The Unseen Alistair Cooke Alistair in America

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1946-1959 by Susan Cooke Kittredge
(Excerpted from Reporting America by Alistair Cooke (Overlook Press, 2008)

My father's affinity for interviewing ordinary people on the street was fed by his assignment in 1942-43 to crisscross the United States to find out how the war was affecting its citizens. This journey, the record of which was later published as The American Home Front in the US and as Alistair Cooke's American Journey in the UK, connected him with shopkeepers, farmers, mechanics, and waitresses, and in a way that would never be broken. Those car and rail rides across the continent subtly and permanently shaped his particular kind of reporting. He would forever after be interested not in the flashy headline but in what generated it, how it came to be, and how some grand event played out in the kitchens and barnyards of America and in the consciences of its leaders.

I think that a particularly formative experience for my father was his dogged reporting of the Alger Hiss trial between 1948 and 1950. In the book that followed, A Generation on Trial, one clearly sees his expertise as an objective reporter, his willingness to put aside any preconceived notion of Hiss's innocence or guilt on a charge of perjury and to become, in effect, a member of the jury, hearing first this side and then the other. This was a landmark in his reportorial style, his avid aversion to a rush to judgment, and he received both acclaim and attack for it.

What he sensed throughout the Hiss trial was a growing witch-hunt in the country. Clearly this was borne out during the McCarthy era as anticommunist fever swept the US and Klaus Fuchs was sentenced in England for selling nuclear intelligence to the Russians. Daddy's lifelong fear of nuclear war was entrenched in these years as well as his skepticism of any stance overly dogmatic or strident.

On occasion he was criticized for not taking seriously enough the racial unrest in the 1950s and 60s. I think whatever reluctance he exhibited to joining in the righteous indignation of Northern liberals was born not of denial but of honest incomprehension. He had such a fundamental belief in the equality of all people that he could not fully comprehend racial prejudice. Perhaps it was his love of American jazz that made him feel bound in soul and rhythm to the spirit and heart of blacks in this country. His aversion to violence contributed to his dismay over the simmering unrest in the South. (As the pieces in this book are printed using terms that were specific to the period in history, we have retained them as written. Hence we have not changed the designation of 'negro' for the now more acceptable term black, or African American).

His gift for getting beneath the surface of a story, for revealing its underpinnings and nuances, was both a blessing and a curse. It made him an excellent reporter, but it took its toll on his spirit; he felt genuine unease and apprehension about the state of the world a lot of the time. His saving grace was his ability to have a good time, to find relief in writing about light subjects and in playing with his friends and family.

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