Letter From America (Penguin Celebrations)

By Alistair Cooke

Rating: 3 stars

In 1946 the BBC asked writer and journalist Alistair Cooke to do a weekly broadcast from the US to Britain about America, its life, history and idiosyncrasies. That short weekly broadcast became a national institution and one that Cooke kept up until his death in 2004. This book collects letters from each decade that they were written and they provide a fascinating insight into that vast continent-as-country. The early letters in particular show both an America and a Britain very different to today, with his explanatory notes and assumptions often pointing out differences that no longer exist, or that are now meaningless.

Over his long life as a journalist, Cooke knew Charlie Chaplin and Groucho Marx, and was just metres away when Robert Kennedy was shot. These are all touched on in his very distinctive style (I could hear his voice in my head as I was reading them), providing a personal insight into American life.

I think that Cooke was at his best away from the politics of the day, when he was talking about the day-to-day, or eulogising his beloved New England, or explaining obscure points of obscure American sports, or when he reminisced about public figures he had known or not known, bringing people who deserved to be remembered to a new generation.

The University of East Anglia is supposed to be putting the entire archive of transcripts online, although there appears to be no sign of it so far. I suspect it’ll be a fascinating read to dip into, since as big as this book was (nudging 500 pages), it could still only cover a tiny fraction of the letters that he wrote over that half-century.

Book details

ISBN: 9780141035345
Publisher: Penguin
Year of publication: 1994

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