Alistair Cooke’s ruminations about a prehyperpower U.S. are magnificently prescient
A lost manuscript finds America
Alistair Cooke’s ruminations about a prehyperpower U.S. are magnificently prescient
I’m in Australia at the moment and I’d be happy to toss in a slab of informed local colour were it not for a certain wariness: observing a country that’s like yours but not quite is a very particular skill. Canadians have done very well at it, of course, dispatching south of the 49th parallel legions of comedians, pundits and other members of the observer class to comment on the Great Satan. Nonetheless, the master observer of America (post-Tocqueville, one hastens to add) was an Englishman by birth, Alistair Cooke, who reported on the United States for the BBC for six decades, until a couple of weeks before his death at the age of 96 in 2004.
I knew him a bit in the nineties, when I shared the Corporation’s New York studio with him. The BBC had decided to create a sort of chattier version of his Letter From America called Postcard From Gotham, and they hired me to host it. As to how they compared, let me simply quote the headlines of two reviews: “Treasured Letters And Garish Cards” (the Observer) and “All I Got Was A Lousy Postcard: Robert Hanks Browses Through Two Oh-So-Breezy Postscripts To Letter From America” (the Independent). Alistair was more indulgent, rightly recognizing that he’d see off this upstart as he’d seen off so many other variants of his indestructible franchise. But I enjoyed our weekly offair chats, mainly about Alec Wilder, Bunny Berigan, John O’Hara and other mid-century names he seemed relieved anyone in the office had still heard of.
A dapper figure in trilby and camel-hair coat, he’d glide past reception and into the studio, place a typed script on a wooden,
straw-latticed lectern and begin to talk. And he was so good at talking I stopped thinking of him as a writer—or, at any rate, a writer you could read on the page, without the aid of that clipped mid-Atlantic inflection that sounded, to Americans, like the perfect English gentleman and, to Britons, like a chap who’d been in the colonies too long. In fact, away from the radio microphone, Cooke was a wonderful writer. At his best, he understood the power of words as sounds and rhythms: he found the music in America, even in its bleakest moments. Here’s his opening sentence on George Gershwin’s funeral: “I remember it as one of those midsummer mornings in New York when the skies can take no more of the rising heat and dump in the city a cataclysm of warm rain.”
What a marvellous evocation. Does it tell you anything about Gershwin? No. But, as much as Summertime does at the opening of PorgyAnd Bess, it draws you irresistibly into the piece. Cooke wrote beautifully on music, less well on sport, where the sidling up to the subject could get a little precious (after reviewing a golfing memoir by Bobby Jones, he received a letter from the author, flattered but startled to have been compared, in a few short paragraphs, to Aristotle, Flaubert, John Donne and Walter Lippmann). And for the big subject—the one he chronicled for
most of the American century—his one tome, Alistair Cooke’s America, had the whiff of the TV tie-in about it.
Until now. A month or two before his death, his assistant found an old, long-lost manuscript at the bottom of a closet. Cooke was delighted, and here it is between hard covers—The American Home Front 1941-1942, a more or less contemporaneous account of a cross-country drive undertaken a few weeks after Pearl Harbor—Washington to Miami to Seattle to Portland, Maine. I’ve been reading it on little commuter flights hopping across Oz and it’s both a terrific read and strangely timely. Here he is, for example, in a glum part of Louisville, Ky., already suffused in war-weariness on a Saturday night in February 1942:
“There seems to be, in the young people at least, only the tired motions of living and a glazed animal indifference to ideas, humor, the sight of new faces, even the presence of the roving soldiers. This is an atmosphere that no European need feel strange in. For it is the seeping seediness of English provincial towns. Yet this is an American town, and it has all the American fixtures, but it looks like a town in the English north or midlands trying to go America?!. In Texas, in Illinois, in Connecticut, in California, a drugstore, for instance, means 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. It should, and very often does, ‘baffle the foreigner like an idiom.’But here it is what a drugstore might be in Bulgaria or Leeds—a sad imitation by a storekeeper who once read an American novel and was filled with immortal longings.”
That’s a very sharp insight. At that time, there were, obviously, no drugstores in Bulgaria. But I went to one in Sofia just after the fall of the Commies and it was exactly as Cooke foresaw: “a sad imitation.” Many provincial towns in England and elsewhere have superficially “gone American” in the years since—filled with pseudo-diners and burger joints—while retaining and, indeed, accelerating their “seeping seediness.” Cooke anticipated the limitations of the cheeseburger imperium: the more the world mimicked the superficial surface of American life, the less it understood the deeper cultural dynamic of the country.
Cooke managed to spend a good threescore-and-ten as a working reporter without falling prey to the self-regarding pomposity that afflicts “the media,” not least in the U.S. Along the way, The American Home Front includes as sound an analysis of his profession as one will find. It’s also a useful insight into its failings in our current war:
“Most roving reporters, and indeed all foreign correspondents whenever they desert statistics for judgments of opinion and ‘morale,’ become models of self-deception. They may call themselves, with proper gravity, ‘reporters.’ But any time after the youth of Sigmund Freud, they are nothing but quack psychiatrists who do not even know that this is the field they practise.”
In a TV age, when Hezbollah “rescue workers” artfully position dead babies with busedin toy props for the best camera angles, the quack psychiatry is ever more the default mode of the foreign correspondent’s trade. But Cooke’s only warming up:
“We are a tribe of artful men who have learned over the years to stifle our doubts about
our own capacity to observe. We soon renounce the human beings we deal and live with for a context of‘public affairs.’This means usually the society of other journalists, diplomats, businessmen, civil servants, and the minor functionaries of State Departments and governments recently dethroned. Within this convenient frame of reference, you can find an approximation to the ‘truth’ that will glibly describe any current crisis in the political life of any country you care to name... There has never been anything to prevent even a minor poet from stumbling on an emotional truth that is a daily truism of an analyst’s parlor. The only difference is that the foreign correspondent’ solemnly believes his ‘conclusions’are ‘reached.’ ” Splendid—and that’s just an aside, one of thousands of magnificent ruminations from the road. Cooke’s tour of The American Home Front is an evocative portrait of a nation in transition. To Canadians and Europeans these days, the U.S. is more visibly militaristic than any other part of the West: the “SUPPORT OUR TROOPS” bumper stickers, the returning and departing soldiers at airports, the National Guard stands at the county fair. But as late as 1940 you could travel across the country and never see a single serviceman. America had a smaller standing army than Sweden, and Canada was the militarist culture on the North American continent. The transformation of a 19th-century republic in splendid isolation to a hyperpower that now accounts for 40 per cent of the planet’s military spending was accomplished in large part during the months of Cooke’s journey. Yet, en route, he reminds us that in other aspects America hasn’t changed. For one thing, in the way of democratic cultures, it still prefers to respond to crises rather than anticipate them. There remains a contradiction at the heart of American power: the de facto global policeman is, on the home front, still a skeptic about foreign entanglements, as much as he was when young draft-nervous soda jerks and plump Rotarians idly watched
Cooke’s Lincoln Zephyr pull up at the gas station in the spring of 1942. In one town, thirsty after the long drive, Cooke is greeted with a sign that “to an Eskimo” may seem “trivial” but he regards as the first “gentle nudge to the American way of life”:
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