French aristocrat/statesman Alexis de Tocqueville (1805-1859) deftly checked the pulse of our new nation in what now might be called a listening/learning tour. He traveled circa 1831-32 - touring could hardly have been a treat then - and took close and shrewd notice. Result:
Democracy in America, still a much revered/studied /quoted analysis of our fledgling nation and its people. Perhaps that early experience of learning from such an astute, intellectually gifted observer from beyond our shores pre-disposed us to listen eagerly to others, like England’s Alistair Cooke (1908-2004), a journalist essayist/media personality who arrived in the 1930s to further hone at Yale his post-Cambridge education.
He found a nation which, since Tocqueville, boasted dramatically expanded borders and a populace of broad and vibrant diversity. He returned later, this time as a correspondent for the BBC and
London Times, tasked with writing/broadcasting what he called “knowing pieces” about the U.S. – “from the public life of six presidents to the private life of a burlesque stripper.” This collection of his work was originally published in 1973 as follow-up to the popular TV documentary series
Alistair Cooke’s America.
To school himself for his daunting challenge, he, not unlike Tocqueville except for having horsepower under the hood rather than yoked to a carriage, took America’s pulse and trod its vast, varied expanses. “I made about a dozen automobile tours of the country... re-discovering the whole American landscape, region by region, county by county,” he wrote, without letting his bred-in-the-bone British politesse prevent the pointing out of cruel national embarrassments, as in “traveling past the rickety cabins of the black man’s back country, and through his scabrous city slums.”
As to the never-yet healed wounds of white settler-Native American relations, he offered this: “When it was plain that the white man had come to stay, there were three approaches he could adopt. He could, as William Penn did, treat them as separate nations to respect and live with... treat them as a potential threat, skirmish and parley and hope for a continuing truce... treat them as annoying primitive obstacles.” The latter view, he said, “prevailed among all but the most enlightened pioneers.”
The reasons for Cooke’s cross-media following over many years are discernible in this collection. With a knowing guide, we re-visit colonization of the continent, the westward diaspora, wars within our borders and beyond, plus the tumult and stress of domestic upheavals like those of the ‘20s, 30s, and ‘60s. Though reader-accessible, as many of us would wish our school history texts had been, no subject nor reader has been disrespected by discernible dumbing-down of content. The core of his reportage and writing skills, I believe, lay in what seems a sense that history is people and people are endlessly fascinating whatever their era.
At the collection’s conclusion, he shows startling foresight considering his vantage point (early 1970s) in offering what might be called cautionary alerts based on his assessment of the country and culture of that time: “I myself think I recognize here several of the symptoms that Edward Gibbon maintained were 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.”
Such a listing seems all-too-relevant, circa 2010, as does his noting that “America has demonstrated the Roman folly of exercising military might in places remote from the centers of power...“ If re-assessing the U.S. now, Cooke could hardly be surprised by media headlines. Being a gentleman, though, he might stifle the impulse to say, “I told you so!”
Over what was to be a very lengthy life and career, Cooke’s distinctive voice, visage, observational acuteness, polished prose and media skills entertained and informed many millions here and abroad. This collection (with an added introduction by the writer dated 2002) was timed to mark the centennial of his birth.