzzed as he was on hand among a flock of correspondents on November 15, 1941, to conduct an ambush press conference with special Japanese envoy Saburo Kurusu as he arrived in New York. Cooke followed him down to Washington, and there he was by December 6, a Saturday that ended uneventfully with "a raw, misty night." Sunday, December 7, opened sunny and balmy, and that afternoon, just before 2:30, Cooke sat down with much of the nation to listen to the New York Philharmonic broadcast on radio, that domestic device which had become, for Americans, "a background to living, a species of wallpaper, against which they eat and snore and quarrel," when the bulletin came in from Hawaii.

The next day Cooke stood in the U.S. House chamber to hear President Roosevelt call, to rousing cheers, for a declaration of war on Japan.

Any reporter's instincts would likely keep him pinned to the center of political, or perhaps military, action in the rush of these momentous events. But Cooke opted to hit the road and "see what the war [would do] to people, to the towns I might go through, to some jobs and crops, to stretches of landscape I loved and had seen at peace." By February 1942, carting pad and pencil, maps, and a set of second-hand retreads, he was off.

His clockwise itinerary began in Washington, headed through the southland to Florida, west through New Orleans and Texas, to California and the Pacific Northwest, then east through the Great Plains and Midwest, ending in New England and New York City. Here was a wide canvas for word painting. Quickly do we see that this was a different America over a decade before the interstate highways began to make life more speedily convenient but, in doing so, diminished the sense of space, belittling those little places, consigning many to insignificance. In these early years of the war, Cooke must drive, not whisk, by stores and factories and fields--a propitious method for a writer graced with a keen eye for detail. America is a place with less blaring electronic noise and more politeness than today, and far less wealthy.

As Cooke sets out from Washington, a notice in a shop window presents the first sign of the coming austerity as he crosses the Potomac into Virginia: "Zippers repaired." The war, he sees, is already administering "a gentle nudge to the American way of life." Along with passing many touchstones of familiar geography, he also travels through a world in some ways barely recognizable now, like the outlying hills and towns just west of Washington in Virginia: "After leaving US 50 and going west on 29-211, I drove almost a dozen miles without seeing more than one truck and one private car coming or going." (Only the release of a neutron bomb could explain traffic so sparse along that stretch of road today.)

Mile upon mile he takes us along, the roving eye, speaking in the confidential second person, describing what we, too, would find were we riding along. Slowly do we spy the regimented privations of wartime. Predictably he finds people with "a defiant faith in General MacArthur and very little knowledge of Pacific geography." Out in Charleston, West Virginia, they're zealously recruiting air wardens to watch the skies for the Luftwaffe and finding a glut of volunteers for nurse's training. He reaches Louisville to witness the amorous languor of soldiers in town from nearby Ft. Knox and guesses later--perhaps not so predictably to us--that "the fifteen-year-old unattractive girl might well be the debauchee of the Second World War."

He sees farmland and fruit orchards in the South converted to impromptu airfields and hotel owners in Miami negotiating ineptly with the Army for quartering troops. In New Orleans he meets a man with the auspicious name of Andrew Jackson Higgins, a businessman who parlays an amateur's knowledge of naval design to develop PT boats. He passes through Texas, ruminates on the oil business, and discusses the apparent foolishness of rationing gasoline, which has not yet beset all regions of the country. He visits anxious passengers late one evening in a New Mexico train station: "Never are Americans so still as when waiting for a train late at night."

The trip through California could make a book of its own. Cooke discovers how Hollywood contributes to the war effort (goofily) and how that day's Mexican workers meld in with the surrounding population. Perhaps the most disturbing episode of the entire journey is his drive in the mountains to see the internment camp for Japanese-American citizens at Manzanar, where Cooke finds occasion for deep skepticism but not self-righteous bluster. He finds sad stories aplenty, but he also spots indomitable wills, even cheerful patriots, with their own elected councils, still loyal Americans. He quotes an editorial from the camp newspaper, poignantly called the Manzanar Free Press, which extols freedom and the American system of government. Cooke concludes:

I drove away from Manzanar none too proud of the showing we had made in running the first compulsory migration of American citizens in American history--not counting the Indians. How slippery seemed the solid abstractions we preach when you journey 6,000 miles and find democracy in a concentration camp.

Making his way back east, he drives through Montana, down through Wyoming (where a sudden storm darkened the skies and made "not night so much as darkness visible") to Colorado and Kansas and Missouri before heading north through Iowa, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Illinois, Michigan--where he praises American industrial might and describes the labor unrest and Detroit race riots of 1943--Ohio, and Pennsylvania, finally steering north into New England, whose autumn he always rhapsodized.

Everywhere he goes, he tells tales, large and small, of the valiant nation he had come to love, stories which were almost--almost--lost to time. By 1945, Cooke ends the book with an epilogue recounting the stunning death of FDR as seen in the faces of passersby on the streets of New York, the unexpected, quizzical news of the atomic bombs, and the final squawking sentences of General MacArthur on the decks of the USS Missouri.

While this book's value to students of history is undeniable, some will regard it just as highly for its conscious yet lightly practiced art. Rightly has one critic said that Cooke "wrote in conversation and spoke in prose," a formidable feat for anybody and probably impossible to learn. Few writers--and no journalists after H.L. Mencken--could make a sentence sound so inevitable. His powers of description were vast and poetic.

"When the evening comes on again," he writes as he leaves Biloxi, "the war shrinks to the width of the highway and your own thoughts." He can flick off a metaphor at once jarring and apt; his car creeps through Kansas City one night "like an eel in mud." And the landscape of the American West, he writes in a bit of mood drawing, becomes a mindscape, "empty of trivialities, and enclosed only by the eternities of shade and horizon and silence, [and] acts as an echo chamber to the small sadness of persons and sends their feelings back to them magnified into a grandeur of despondency they had not felt indoors."

This penetrating, elegant book shows an early picture of Cooke the journalist-sociologist, the witty and sympathetic anatomist of the American character. His tone is never less than urbane (a word he didn't care for) and civilized. He seeks more to observe and record than to judge, though the judgments he does venture can cut to the quick: "We tend to assume that war will endow people with a completely different and more elevated set of emotions to live their lives on," he writes, and then goes on to find, in the words and actions of the citizens he meets, the proposition to be dubious.

Yet it's also a portrait of who we Americans were at one decisive moment, for better and worse. War often changes little at home, and patriotism doesn't always ensure the purest of motives; one town out West he suspects of "exhibitionist patriotism," and hucksters are always out for the fast buck. Nonetheless, the love of country and the will to sacrifice are real and never fail to move Cooke. He arose, he tells us, from a generation--he was born in 1908--of debunkers, people inclined to denigrate patriotic fervor. But he now senses that "debunking was a slightly hysterical form of disappointed sentimentality."

The cynic must never have the last word. America, he finds, is a country uniquely justified--despite her troubles and trials--to feel, as Oliver Wendell Holmes put it, an itch for the superlative.

Tracy Lee Simmons is the author, most recently, of Climbing Parnassus: A New Apologia for Greek and Latin.