'Cooke has guided listeners through the momentus events and everyday foibles of the
United States since President Truman's time, like a friendly uncle across the pond.'
For over half a century Alistair Cooke reported on every aspect of American life, first as the Guardian's Senior Correspondent in New York, and then with his weekly BBC radio broadcast, Letter from America. For millions of listeners, he monitored the pulse of life in the United States and relayed its strengths and weaknesses to 50 countries.
As an outstanding observer of the American scene, Cooke was ideally placed to witness some of the most significant episodes in US history. He led his listeners through the American vicissitudes of Korea, McCarthyism, JFK, Vietnam, Watergate, Nixon's resignation and Clinton's scandals. A commentator on history, Cooke was sometimes an eyewitness too. He was just yards away from Senator Bobby Kennedy when the latter was assassinated in 1968.
This outstanding collection brings together the best of Alistair Cooke's defining reports on key historical events. Presented chronologically, and illustrated with a wealth of powerful reportage photography, these writings span Cooke's extraordinary career, and include an astonishing variety of national achievements, triumphs and disasters - from the end of the Second World War through to the conflict in Iraq. Whatever the occurrence, Cooke always gave a measured, perceptive and wise response that would shed light on the event. His moving evocation of September 11th and its aftermath remains essential reading.
Published to mark the centennial year of Alistair Cooke, 2008.
Visit Penguin's website with further information on this publication and associated events.
The Observer, November 23, 2008
"Alistair Cooke reported on America for the BBC for 58 years. He completed his 2,869th weekly Letter From America in 2004, just weeks before his death from cancer at the age of 95. Here was a man who made intelligent, honest sense of decades of assassinations, scandals, elections, boom times and broken dreams. This volume, celebrating the centenary of his birth last week, provides an indispensable record of 20th-century American culture.
Cooke learned his trade long before the era of the 24-hour news channel, and his delivery is effortlessly graceful. As his daughter, Susan Cooke Kittredge, remarks in her introduction, 'the English language, beautifully presented, was balm to his soul'. Even at the sharp end of events - he was just a few feet away when Bobby Kennedy was shot in 1968 - Cooke could combine brutal honesty with poetry: 'Down on the greasy floor was a huddle of clothes and staring out of it the face of Bobby Kennedy, like the stone face of a child, lying on a cathedral tomb... I have no doubt that this experience is a trauma, because of it, several days later, I still cannot rise to the general lamentations of a sick society.'
The book's 88 letters and articles are divided into decades, each with a brief, candid introduction by his daughter, affectionately revealing the great man's flaws: the hypochondriac, the man of impeccable prose who didn't notice Ovaltine stains on his clothes.
Cooke was at his peak from the Sixties on, and faded a little after 9/11. His reports on JFK, Vietnam and the 1965 LA riots are particularly strong. But even his first letter sparkles, reporting from a ship bound for America filled with tearful GI brides: 'The handkerchiefs fluttered in an unbroken line like washing day in Manchester or Leeds.'
Cooke was quirky, old-fashioned and distinctly of his time. Paranoia about the 'chess-playing' Soviet threat continually looms, though counter-balanced by strong opposition to McCarthyism. The liberal Cooke supported the Vietnam War and eyed 'hippy protesters' with suspicion, but in 1968 admitted: 'America is not invincible ... an elephant can shake the earth but not the self-possession of the ants who hold it.' Washing his hands of Nixon, ashamed of Clinton and dismissive of Ronald Reagan's Star Wars ('One day he's the screaming eagle, the next he's a purring dove'), he was somehow still strangely deferential to presidential office, assuming the best intentions.
His most heartfelt respect, however, was not for the elite, but for the common taxpayer, who paid for war and for 'three men to pluck a bag of rocks and dust from the Moon'. Farewell, then, to a citizen and a star." Peter Kimpton