Friday, August 06, 2010

Alistair Cooke's America!

Our book today is Alistair Cooke's America, here in the oversized and profusely illustrated 1973 Knopf paperback, harking back to the several great oversized paperbacks we looked at once from the Great Explainers – and it harks back in other ways as well, especially since Cooke's name is not nearly so well-known as it was three or four decades ago. Back then, he was our most happy choice of in-house foreign correspondent, the best kind of well-spoken immigrant observer: the kind who had almost entirely good things to say about the United States (in a counterbalancing move, the country gave up Gore Vidal). Cooke was a Bill Moyers-style TV soft-news correspondent, and he hosted Masterpiece Theatre for roughly seventy years.

In other words, he was a prototypical talking head, and in the 1970s he hosted and narrated a TV documentary series on America. This book is the companion volume to that series, and like so many similar companion volumes, it actually holds up much better against the ravages of time than the series itself does. On film, there are awkward pauses, poor choice of settings, and lamentable bygone fashions (nothing even remotely as ridiculous as flip-flops or 'skinny' clothing, but still hideous enough), but when the series' scripts were converted into prose and printed with many very interesting illustrations, something of real value was produced.

You'll no doubt have noticed non-committal words like 'hosted,' 'narrated,' and 'converted,' and I'm afraid your suspicions will be well-founded: I'm very advisedly avoiding calling Cooke this book's author. The term conjures images of silver-haired elderly popularizing statesmen like Isaac Asimov, David Attenborough, or indeed Cooke himself sitting in the wing-chair of their gentleman's club, pad of paper on their lap, stack of reference books piled on the side table, and the valet under strict instructions not to interrupt them until tea time. It would be unfair to real hacks to imply that Cooke was one of their number – no, the vast amount of raw material in the ground underneath a book like America was assembled by others, edited by others, shortened and sharpened by others. The great anecdotes and examples were chosen by others.

So what does somebody like Cooke provide, you might ask? Typically two things: a shaping point to the whole enterprise, and a light finishing polish to the prose. It's one thing to know that the eighteenth century Russian empire was interested in cornering the New World sea otter trade, for instance, but it's quite another to have the item Britished up in classic Cooke style:
But it was dreadfully obvious to the King of Spain that the Russians were intending to set up an empire in Upper California. In simple fact, the Russians wanted nothing more than the sea otter himself, a plump and comical beast, a Disney version of Colonel Blimp, who has the round brown face of a well-fed cat swims on his back, his belly protruding, his whiskers bristling, his paws calmly folded across his chest.

All perfectly charming (unless of course you were ever unlucky enough to actually encounter one of those comical beasts in open water; when last I checked, Colonel Blimp wasn't six feet of solid muscle, bone-cracking teeth, and bad temper), and you can hear Cooke's mellow, irresistible voice saying it, which is one of the time-sensitive payoffs of books like this one.

And even though Cooke became a citizen of the U.S., he can't resist pontificating on that Continental Divide between his two homes, the American Revolution. The Declaration of Independence's tag-line about monarch's deriving their powers from the consent of the governed gets him all worked up:
Let us forget for the moment (what we make a habit of forgetting today) the implication that there may be unjust powers – responding to the injustice of life itself – in which the governed have no say. But the idea that if you felt you were being unjustly governed, you – you being the butcher, the baker, the candlestick maker – had some “right” to resist or overthrow the government: this was a firebrand that was to blow up France and the German republic and imperial Russia and eventually the whole idea of empire. We have come to accept this right, and, looking back over revolutions from the Peasants' Revolt to the latest South American coup, we can make one fairly certain generalization about the cause of revolutions: when the people in power can neither keep the consent of the governed nor keep down the dissent of the governed, then there will be a blowup.

It's a formula that worked so well for so long on the evening TV news: having an avuncular figure like Walter Cronkite intone these fairly ordinary observations somehow makes them more comfortable. Alistair Cooke's America is a very comfortable book, following our congenial host as he ambles through the whole course of America's first 200 years, pausing here and there to clarify or amplify something that strikes his fancy, like this bit about the vast system of political patronage that characterized 19th century America (and has, alas, degenerated in the 21st into mere cronyism):

In exchange for your vote, a quid pro quo so elementary that it was only rarely hinted at, he would do his damnedest to get you a job, he would fish your son out of trouble, he would hound the landlord to repair the stove or the bathtub. You had a daughter dramatically plain – he would go to work on the marriage broker. In bad times he brought up coal and food. He knew when the baby was coming and he got the doctor. These were not casual good deeds. They were the daily grind of a system as subtle and firm as the lineaments of city geography that dictated it.

And where does Cooke end up, in this epic journey of his? Does he see hope in America's future, despite what he refers to as “a developing moral numbness to vulgarity, violence, and the assault on the simplest human decencies”? Well, it's perhaps predictable that he falls back on an English historian:

I myself think I recognize here several of the symptoms that Edward Gibbon maintained were the signs of the decline of Rome, and which arose not from external enemies but from inside the country itself. A mounting love of show and luxury. A widening gap between the very rich and the very poor. An obsession with sex. Freakishness in the arts masquerading as originality, and enthusiasm pretending to creativeness. These symptoms are shared by western Europe, though they seem to be milder there only because America has a livelier tradition of self-criticism.

That was in the early 1970s, before some of you were born. But I'll bet it sounds familiar just the same. Maybe even comforting.

No comments: