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The American Home Front: 1941-1942by Alistair Cooke
Synopses & Reviews
From the famous BBC correspondent and television host comes a remarkably insightful and detailed firsthand portrait of America during the early days of World War II.
In nearly three thousand BBC broadcasts over fifty-eight years, Alistair Cooke reported on America, revealing our country's complexities and idiosyncrasies to a global audience. He was one of the most widely read and widely heard chroniclers of America — the Twentieth Century's de Tocqueville.
Shortly after the bombing of Pearl Harbor in 1941, Cooke, a newly naturalized American citizen, set out to see his country as it was undergoing monumental change. He wanted to "see what the war had done to people, to the towns I might go through, to some jobs and crops, to stretches of landscape I loved and had seen at peace; and to let significance fall where it might." Working throughout the war, Cooke finished the manuscript for The American Home Front as the atomic bomb was being dropped on Hiroshima. His publisher at the time thought there would be little interest in books on the war, and so it was stuffed in a closet. It stayed there for almost sixty years, nearly forgotten, until it was unearthed shortly before Cooke's death.
The American Home Front is "a celebration of the American character and a fitting testament to a fine journalist" (The Bookseller (UK)). It is a fascinating artifact, a charming travelogue, and a sharp portrait that shows a nation switching from civilian pursuits to military engagement, from the production of consumer goods to materials of war. It is also a unique record of American life. Cooke travels small highways, with their advertising signs and their local topography, in an age before the interstate highway system. He chronicles the regional glories he encounters, elements of long-lost culture such as his beloved soda fountains, and the reactions of the citizens, from indifference to grief, from opportunism to resilience under military threat. Filled with touching personal stories of the effects of war, from a Japanese family facing internment that tries to sell Cooke their car, to the experiences of the unemployed relocating in hopes of jobs in a gunpowder factory, The American Home Front is the work of an experienced, talented journalist; it is intelligent, touching, and funny.
"Late in the winter of 1942, a young journalist named Alistair Cooke 'drove out of Washington with five re-treaded tires' and began a journey around the United States. He was a correspondent for the British Broadcasting Corp. who the previous year had become a U.S. citizen, but he was still far better known in his native England. The great fame he enjoyed in the last several decades of his long life... Washington Post Book Review (read the entire Washington Post review) — he died in 2004, age 95 — had yet to come his way, and he was able to wander the States with the comfort of anonymity. He made the trip because he sensed that Washington had little real understanding of how World War II 'was changing the people and the landscape of America,' and he wanted to see that change at first hand. It wasn't an easy time to travel, especially by automobile, because rationing was in full force and the basics — a car, tires, fuel — were hard to come by. He had clearance from the War Department and a letter from his employer attesting to his integrity and reliability, but essentially he was on his own in a vast country that, while he had fallen in love with it, he scarcely knew. Apparently, he kept up his regular broadcasts for the BBC while on the road — by war's end they became known, famously, as his 'Letter From America' — and he also made notes for what was intended to be a book. He didn't finish it until war's end, though, and his publisher decided the moment had been reached for looking forward rather than backward. So the project was scrubbed, and the manuscript was stowed away in a closet, where it remained until just before Cooke's death. Published now, more than six decades after the fact, 'The American Home Front' has the look of an unexpected and welcome discovery in a time capsule. Cooke worked his way across the nation along a somewhat peculiar route. He went west into the Appalachians and Kentucky, then made a hard left down to Georgia and Florida, missing the Mid-Atlantic and the upper South entirely. From there it was west again, to New Orleans and Texas, then up the West Coast through California and the far Northwest, east through the Breadbasket and the industrial Midwest, finally ending up on the coast of Maine. In 1944 he wrote a postscript from New York City, and the next year he wrote another wrapping up the undertaking. That his publisher chose not to release the book at the time is a mystery, but better late than never. Cooke was then in his early thirties and hadn't yet developed the fluid, informal style that became his trademark, so there's a certain stiffness to his narrative, but even after all these years and all those countless previous books about the wartime home front, Cooke has interesting and revealing things to tell us. In his later years, especially after he became the host of 'Masterpiece Theatre,' Cooke acquired a decidedly benign, avuncular air and became near-universally beloved, with the consequence that people tended to forget that, though he was a passionately loyal American, he could also be sharply critical of his adopted country. He understood, perhaps more keenly than most native Americans, that ours is a land of deep contradictions, capable of great generosity yet susceptible to smugness and arrogance. In his last years, he often spoke to his British listeners of his apprehensions about this country's future, and there are hints of this concern in his account of America at war. Thus, it is not surprising that much of what Cooke says here remains pertinent. Writing about Henry Ford's mixed record in converting his celebrated Willow Run plant into an efficient manufacturer of trainer airplanes, but not the fighter planes he'd boasted of being able to produce, Cooke somewhat dourly observes: 'Willow Run will be cited at grandfather's knee as the very type of majesty before which other nations bow their heads in envy. But I have told its melancholy story because it symbolizes the grandiosity that is to other nations the most unpleasant of all American traits — the unbridled promise, the wild freedom of untested assumption, the invitation to share the cornucopia that is stuffed with the peculiar American riches: such unique