- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 7, 2010

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

NORMAN CORWIN’S ONE WORLD FLIGHT: THE LOST JOURNAL OF RADIO’S GREATEST WRITER

By Norman Corwin

Edited by Michael C. Keith and Mary Ann Watson

Continuum, $24.95, 256 pages

Reviewed by John Greenya

When Franklin Delano Roosevelt ran for re-election in 1940, his dark-horse opponent was a corporate lawyer named Wendell Willkie, who, running against the New Deal policies of the popular president, did far better than expected. Then, in August 1942, just nine months after the attack on Pearl Harbor had forced America to shed its isolationist cloak, Willkie, to the dismay of many old-guard Republicans, accepted FDR’s invitation to become his special envoy on a trip that circled the globe, visiting more than a dozen countries on three continents.

Thirteen months later, “One World,” his very readable account of his very valuable trip, came out in book form and quickly became an international best-seller. (Willkie, who made $350,000 from the book, put it all in a trust fund that was used to promote humanist goals.) Much had changed since the failure of Woodrow Wilson’s post-World War I League of Nations idea, and the one-world concept, with its goal of universal human freedom (chiefly through demo-cracy) was gaining popularity in many - but definitely not all - countries. Willkie’s death of a sudden heart attack in October 1944 at 52 was a shock felt in many lands.

At the time of Willkie’s death, FDR released this statement: “The nation will long remember Wendell Willkie as a forthright American. Earnest, honest, whole-souled, he also had tremendous courage. This courage - which was his dominating trait - prompted him more than once to stand alone and to challenge the wisdom of counsels taken by powerful interests within his own party. In this hour of grave crisis the country loses a great citizen through his untimely passing.” When the United Nations was founded a year later, many commentators mentioned how pleased Willkie would have been.

To commemorate his 1943 trip - and his ideals - a year after Willkie’s death, a group of his friends created the One World Award. A worthy recipient would be chosen to take a similar but privately subsidized journey around the world and record his impressions. The group made an obvious and very popular choice, 35-year-old Norman Corwin, the Boy Wonder of American Radio. By the end of World War II, Mr. Corwin, born in Boston in 1910, was the country’s best-known radio writer-dramatist.

He was the host of CBS’ “Columbia Workshop” and had written and produced “We Hold These Truths,” a celebration of the 150th anniversary of the Bill of Rights. His documentary “On a Note of Triumph,” which he wrote to celebrate V-E Day, was narrated by Orson Welles.

From June 15, 1946, the day he left New York City, until his return to his apartment at 38 Central Park South in mid-October, Mr. Corwin outdid Willkie by several countries, visiting 17. A year later, his 13-part radio series was broadcast to predictable plaudits, after which Mr. Corwin promised to write a version in book form. For a number of reasons, stemming from the atmosphere created by the increasingly volatile hearings of the House Un-American Activities Committee to the rise of something called television, Mr. Corwin, uncharacteristically, never finished the book.

In addition to the book manuscript, it was known that Mr. Corwin had kept a daily log of the trip, but that, too, had never been uncovered. Then, lo and behold, when media historian Michael Keith asked the nonagenarian Mr. Corwin about the book, it was found. Not long after, during a visit to Mr. Corwin by Mary Ann Watson, the log also was discovered. The present volume is the happy result of their sleuthing.

It is often said that timelessness is a characteristic of good writing, that one can derive pleasure out of reading something many years after its creation with a degree of pleasure similar to that of contemporaneous readers. “Norman Corwin’s One World Flight” passes that test with ease, which is exactly how he writes. If I had picked up a current magazine and read any of the chapters in this fine book, were it not for the topical references, I would not have had a clue it was written almost 65 years ago.

Early on, he defines a conservative and a progressive and then writes, “There is a third category. I don’t mean the fence-sitter who leans one way and then the other, under the impression he is on both sides, when actually he is on neither. At least the fence-sitter knows there is such a thing as a fence. The man I mean just floats in the air, like a prop in an Indian rope trick. He tells you he is not interested in politics; that he just wants to go along peacefully minding his own or his company’s business or his art, and not go mixing in politics.” Norman Corwin has no use for third-category men.

On his journey, in addition to interviewing and recording many ordinary people, he sat down with the likes of Vladimir Hurban, the Czech ambassador to the United States (who asked him, “How did you rise up so fast?” to which Mr. Corwin replied, “Only in America.”); Clement Atlee; J.B. Priestly; Sir Alexander Fleming, the discoverer of penicillin; Louis Aragon, Prince Bertil of Sweden; Russian composers Sergei Prokofiev and Aram Khachaturian; director Sergei Eisenstein; Pope Pius XII; Gen. Douglas MacArthur; Zhou En-lai, Philippine President Manuel Roxas and a number of friendly One World optimists in Australia and New Zealand.

Throughout the journal entries, Mr. Corwin’s writing is fine, often beautiful and sometimes quite moving. (He later wrote several volumes of poetry.) And then there’s his quiet sense of humor, which never fails him, even in the many adverse conditions he encountered on his whirlwind trip. ” ‘The sun of Iraq,’ he writes, ‘struck not like a sword but a drop forge.’ ”

This is a book of many virtues, not the least of which is that it is such a pleasant way to study history. It also is sobering in that so many of the warnings and cautions Mr. MCorwin receives on the trip from those less hopeful than he about the prospects of one worldism have turned out, sadly, to be true. Mr. Corwin admits this in the first of his 12 “Conclusions”:

“We seem to be farther from Willkie’s ‘One World’ today than we were when his thesis became the best-selling book in America four years ago. Everybody agrees on the desirability of One World, but very few on the method.”

In many ways, this is a very contemporary book. His description of New Zealand’s excellent health care system, circa 1946, will bring most readers up short. It is also, as I have tried to say, a very readable book. I shall take it down and read it again on May 3, 2010, the day Norman Corwin, out in California, turns 100.

John Greenya is a Washington-area writer.

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