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I’VE HAD GOOD FUN with armchair travel by virtue of my Baedekers and other guidebooks. The fact that most of them were published before the Great War only enhances their information.
However, this time around, it isn’t armchair, but rather rocking chair, as delightfully exemplified in Alex Atkinson & Ronald Searle’s By Rocking Chair Across America.
Anything as recent as 1959 surely remains relevant today. What’s more, Atkinson boasted, “Too many books about the United States are written by men who have spent only a few weeks in the country. This one is different: it is by a man who has never been there in his life.”
Little Old New York. Atkinson visited the Statue of Liberty, “a big effigy of Frederic Auguste Bartholdi’s mother, with people walking round her hat for ten cents.”
Atkinson continued, “I asked my guide (his name was Pilsudski, and his grandmother was born in County Mayo) whether he would mind if I took a snapshot of the statue. (I had to ask him because he was standing in my way.) ‘Listen, Mac,’ he said kindly, ‘I know it must seem strange to you, but here you can go any place, see anything, take all the pictures you want, and no questions asked. You know why? Because this ain’t no Welfare State, that’s why.”
“I could see by the elephant on his lapel that he was a Republican,” Atkinson remarked.
Beyond New York City. “In point of fact,” Atkinson wrote, “when the time came for me to say good-bye to New York and strike out into the U.S.A. proper I hired a small boat from a humble clam-finder whose grandfather was born in County Mayo, and rowed across the picturesque Harlem River to Third Avenue. From there it was but a stone’s throw to Hartford and the grim wastes of the Appalachian Mountains, dotted with lonely commuters’ shacks and the nests of bald-headed eagles.”
The Middle West. Atkinson reported, “Dust-stained, smelling of hot rubber and sheep-dip, with alfalfa seeds in my hair and my convertible ankle-deep in peanut-shells, I reached the Middle West after driving for about three weeks on a dead straight line along a highway, stopping only for gas, water, hot-dogs, gophers, highway patrols, road-blocks, landslides, stick-ups, floods, free air and unfenced cattle. It was a region of contrasts: in one Main Street you might see a boy wearing baseball boots and a space-helmet, while in another you might not. Chances are you will, though.”
Note how Atkinson’s commentary and Searle’s illustrations are not confined to trivialities of veracity.
California and Sleuthing. “I visited Los Angeles,” said Atkinson; “It is chiefly given over to private eyes. There are more of them to the square inch than in any other city I know. They sit in shabby offices drinking Scotch with their hats on and waiting for loosely-dressed blondes to drift up in cream convertibles to offer them a five thousand-dollar retaining fee, ‘My husband is a pig and has gone on a business trip to Santa Anita,’ murmur the loosely-dressed blondes languorously. ‘Do come to my Spanish-style beach house, where we can be alone. I think someone is going to be murdered.’ ”
It’s quite astonishing how Atkinson and Searle have absolutely nailed it. ds
© Dennis Simanaitis, SimanaitisSays.com, 2021