Broadcasting From New York To Explain America Abroad

Letter from America: 1946-2004, by Alistair Cooke. Alfred A. Knopf, 503 pages, $35.

In October, for the first time since the Revolutionary War, the Stars and Stripes flew over Westminster Abbey-a tribute to the late Alistair Cooke. It’s a rare sight in England: the American flag, or any flag at all for that matter, waving with pride in the breeze. America’s flag fetish seems wrong-headed and embarrassing to the Blitzed Brits, who explain that after the hard-learned lessons of World War II, they find it smacks of nationalism.

There’s a nice riff on “The Stars and Stripes” in Knopf’s shrewd late addition to their fall list, Letter from America: 1946-2004, which paints an anodyne July-front-porch scene for those who worry about the sinister side of Old Glory’s ubiquity. The book is a selection of Alistair Cooke’s BBC broadcasts of the same name-the longest-running program in radio history. The first “letter” was recorded in 1946 onto a 16-inch acetate disc that was flown to London; the last was delivered digitally on Feb. 20, 2004; and on every one of the 2,869 weekly letters, Cooke simply talked about whatever interested him for 14 minutes. His dinner-party style and conversational tone prompted critics to accuse him of fence-sitting on tough issues, or of ignoring the dark side of American life. But Cooke wasn’t Ted Koppel or Sam Donaldson, and he wasn’t compiling his anecdotes for Face the Nation.

Cooke was a reporter and a storyteller; he wanted “to explain America to the world.” He was a great Americanophile, and the book is full of Americana: crossword puzzles, the movies, jazz, the yo-yo, electrical recording, Gershwin, Broadway, all of it. But he was also a New Yorker. As an American correspondent (for both the BBC and the Guardian newspaper), the fact that he chose to live in New York and not Washington was a source of much bickering back at the office. His immersion in New York is apparent in the style and the content of the letters. From his apartment overlooking the reservoir to his house on Long Island; from Mayors Koch, Dinkins and Giuliani to the Keystone Kops; from the Korean on the corner and Chinatown gangs to Dutch, Yiddish and New York English, this is a very New York book. He can’t even get through a story on Boston without mentioning The New York Times.

Steeped in New York, the book is also pickled in the 1950’s. Time passes, but Cooke remains unchanged, or he gets more backward-looking and negative, though that may just be his Britishness. Whatever the cause, Alistair Cooke, I’m afraid, comes across as proleptically nostalgic, already old-fashioned well before he’s old. What’s important, however, is that his stories are no less vivid or relevant for it. Woody Allen, too, is nostalgic; his New York is the New York of the 1970’s, but his stories remain topical, fresh and funny.

Most people will remember Alistair Cooke from Masterpiece Theatre and think of the cravat and the armchair by the fire, but let him tell you about America in the fall. You’ll be expecting “scarlet maples pouring like a fire through New England,” but you’ll get the story of an owl flying at a 27-story altitude right into Room 2752 of a New York hotel through an open window to finish off the room-service breakfast eggs left behind by the guests. He’ll tell you about the flocks of starlings that crash into the Empire State Building-an altogether different picture of autumn splendor. “Once you’ve created a stereotype it is time to demolish it,” he says in a letter called “The European’s America,” “once you’ve learned the big clichés of a country, which are true and which are not, it is the off-beat clichés that really fix the place in your mind.”

He had a journalist’s knack for serendipity. He was just yards away when Bobby Kennedy was assassinated: “There was a head on the floor streaming blood, and somebody put a Kennedy boater under it, and the blood trickled down the sides like chocolate sauce on an iced cake. There were splashes of flashlights, and infernal heat, and the button eyes of Ethel Kennedy turned to cinders.” More Tarantino than Masterpiece Theatre, I’d say!

On U.S.-U.K. relations, Cooke says, “For nearly two centuries now, there has been a continuous argument, sometimes amiable, sometimes bloodthirsty, about which country was influencing the other the most.” That was in 1952, and I think we all know which way the wind blows; but in the meantime, says Cooke, Britain still retains an advantage which will not pass over in America for a long time to come: “Americans who have not been in Europe tend to imagine what is best about her, Europeans who have not been to America tend to imagine what is worst.”

Vanity Fair ran an essay contest recently; the topic was to explain the American character to the rest of the world. Shortly after 9/11, a New York magazine article quoted a U.S. ambassador who suggested that “there ought to be an Arab Alistair Cooke broadcasting in Arabic every day.” At a time when America is nervous-or ought to be-about how it’s perceived around the globe, the idea of Cooke’s old-fashioned Letter from America is more timely than ever.

Dee Mondschein, an American journalist living in London, is an editorial assistant at The Spectator.