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.