things, the native honestly believes, as devilish ingenuity wedded to unequaled material and spiritual resources. What exacerbates the foreigner's annoyance is his secret awareness that there is an uncomfortable measure of truth in the boast.' How many foreigners would feel that 'secret awareness' today certainly is open to questions, but the rest of Cooke's indictment is as true now as it was then, perhaps even truer as the rest of the world eyes our Middle Eastern adventures with skepticism at best. Cooke admired American energy but despaired of American provincialism and ignorance. In Kentucky, looking at 'the high-school kids crowding the drugstores,' Cook was struck by their 'matter-of-fact listlessness and incuriosity,' and continued: 'Just as brashness is the abuse of the Northerner's liveliness, this looks like the dark, dull underside of Southern manners.' Cooke was also keenly aware of the ways in which, then more than now, America fails to live up to its own promise. In Florida, he took note of blacks working in the turpentine industry and dryly noted: 'The chipping of the pine for its gum, which is then distilled into turpentine and resin, is a Negro monopoly for the commonest and most wearisome reason: it is work thought unfit for whites.' At a time when most Americans accepted the internment of Japanese Americans without question, Cooke drove away from the Manzanar camp in Southern California '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.' Mostly, though, Cooke liked what he saw. The war seemed very far away to most Americans, he found, but this enabled them to concentrate on the task at hand: 'Ordinary people talk very little about the strategy of the war, or indeed about the battles lost and won, but think first and always about the way the war affects their work.' It was, he also found, a nation very hard at work and very much on the move. New England's small towns seemed emptied out, their workers having 'gone off to better pay in the East Coast shipyards' or other more remunerative employment. Change, some of it surprising, was everywhere. An 'ominous symptom of America with its belt tightened' was a sign that read, 'Zippers repaired.' A gas station owner apologized to Cooke for having no maps in stock. The tin shortage led to the replacement of canned with dehydrated fruit. The 'ravenous Hollywood consumption of synthetics' came to a halt: No more 'breakfast foods for snow,' so 'there will be fewer snow scenes till the war is over.' Service stations closed left and right, and taxicabs 'were beginning to creak and stall.' Dartmouth College 'was now a Navy indoctrination school and training center for the Supply Corps.' Et cetera. The war may have been far away, but the nation was very much at war. Overall, the people responded energetically and selflessly, though there was plenty of shirking and profiteering; the black market thrived. Of course we've known all this for years, so 'The American Home Front' doesn't really alter our understanding of what things were like then, but it is, in effect, a letter from the front lines, and the immediacy of it is real and valuable." Reviewed by Jonathan Yardley, whose e-mail address is yardleyj(at symbol)washpost.com, Washington Post Book World (Copyright 2006 Washington Post Book World Service/Washington Post Writers Group)
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"The author came to the States from England in 1946 to establish what has since become the longest running commentary in radio history. His delightful Letters From America were broadcast by BBC and therefore heard only by a most appreciative and loyal British audience. Fifty of his best talks have now happily been made available to us in print, and we are able, for the first time, to enjoy his charm and his wit as he discourses on our foibles and our folkways." Reviewed by Chris Gavaler, Virginia Quarterly Review (Copyright 2006 Virginia Quarterly Review)
"[A]n interesting eyewitness record on several levels....Perceptive about the moment, prescient about postwar possibilities, Cooke's tour makes for profitable reading." Booklist
"Revealing portrait of America in the early years of WWII....A vivid, endlessly interesting view of the home front." Kirkus Reviews
"Mr. Cooke brings to life an America stepping into the unknown....[A] revelation....In addition to being a broadcaster, Mr. Cooke was a print reporter, and a superb one, with a sharp, skeptical eye and a stylish pen. Both are on brilliant display here." William Grimes, The New York Times
"The American Home Front doesn't really alter our understanding of what things were like then, but it is, in effect, a letter from the front lines, and the immediacy of it is real and valuable." Jonathan Yardley, The Washington Post Book World
"[E]ngaging and insightful....The prose is, in the best sense of the word, polished — novelists should be as gifted as Cooke at capturing the beauties of nature — with striking, even elegant, metaphors and similes." Chicago Sun-Times
"Cooke's skill is especially apparent when he...offers an outsider's keen perception of America....Since his focus on the anxious early war years is inherently narrow, this volume may work better as a deftly constructed time capsule than as history." Library Journal
From the famous BBC correspondent and television host comes a remarkably insightful and detailed firsthand portrait of America during the early days of World War II. Shortly after the bombing of Pearl Harbor in 1941, Alistair Cooke, a newly naturalized American citizen, set out to see his country as it was undergoing monumental change. Cooke traveled small highways, with their advertising signs and their local topography, in an age before the interstate highway system.
In The American Home Front — a fascinating artifact, a charming travelogue, and a sharp portrait of America — Cooke chronicles the regional glories he encounters and the reactions of the citizens to war, from indifference to grief, from opportunism to resilience under military threat. Filled with touching personal stories of the effects of war, from a Japanese family facing internment that tries to sell Cooke their car, to the experiences of the unemployed relocating in hopes of jobs in a gunpowder factory, The American Home Front is the work of an experienced, talented journalist; it is intelligent, touching, and funny.
Unearthed shortly before Cookes death, this unique record of American life shows a nation switching from civilian pursuits to military engagement, and from the production of consumer goods to materials of war.
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