Podthoughts by Colin Marshall: Letter from America

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Vital stats:
Format: letters on one Englishman’s America, from 1946 to 2004
Episode duration: 15m
Frequency: 1-2 per month

If you want to learn about a place, talk to its outsiders. That rule has guided my study of Los Angeles ever since I moved here; rightheaded or wrongheaded, observers with few roots in the city write the most interesting books about it, and reading them counteracts the risk of dulled senses that increases the longer I live here. On a larger scale, we Americans could do well to learn about our country through minds not quite of it. That, I would guess, explains the 170-year popularity of Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America. I haven’t read all of that book, but then, the astute reader can presumably pick and choose their chapters. The same goes for Letter from America, Alistair Cooke’s 2,869-episode radio series that ran from 1946 to 2004. Even if you don’t listen to the whole run, you’ll still learn a thing or two about the United States, and you may not have learned them any other way.

Not that you can, easily, listen to the whole run, though you can, thanks to the BBC’s podcasting wing, easily listen to select broadcasts from each of the program’s eras: the early years [iTunes], from Nixon to Carter [iTunes], the Reagan years [iTunes], the Bush Sr. years [iTunes], the Clinton years 1993-1996 [iTunes], the Clinton years 1997-2000 [iTunes], and the Bush Jr. years [iTunes]. Don’t let the presidential organization throw you; the show hardly limits itself to political topics, though the British-born Cooke does seem to have had a lifelong fascination with American political figures and how the people regard them. No matter where you start listening — or, rather, when you start listening — you quickly get a sense of what fascinated Cooke, since, in all of Letter from America’s eight hundred-odd hours of airtime, he spoke, and he alone. Having emigrated to America in 1937, he wrote the letters from it, and by reading them over the BBC’s Home Service, succeeded by Radio 4, he sent them to an eager non-American listening public with almost as much curiosity about this relatively new, relatively experimental country as he had.

Not long into my own listening experience of the “American century” through Alistair Cooke’s eyes, I heard his letter on the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy. Cooke experienced this historical event in famously close proximity, having found his way into the Ambassador Hotel on that fateful 1968 night. I happened to listen to this firsthand account nearly 45 years after the time but in the grand scheme not far at all from the site, living as I do about a block from where the Ambassador once stood, and where now stands the vaguely Ambassador-shaped Robert F. Kennedy Community Schools. Such a moment certainly gives you a vivid glimpse of the compressed palimpsest of American history, and more came when I listened, while roaming the city, to Cooke’s other letters on Los Angeles-based happenings: the Watts riots, the 1992 riots, the O.J. Simpson verdict — and here I realize that most of them have to do with racial strife.

Cooke proved quite astute on such topics. He tracked the pendulum of propriety in ethnic labeling with a keenly disengaged eye — the term “oriental,” he points out with faint woe in several different decades, seems to have fallen out of favor — and, based in New York City, he kept close watch on the ever-shifting ingredient list of the American melting pot, or indeed, the question of whether the pot continued to melt at all. Born in Lancashire in 1908, Cook would at first seem a likely candidate for jerking-knee curmudgeonhood, especially as technology and diversity so intensified as he entered his seventies in the seventies, his eighties in the eighties, his nineties in the nineties. Yet, perhaps due to his status as a citizen but a cultural outsider, perhaps due to his thorough experience as a journalist of the old (as in, early twentieth-century) school, he remained throughout Letter from America refreshingly above the fray. Even in 2001, at the age of 92, he considered the increasing purchases of Christmas gifts over the internet. “I’m afraid that the yahoo, or philistine, reaction to these sorry stories will be a great sigh of relief, and the thought that the internet is really something of a fraud,” he says. “No need, yet, to abandon the shopping bag and the typewriter — or, in the case of some of my older friends, the quill pen.”

But he goes on: “Nothing could be more stupid. The dot-com failures that I have cited do not reflect any flaw in the institution of the internet, but in the human frailty of the people using it.” We thirty-ish-year-olds who grew up with the World Wide Web can appreciate the sobriety of Cooke’s perspective on such technological growing pains, or on such non-events as Y2K. I myself savored even more revisiting the historical events of my childhood — the Challenger explosion, the collapse of Pan Am, the Lorena Bobbitt incident, that whole O.J. thing, the “sad, squalid story” of Nancy Kerrigan and Tonya Harding — finding in Cooke’s relation the disinterested but not uninterested clarity seemingly unavailable at the time from my parents’ generation, or even my grandparents’ generation. Perhaps these words really come straight from my instinctive worship of old Englishmen, but America needs another Alistair Cooke now. Until one surfaces, we’ll have to make do with these podcasts, from then — but at least we have a variety of thens to choose from, if only one Alistair Cooke.

[Podthinker Colin Marshall hosts and produces Notebook on Cities and Culture [iTunes] and writes essays on literature, film, cities, Asia, and aesthetics. He's working on a book about Los Angeles, A Los Angeles Primer. Contact him at colinjmarshall at gmail or follow him on Twitter @colinmarshall.]