Alistair Cooke's forgotten masterpiece

For more than sixty
years it lay forgotten in a closet in the apartment of famed
newsman/broadcaster Alistair Cooke on Manhattan’s Fifth Avenue.

Then,
just a few months before Cooke’s death two years ago, an assistant
happened on the typewritten manuscript, a detailed account of journeys
the former Guardian newsman made across the United States in l941, just
after Pearl Harbour.

It
was the days before big highways, and Cooke made his trips in a second
hand car with balding tyres. He stopped off in little towns, chatted
with the locals in diners and bus stations. His quest: to discover what
they thought about the war – and how they were coping.

That
forgotten manuscript has now, somewhat belatedly, been turned into a
book entitled The American Home Front 1941-42, with an introduction by
Sir Harold Evans. It’s getting good reviews, and could possibly turn
out to be a posthumous best-seller.

Although
it includes a lot of the dry perspicacious wit that made Cooke’s later
reporting on the BBC, notably his Letters from America, and on the
American TV series Masterpiece Theatre, the material was never
published at the time. One possible reason: in 1945, with Germany and
Japan defeated, it was felt that most readers did not want to relive
the war. Cooke’s tours were considered old hat.

Today
his long-forgotten manuscript brings back an era that most American
have also long forgotten, a period when previously unemployed workers,
victims of the Big Depression, were being recruited en masse for jobs
in shipyards, steel mills and munitions factories. When hitherto
unknown towns like Charlestown, Indiana, home of a vast new gunpowder
plant employing 5,000 workers, were blossoming into real cities.

Cooke
made two trips, criss-crossing America north to south and east to west,
with stop- offs at such places as the internment camp that the US
Government set up for Japanese-Americans, which he found depressing
Most of his reporting, however, was up-beat, with factories working at
full blast, aeroplanes and tanks rolling off the assembly lines and
fields alive with corn. The mood in America at that time, as one
reviewer put it, was in many ways bright.

It may be a little late – but his book sheds new light on an America that was entering a new and unknown era.

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