A Man From Mars

Fifty years ago John Gunther, a brilliant foreign correspondent, published a famous book about "the greatest, craziest, most dangerous ... most powerful and magnificent nation ever known."
 


John Gunther

"AMERICA," Winston Churchill said, "stands at this moment at the summit of the world." The moment was August, 1945. Nazi Germany had fallen, the atomic bomb had been dropped, imperial Japan was about to surrender, the European Allies were battered and spent, and the United States bestrode the narrow world. It was a new America, hardly known to the world -- or to itself. This was the America that John Gunther portrayed in the vivid and acute reportage of Inside U.S.A., which is to be reissued this month by the New Press.

This book, now half a century old, is an astonishing tour de force. It presents a shrewd, fast-moving, sparkling panorama of the United States at this historic moment of apparent triumph. Sinclair Lewis called it "the richest treasure-house of facts about America that has ever been published, and probably the most spirited and interesting." At the same time, in its preoccupations and insights Inside U.S.A.foresaw dilemmas and paradoxes that were to harass and frustrate Americans for the rest of the century. And in this age of collective journalism one is permitted to marvel that Inside U.S.A. is a one-man production.


John Gunther was forty-three years old in November of 1944, when he set out on his exploration of America. He was already the best known of the brilliant generation of foreign correspondents that had educated an isolationist America about the outside world in the years between the two great wars. Their names are mostly forgotten now -- Vincent Sheean, Raymond Gram Swing, Dorothy Thompson, Edgar Snow, Harold Isaacs, Paul Scott Mowrer, Edgar Ansel Mowrer, H. R. Knickerbocker, and many others. They were a venturesome crowd, audacious, irreverent, resourceful, hard-playing, hard-drinking, and hardworking, and their ardent dispatches brought home to Americans the personalities, ambitions, intrigues, and dangers that were putting the planet on the slippery slope into the Second World War.

Many, like Gunther himself, came from the isolationist heartland, the Middle West. Gunther was born in Chicago in 1901, graduated from the University of Chicago in 1922, and later that year made his first trip to Europe, in the style of the times, on a cattle boat. After a stint back home as a reporter for the Chicago Daily News, he returned to Europe in 1924 and soon, as a Daily News roving correspondent, was covering stories in a dozen European countries. By 1930 he was the head of the Daily News bureau in Vienna. In 1935 he was transferred to the paper's top job in Europe -- bureau chief in London.

He was a big man, six feet two, blond, handsome, spirited, generous, gregarious, upwardly mobile, with expensive tastes, boundless charm, boundless curiosity, and boundless energy. Rebecca West, whom he interviewed in Chicago in 1923, described him as a "Gothic angel . . . with the vitality of seven carthorses." (Meeting again in London in 1924, they became lovers.) He was a man's man too, well liked by fellow reporters.

The 1930s, Gunther later recalled,

 

were the bubbling, blazing days of American foreign correspondence in Europe. . . . Most of us traveled steadily, met constantly, exchanged information, caroused, took in each other's washing, and, even when most fiercely competitive, were devoted friends. . . . We were scavengers, buzzards, out to get the news, no matter whose wings got clipped.

But Gunther was not a conventional correspondent. He had little interest in spot news or in scoops; he thought it silly to break his neck trying to beat the competition by a few minutes on a story that everyone would have in an hour. His early hope had been to succeed as a novelist. His novels made little impression. Rebecca West told him that his fiction was awful. But his journalism, with characters supplied by life itself, was the work of a novelist manqué. "I had little basic interest in politics . . . ," he said, "but I was ravenously interested in human beings. . . . For good or ill, I instinctively think of myself as a novelist." And his preferred form was not the dispatch but the book.

In 1934 Cass Canfield, of the house of Harper's, persuaded him to try his hand at a country-by-country survey of Europe. Carrying on his newspaper job during the day and working nights, weekends, and holidays on the book, Gunther somehow turned out Inside Europe in seven months. The book, published in February of 1936, was extremely readable, packed with high-level gossip and striking personality sketches, packed also with solid facts presented in a lively manner. It was an instant success, enabling Gunther to retire from daily journalism. As a freelance writer, he began to apply the Inside formula to other parts of the world. Inside Asia came out in 1939, Inside Latin America in 1941.

After Pearl Harbor he served briefly as a war correspondent in Europe. But since 1936 he had been thinking about an Inside book on his native land. Inside Europe had been something of a helter-skelter job of improvisation and assembly; each new Inside book was preceded by ever-more-systematic preparation. For the book on the United States, Gunther prepared as never before.

He began by drafting an elaborate outline and requesting comments from a hundred or so journalists, academics, scientists, and lawyers across the country. Then he asked members of Congress; business, labor, and farm leaders; and heads of national organizations to suggest key people to whom he should talk in the (then) forty-eight states. He submitted questions to forty-eight governors -- and received forty-seven replies. He read the classic works on America (Alexis de Tocqueville, James, later Lord, Bryce) and the writings of the living Briton who knew the most about America -- D. W. Brogan.

Presented by

Arthur Schlesinger, Jr.

Arthur Schlesinger Jr. was a Pulitzer Prize-winning historian and a special assistant to President John F. Kennedy. He taught at Harvard University and the City University of New York.

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