Robert Gottlieb on the Man Who Saw America (And We Mean, All of It)

“Segregation … has one aspect sometimes neglected, that thousands upon thousands of good white citizens never have any contact with Negroes except with servants and employees in the service trades; … whites and Blacks of similar professional interests almost never meet. There are 55,000 Negro college graduates in the United States. Most Southern whites have never seen one.”

“Roughly one million Negroes entered the armed services [during the war]. Many were treated decently and democratically by whites for the first time in their lives; the consequent fermentations have been explosive. … One famous remark is that of the Negro soldier returning across the Pacific from Okinawa. ‘Our fight for freedom,’ he said, ‘begins when we get to San Francisco.’”

Knoxville is “an extremely puritanical town, serves no liquor stronger than 3.6 percent beer, and its more dignified taprooms close at 9:30 p.m.; Sunday movies are forbidden, and there is no Sunday baseball. Perhaps as a result, it is one of the least orderly cities in the South — Knoxville leads every other town in Tennessee in homicides, automobile thefts and larceny.”

Governor Arnall of Georgia told Gunther that while “talking to Mr. Roosevelt one day, he remarked, ‘We don’t really have any Negro issue in the South; it’s white agitators from the Nawth that make the trouble.’ Mr. Roosevelt (who liked him), turned to him with that well-known twinkle: ‘You mean, Eleanor?’”

A Navajo chief Gunther encounters “is now 85 and has held the post for 61 uninterrupted years, though he was not a Navajo by birth. His father was killed by raiders as far back as 1862, and he does not know who his mother was. But his own son went to Harvard, married a white girl and is now an Indian Bureau official. I know no more stimulating example in America of the variety of experience possible to a man in a lifetime.”

No other country, Gunther says, “could have headlines like WAR WITH JAPAN PERILS WORLD SERIES … or the sign on the Success Cafe in Butte in 1932, EAT HERE OR I’LL VOTE FOR HOOVER, or another headline, one from a New York tabloid about a woman soon to be electrocuted, SHE’LL BURN, SIZZLE, FRY!”

What motors Gunther’s astounding energy, focus and recall is his almost demented curiosity. “Inside U.S.A.” is a voyage of discovery for him as much as for us, and after 900-plus pages his curiosity is unsated, as he regrets all the things he didn’t get to explore and reveal. “There is nothing in this book, and now it’s too late to put it in, about how airplanes spray trees with DDT in Oregon or why Pullman washbowls have the water tap set in so close. … I haven’t even mentioned that there were 72,000 G.I.s named Smith … or children in scarlet mufflers patting their scarlet mittens together and listening to Santa Claus out in the snow in a Vermont public square; or college fraternities and sororities and their adolescent hocus-pocus; or the lonely red railway stations and their water towers and greased switches in northern Minnesota; or people as authentically part of the American scene as Little Orphan Annie, Terry and the Pirates, Blondie and Superman.” And on and on and on. You can sense him mourning the fact that he doesn’t have another 900 pages to fill.

And then there is America’s future to ponder. “There is no valid reason why the American people cannot work out an evolution in which freedom and security are combined,” Gunther concludes. “In a curious way it is earlier, not later, than we think. The fact that a third of the nation is ill-housed and ill-fed is, in simple fact, not so much a dishonor as a challenge. What Americans have to do is enlarge the dimensions of the democratic process. This country is, I once heard it put, absolutely ‘lousy with greatness’ — with not only the greatest responsibilities but with the greatest opportunities ever known to man.” Finally, “Inside U.S.A.” is an unintentional account of a man falling in love with his crazy and wonderful country.

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