Monday, November 17, 2008

Reporting America by Alistair Cooke

Celebratory Volume
This beautifully presented book that is published on the centenary of the birth of Alistair Cooke will please the thousands around the world who have delighted in his weekly Letter from America. In addition to a superb selection of scripts the elegance of this book is enhanced by the photographs (black and white, and colored), the cartoons, the different fonts and the attractive layout.

Reporting America contains approximately ninety of Alistair Cooke’s dispatches to the Guardian and the BBC from 1946 to 2004. The articles and talks are grouped chronologically with Cooke’s daughter, Susan Cooke Kittredge, providing a general introduction and commentaries for each decade. In these introductions Kittredge offers an interesting perspective on the stages of her father’s literary career (e.g. the ‘crunch years’ of the 1960s or his ‘blossoming’ in the 1970s).

Describing Alistair Cooke
Kittredge describes her father as a man of focus, ambition, intelligence and discipline who exuded a sense of vitality wherever he went. His daughter reveals many personal details about her ‘Daddy’—Alistair Cooke the father, the husband, what he did for recreation, his daily rhythm, his temperament, his fears, his medical problems and how the great events of America and the dramas in his family affected him.

Her observations of America’s most loved observer make for a rich treasury, not only of the nation’s significant events and trends in the second half of the twentieth century but of the Writer and the Voice. This massive volume reinforces the magnitude of Cooke’s contribution—reporting on 58 years of US life, totaling 2,869 broadcasts in the longest running radio series in broadcast history. Susan Cooke Kittredge reveals the secret of her father’s wisdom and the inspiration for his work.

I am a Reporter
A big part of Cooke’s skill and popularity was due to his clear idea of who he was and what was his job. When he was asked about his task he would give a variation of this reply:

“I am a reporter of the facts and the feelings that go into the American life I happen to observe. I mention ‘the feelings’ if only to stress a belief that there is no such thing as an objective reporter. But the way to be as fair as possible is to notice that no fact of human life comes to you uncoloured by what people feel it means.” (pi)

Acknowledging the limits of objectivity, committing himself to put aside preconceived notions and his aversion to rush to a premature judgment were important convictions that shaped Cooke’s practice and literary style.

Believing that he was ‘a reporter’ gave to Cooke a certain freedom from the expectations of people as evidenced in this statement:

“I was urged to deliver some missionary message. But missions are for bishops. I am a reporter. And I can’t say where America is going. I am a hopeless prophet. One book I will never write is: Whither America?” (p317)

Grasping the Nettle
One might think that a commitment to objectivity and fairness could result in writing that was bland and lacking in teeth. But Cooke could open his broadcast with a broadside about “the heartless contradiction between American ideals and the general willingness to accept them in action.” (p39). He used appropriate sarcasm to describe the long prayers at President Kennedy’s Inauguration by the clerics “who always prolong their finest hour by turning these supplications into their own variation of the inaugural address.” (p89-90) Alistair Cooke was not averse to pricking the bubble of American jingoism when on the eve of the first moon launch he wrote, “For days and nights, we have been reading the most inflated prose that even Americans can write.” (p177)

Alistair Cooke was courageous and he tackled controversial issues when they were in the news and when they concerned the American people. He was able to ‘grasp the nettle’, present both sides of the issue, distill the essence with an amazing economy of words and leave his listeners to make their judgment. Broadcasts entitled ‘A Catholic as Candidate?’ and ‘Was Saddam a Threat or Not?’ illustrate Cooke’s willingness to address the issues that were gnawing away in the public mind.

The Personal Touch
Reporting with objectivity did not mean an omission of the personal because Cooke sparingly dropped in details of what he was doing. Expressing his exhilaration on a crystalline New York day in January would have helped his listeners to visualize the scene as they huddled around the wireless in their living rooms in England.

Reporting America contains numerous articles that illustrate Cooke’s mastery of description, his use of the pithy introduction and the telling conclusion. His enjoyment of words and skill as a wordsmith is evident on every page. During the Cuban missile crisis he wrote about “calculating the arithmetic of tyranny” (p76), upon the death of Marilyn Munroe he described her as “a straw on the ocean of her compulsions,” (p106) and, in speaking about the recovery mission that greeted John Glenn’s space capsule as it splashed into the ocean Cooke writes: “The helicopters went off like flying lobsters.” (p101)

Working the Angles
Many of the titles of Cooke’s letters reveal the person-centeredness of his writing as he addressed the subject of ‘Harry S Truman’, ‘Joe Louis’, ‘Humphrey Bogart’, ‘Walt Disney’ or ‘Rosa Parks’. The epistolary genre contributed a personal dimension to his writing and Cooke often sounded like a preacher opening his heart to an adoring congregation that waited each week for his words as they gathered by the miracle of the air waves. Cooke had the ability to see a fascinating angle as evident in the titles, ‘A Mule Cortège’ (Martin Luther King’s funeral), ‘Ronald Reagan vs. Darth Vader and ‘Gorbachev and Reagan Playing Chess’.

Interpreter of His Times
Reporting America reveals the author as a supreme interpreter of the times in which he was living and one who could tell the secrets in the minds of his people. Cooke was a glassblower who knew the molten moment and a doctor with his hand on the American pulse. His longevity and weekly discipline sharpened his ability to understand the ‘cultural tides’ but his encyclopedic knowledge of history (his daughter called him the ‘original Google’) and his training in literature helped him to bring perspective and convey the essence of his times. Like Martial, the Roman poet that he quotes, Alistair Cooke exhibited a determination about his craft: “These are my times and I must know them.” (p358)

Attentive to His Weaknesses
While increasingly becoming an assured interpreter Cooke never comes across as a know-it-all. He is swift to admit his ignorance about nuclear reactors, the process of lawmaking in the American Congress or the issues to do with hand-gun laws.

Cooke fits his own definition of a professional as “someone who can do his best work when he doesn’t feel like it.” (p15) He sometimes alludes to his state of bewilderment, his grief or his shock at a national calamity. Alistair Cooke is at his best when he is describing the pain of the American people from his own stance of weakness and vulnerability. See how this quality is evident in the conclusion to his letter describing the horrific explosion of the Challenger space shuttle and the sight of the parents of astronaut Christa McAuliffe:

“To me, when the nightmare sharpness of the horror has blessedly blurred with time, there will be, I’m afraid, one picture that will retain its piercing clarity. It is the picture of an inquisitive, innocent middle-aged woman and her affable, granity husband—Christa McAuliffe’s parents—craning their necks and squinting into the Florida sky, and watching the sudden fireball and looking a little puzzled as first-time spectators might, as if this were part of the show, part of the unexpected magic.” (p305)

Alistair Cooke, Reporting America: The Life of the Nation 1946-2004 (London: Allen Lane, Penguin, 2008).

This book is available from Magrudy’s Bookshops in the UAE at a cost of Dh 188.00.

Dr Geoff Pound

Image: Front cover of Reporting America.