Sunday, 8 January 2012

The Face of a Nation

As it's going to be a long night, I intend to embark – re-embark – on a long journey.

On February 27th 1942, a few weeks after Pearl Harbor, Alistair Cooke left 'the air of tobacco-choked energy that is the Washington odor of panic', and set off to sample the mood in thirty-four out of the fifty-two states of his adopted country, as they prepared for war.

Cooke was sponsored on his epic journey (by car, rail and air, but mostly by car – he managed to go through five sets of tyres) by the British Broadcasting Corporation. The experience was to feed many dispatches during the war, and in 1945 he typed up his account just in time for it to be rendered unpublishable by the end of hostilities . . . and put it in the back of a closet in his New York apartment. It lay undisturbed for fifty-nine years before being rediscovered, to Cooke's amazement and delight, by his secretary Patti Yasek just a fortnight before his death.

The manuscript was headed The Face of a Nation, but was published (in 2006) under the title Alistair Cooke's American Journey – Life on the Home Front in the Second World War, with an excellent Introduction by the great Haold Evans. I've read it before but I'm going to read it again, if only because one day I'd like to follow his clockwise circumlocomotion of the United States, and write up the experience myself.

Along the way, Cooke talked to everyone he met, and he came away with a subjective but richly evocative snapshot of a nation which was already channelling all its energies and resources into – more than one person told him so – 'someone else's war'.

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