Friday, December 05, 2008

American Home Front 1941-1942 by Alistair Cooke

A few weeks ago, Bonnie and I saw The Unseen Alistair Cooke on PBS Masterpiece. The program highlighted recently discovered 8mm films that Cooke made while traveling around America by car and train in the 1930s and 1040s. In both black and white and later in color, he captured the look of the country before the great transformation brought about by World War II and post-war prosperity. It was great program describing the life of the longtime journalist and television host of Masterpiece Theater. It should be on DVD but does not yet seem to be.

Wanting to know more, I checked our library catalog to see what we had. I found several books, including The American Home Front 1941-1942, which Cooke wrote during the war but never published. In the foreward to the book, Harold Evans reports that the manuscript was rediscovered in 2004, just months before Cooke died.

Unlike Alexis de Tocqueville, Charles Dickens, and Oscar Wilde, Alistair Cooke traveled around America quietly, not intentionally drawing attention to himself. Unlike these European observers, he was not really an outsider, having by the time of his 1941-1942 trip become an American citizen. Still he had an unusual perspective, having grown up in World War I Britain. People did, of course, recognize that he was not "from around these parts." Still, he had a talent for easing people from any station in life into conversation.

Cooke has always been praised for his ability to describe scenes vividly. He also seemed to have had the good fortune to be on the spot for many historic events. He began his trip around America in Washington, D.C., arriving there on December 6, 1941, positioning himself perfectly to witness the governmental response to the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor the next day. Cooke even got into the Capitol to report on Franklin Roosevelt's speech to Congress.

War time shortages and restrictions began right away. Getting a car for his trip was not difficult but getting tires for it were. Cooke spent days searching before finding some old tires that he then had retread. As he drove around the country, he was often alone on the road, often going long distances without meeting any other cars. When he arrived in towns and cities, he found local people who told him how the war was impacting the community. Within months after the declaration of war, there were communities without labor to plant crops or run local businesses. Likewise, there were boom towns building factories for war manufacturing where people were sleeping in tents.

According to Harold Evans in the Foreword, Cooke felt after the war that there was no longer a reason to publish the book, which was not published during the war because of shortages and restrictions. We are lucky that it was available to be rediscovered, as it thoroughly depicts a time that is almost forgotten. It makes a great addition to the viewing of Ken Burns' The War. More public libraries should add this fascinating book.

Cooke, Alistair. The American Home Front 1941-1942. Atlantic Monthly Press, 2006. ISBN 9780871139399

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