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 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.