Cooke files his last report - 60 years late and worth the wait

Review Travelogue


The American Home Front: 1941-1942

Alistair Cooke

Atlantic Monthly Press / 327 pages / $24

Soon after the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor, Alistair Cooke, a reporter for the BBC, made a shrewd decision. As his fellow journalists converged on Washington, he bought a Lincoln Zephyr, recapped its bald tires and took to the road to see what was going on in the rest of the United States and what Americans outside the circles of government thought about the war.

The reporter was a little late meeting his deadline, as Harold Evans points out in his introduction to The American Home Front, 1941-1942. Cooke's account of his two lengthy trips across the United States lay buried in a closet in his Manhattan apartment for six decades before being discovered by an assistant sorting through his papers a few weeks before his death in March 2004. In 1945, Cooke's publishers had decided that, with Japan and Germany defeated, readers did not want to relive the war. Cooke's tour was old news.

Well, it feels very fresh now. Crisscrossing the American continent from east to west and north to south, stopping in diners and bus stations and newly humming industrial plants, Cooke brings to life an America stepping into the unknown, committing its muscle and blood to an enterprise that most citizens could barely articulate, in places most of them had never heard of. On Dec. 7, 1941, Cooke writes, "a lot of people were left sitting in their homes not `stunned' as the newspapers have it but fuzzily wondering where Pearl Harbor was."

The American Home Front will come as a revelation to American audiences who knew Cooke only as the urbane host of Masterpiece Theatre or of the BBC series America or, for that matter, of his weekly Letter From America, a BBC radio broadcast that ran from 1946 to 2004. In addition to being a broadcaster, Cooke was a print reporter, and a superb one, with a sharp, skeptical eye and a stylish pen. Both are on brilliant display here.

Despite the grim circumstances, The American Home Front can be read, with great pleasure, as nothing more than a colorful travelogue, given poignancy by the passage of time. Cruising down two-lane highways, along routes since shoved aside by the interstates, Cooke sees a now-vanished America of drugstores and soda fountains, of unspoiled Western forests and empty, pristine beaches.

He encounters regional differences that the intervening decades have smoothed out, and character types that now barely exist. After puzzling over the mysteries of Texas, Cooke stubs his toe against the flinty resistance of Vermont farmers, who respond to his every inquiry with one or two monosyllables. He senses an entry point after reading that the maple syrup industry faced complete collapse because wartime restrictions did not allow syrup to be shipped in steel drums.

"When I tried to fume with a little decent sympathy, I was regarded with slow, eye-blinking boredom," he writes. "I was simply not one of the family, and the implication was that every family should be left to bury its own. Evidently Vermont, like Texas, is an ideology as well as a state." Cooke was not simply putting random miles on the odometer. He was driven by burning curiosity and the need to learn about matters of life-and-death importance. Now that the United States had entered the war, what could Britain expect? In his restless wanderings, Cooke compiles a comprehensive report on an industrial and agricultural powerhouse coming to life after the dead years of the Depression.

His most valuable, vivid reporting shows, at ground level, the social upheavals and mass migration of the early 1940s, as armies of previously unemployed workers head off to well-paying jobs at shipyards and steel mills in San Francisco and Seattle, or to previously unheard-of towns such as Charlestown, Ind., where the government decided to create a smokeless gunpowder plant and with it 5,000 jobs. A poor fruit picker from Florida tells Cooke: "N'ah says to my old lady, Sue, ah says, we're headin' fo' Charlestown. She says where's that? I says ah doan' know, but we're headin' theyre." America is on the move, and changing in ways that will outlast the war.

Cooke sees the things only a foreigner would. He grasps the unique qualities of the drugstore, "the image of a complete American community - a shining fountain, the taste of lush syrups, an orgy of casual friendships and smart advertising, a halfway house between brisk comings and goings, the wayside first-aid station of American cleanliness and quick health." He has a sensitive ear for the casual cruelties of racism, and in California makes a detour to an internment camp for Japanese-Americans, which he reports on, sorrowfully and humanely, at a time when most Americans could not have cared less.

Much of the reporting is upbeat. Factories are going full blast, everyone has a job, and airplanes, tanks and jeeps are rolling off the assembly lines. Even amber waves of grain, "the American factory of winter wheat," seem to be part of the vast American war machine. The mood, in many ways, is bright.

Direct questions about the war elicit somber responses. "But walk right into his cornfield," Cooke writes of the average Kansas farmer, "exchange the time of day, admire a stallion, and ask him how's business and he will grin, wipe his forehead, and say that the last two years have been fine, and if the war keeps on, the next two years will be better." Whether he was at a film studio in Los Angeles or a cattle ranch in Wyoming, Cooke always managed to ask that second question. While the rest of the journalistic pack nibbled at news releases back in Washington, he followed his instincts and took a good look around the rest of the country. He filed late, but boy, did he get it right.

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