Letter from America by Alistair Cooke

22 October 2007

I thought I’d posted this already, but it seems that I hadn’t yet. I need to start keeping closer track of the reviews I’ve posted compared to the ones I still need to post — now that I’ve cleared out a bit of my backlog, I may soon be able to start posting reviews of books I’ve read more recently.

Letter from America by Alistair Cooke

Depending on which side of the Atlantic Ocean you’re from, the name of Alistair Cooke conjures up a different set of sounds and images. For most people in the States, Cooke was the voice and image of PBS’s Masterpiece Theatre, his plummy tones borne through the television set on the regal trumpet fanfare of Jean-Joseph Mouret’s ‘Rondeau’. And because he hosted Masterpiece Theatre for the better part of two decades, to most Americans Cooke’s name is synonymous with high-brow costume dramas and classic British television imports. But for many British people, Alistair Cooke is best known for his ‘Letters from America’ — his weekly 15-minute broadcasts on Radio 4, a stunning 2,869 broadcasts in total that ran from March 1946 to March 2004. And it is these ‘letters’, or a good selection of them, that make up this book.

Five decades’ worth of broadcasts leaves a lot of material to choose from. Some of his letters had been published earlier, in books that are now out of print, but the letters from the 1990s and 2000-2004 had been uncollected previously. And it’s a sign of the editors’ skill in selection that there’s no sense of repetition in the selected letters, and that some of Cooke’s most powerful letters have their rightful place in this collection. His letters concerning the assassinations of John F. Kennedy and Bobby Kennedy are masterful — particularly the latter, since Cooke was present in the hotel kitchen when the younger Kennedy was shot. He wrote about Vietnam and Watergate, about September 11th and the war in Iraq…but he also wrote about the beauty of Christmas in Vermont, about family holidays on Long Island, about life in America and how it changed in the years he lived there.

Letter from America is probably one of those books that you’d think to buy for someone else, or might see on a table in a bookshop and wonder if it’s worth purchasing or merely flipping through. But I’m glad to have purchased this book, because Alistair Cooke was, if nothing else, a cherished institution for Americans and Britons alike. And a collection of his broadcasts, even a partial one such as this, is fine reading material.

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