An Englishman In New York

The Newspaper Years of Alistair Cooke
Selected and Introduced by Ronald A. Wells
Reinhardt Books/Viking; 233 pp.

The problem with packaging yesterday’s journalism in a hardcover spine, no matter how reverently, is that you can’t even wrap fish in it.

Journalism, after all, is merely the record of the moment – snap commentary rendered without the benefit of hindsight, under the pressure of deadline and in the bare-bones vocabulary of the mass-circulation daily. Time to compose one’s thoughts is a luxury enjoyed by the essayist, not the newspaper correspondent. The capacity to deploy just the right word – in meaning and cadence – is the licence of the poet, not the beat reporter.

Like it or not, the journalism we’ve invented for ourselves is distinguished by little more than the immediacy of its impact. It’s not intended to endure over time, any more than soft drink jingles are composed for posterity.

So one can be forgiven for greeting America Observed with a dollop of suspicion. This is, after all, a sampler of newspaper articles culled from the output of a 40-year career (from 1946 to 1985). They’re not even our newspaper articles; they were written by a foreigner, for a foreign readership, about a land that is not ours. On the face of it, it’s hard to conceive of a more irrelevant volume.

Or, if the truth be told, of a more unexciting author. Alistair Cooke is best known to my generation as the hired accent who hosts PBS’s preposterously titled Masterpiece Theatre. British by birth, American by choice and apparently English by profession, Alistair peers out from his wing-back leather armchair and introduces this Sunday’s imported tele-play in his Henley Regatta diction.

But the very fact that my generation knows him solely as the creased and silvered front man for “quality television” is our loss. To an older generation, he’s remembered – no, celebrated – as the Guardian‘s American correspondent (1946-72) and as the author and voice of the BBC’s weekly Letter From America, still on the air after 43 years. America Observed, a selection of his newspaper dispatches, is worth a read if only to see what all the fuss was about.

A cursory glance, however, is not enough. The first few pieces have the dank odor of dead history: they describe an America that no longer exists (New York without muggings) for a readership that is long gone (Britain as a power not yet subordinate to the U.S.) in a mannered style that has been purged from contemporary journalism (imagine the exact opposite of the prose favored by USA Today).

But as one settles into the book, it becomes intriguing first, then compelling, then intoxicating. Gradually it dawns that this is not journalism that reads oddly because it’s outdated but because it’s so damn good.

Somehow, Cooke managed over the course of his career – and writing on the spur of the moment, his dispatches triggered by the burst of events like involuntary responses – to chart what amounts to an erudite and unflaggingly engaging post-war history of the West’s most enigmatic power. Sure, it’s rendered in snapshots – from the death of Marilyn Monroe to the incident at Chappaquiddick to Richard Daley’s bully boys at the 1968 Democratic convention – but the effect is to illuminate America with the white flash of a stroboscope.

In part, what marks America Observed is that Cooke escaped the typical stranger-in-a-strange-land limitations of foreign correspondence. Born outside Manchester and educated at Cambridge, he left in 1932 on a Commonwealth Fellowship to study drama at Yale and linguistics at Harvard. He returned to England in 1934 as the BBC’s film critic, but by 1937 he was back in the States and in 1941 he became an American citizen. Don’t be fooled by the accent: Cooke writes with the charm and insight of someone who belongs to the country he’s covering.

Which is not to say that he swallowed the frenzied patriotism America too forcefully instills in its citizens. He sees his adopted land with the clarity of the immigrant: he is keenly aware of its faults, however intractable they might be, but at root he wishes the nation well and his confidence in its merits is unswerving.

The result is a portrait of a people that is both loving and critical, but never slavish and never despairing. It is precisely what America deserves.

As for the irrelevance of yesterday’s reportage, the pocket-essays of America Observed are as timely today as the instant they were written. They will become obsolete, if at all, only when the United States itself has withered and waned. For the moment, they speak to the present by capturing the truths of the past.

Hence his pieces on segregation in the South in the 1950s shed an eerie light on South Africa in the 1980s. His character sketch of Reagan as the governor of California – a genuinely baffled, middle-class man — does as much in three short pages to explain Reagan the president as the volumes of biographies to come. And his profile of Richard Nixon in 1960, readying himself to battle with Kennedy for the mantle of the presidency, was positively prescient. Nixon’s life, Cooke notes, is an open book, and yet the man himself is a cipher: “If we do not know him by Nov. 6 (election day), we never will.”

In short, this is a wonder of a book, gently and beautifully written, graced with wit and poignancy and eloquence. There are pieces that stab to the heart of the American condition, finding the big picture in the small vignette (Randolph Turpin losing to Sugar Ray Robinson, the publication of Master’s and Johnson’s findings) as well as a smattering that are laugh-out-loud funny (the Soviets look at baseball, the ascension of Miss Oklahoma to the throne of Miss America, and a priceless bit on Malcolm Muggeridge being interviewed by Mike Wallace).

In an age in which “journalism” has become a pejorative – a mere shorthand noun for glib and superficial stenography – Cooke’s collection serves as a reminder of what’s possible when the craft is practised by educated folk with alert minds and a flair for language and the support of enlightened editors.

And I, for one, will never make smart remarks about the major domo of Masterpiece Theatre

  •  Montreal Gazette March 4, 1989