American Journey, by Alistair Cooke

A long-lost love letter to a quaintly remote America

Sue Gaisford
Thursday 22 September 2011 06:42

A fortnight before his death two years ago, Alistair Cooke's secretary unearthed the manuscript of this book. He was delighted: he had thought it permanently lost. It describes several journeys he took through America in 1942 reporting on the effects of the war. However, by the time he presented it to his publishers in 1945, the war was over, and nobody wanted to dwell on the recent past. The book was rejected.

If it seemed a little dusty then, it has since acquired the patina of history. The land it describes often feels as quaintly remote as Defoe's England. Cooke's quixotic quest, though bold in conception, is whimsically picaresque in execution. Blackpool-born but now a brand-new American citizen, he intends to "deduce good generalisations from all the known facts". But the task proves too colossal.

Besides, he is full of misgivings. Miserably aware that he is basking in a land for which others are dying, he fears that once his origin is known, Americans "would assume that I had come direct from Dunkirk". And he knows that the air cadet he encounters in a valley north of Pasadena may soon be roaring over Europe or lost in the Pacific, while he is still "banging a typewriter in New York".

Yet his uniquely valuable gift was to do just that, describing his adopted country to the rest of the world. For decades, his Letter from America attracted more listeners, on the BBC World Service alone, than any other programme apart from the news. The seeds of his greatest broadcasts are in this book.

Here are the skilful set pieces, like the workaday run-up to the seismic shock of Pearl Harbor. Here are portrait sketches of strong individuals - a president, a pioneer, a peanut farmer, a tattooist, a brave, interned Japanese-American. Here he gives free rein to his deep-purple lyrical impulse and revels in the glories of autumn in New England. Always his observant eye records the outrageous and bizarre: a hotel boasting "Gentile Clientele", an eatery called Ulcer Gulch, and an inexplicable billboard exhorting drivers to "Keep Faith with the Wives of the Men of the Merchant Marine".

Sometimes you are brought up short by a perception that still rings true. "Americans," he suggests, "are less aware than other peoples that they are not taken everywhere at their own valuation." Spot on, Mr Cooke.

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