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Series 5 - Undercover Journalist

Alvin Hall's top 12 Letters from America

Monday 19 November 2012, 15:54

Alvin Hall Alvin Hall is an author and broadcaster, and the presenter of Radio 4's In Alistair Cooke’s Footsteps

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Editor's note: Alvin Hall travelled the USA revisiting the places and events in his new series, In Alistair Cooke's Footsteps. Here, he talks about his 12 favourite editions of Alistair Cookes original programmes. You can listen, download and read transcripts of over 900 editions of Alistair Cooke's Letter From America spanning from 1946 to 2004. PMcD

Alvin Hall

I met Alistair Cooke only once--it was a typical New York City chance encounter--as we were both on our way to our dentists at 800 Fifth Avenue. Cooke had come downtown from his apartment and I had come uptown from mine. I recognized him immediately. As we waited in the lobby, I eagerly took the opportunity to talk to him. I told him how much I had enjoyed his television work and admired his books. He was gracious, quite formal, just as I thought he would be, and he sounded just as he did on television. We had a lovely short chat about his work and his travels around America--the kind of light interaction that can happen when you meet an amiable celebrity in New York City. However, for me this chance meeting was thrilling and memorable.

Like many Americans, I first came to know of Alistair Cooke when he hosted "Masterpiece Theatre" on the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) on Sunday nights. Cooke did not "come into my home" as the saying goes; he came into my college dormitory room. Cooke appeared at the beginning and at the end of the program providing summaries of the episodes as well as important details about the plot, characters, and historical references. His was probably the first English accent I ever heard. The way he presented himself in dress and manner as well as the cadence of his voice intrigued me. I began to find out more about him. That's when I discovered his now legendary radio program "Letter from America."

Over the years friends from Britain would tell me about "Letter from America"--how it gave them their first mental pictures of America and Americans, and made them want to see and experience America for themselves. Finally, during my first trip to London in 1985, I heard "Letter from America" live. I don't remember the subject of that letter, but I remember my thoughts about its structure. It seemed a somewhat wandering compilation of several different thoughts and digressions around the topic.

When the book "Letter from America" was published in 2004, I was able to sit down and read them--with my version of Cooke's voice in my head. (Listening to his real voice in the Alistair Cooke Archive recordings online is a special joy for me.) Impressively, many of his insights, thoughts, and conclusions about America remain relevant today, decades after Cooke broadcast the original letter. However in other cases, I felt some letters did not reflect the America that I had experienced in the US, especially during the earlier years of his broadcast. Why were his letters so timeless in many ways, yet a bit blind in others? As he gained insight about the US, so too can we gain insight by tracing, with the benefit of hindsight, his personal journey and evolution in America through his reflected in the 58 years (1946-2004) of the weekly "Letter from America."

I've listened to a considerable chunk of Alistair Cooke's Letter from America posted on the Archive's website. Each one is around 15 minutes long. I listened to them in my apartment in New York and during my commute on the subway to work; during flights across the Atlantic to and from the UK as well as across America to and from California; on trains to the English countryside; and during the road trip with my producer Bill Law as we retraced Cooke's travels around America and visited some places that he returned to repeatedly in the letters.

The ones that captured my attention, while being both effective and memorable, are those that combine the historical and the personal. They do this often in a way that includes a little history lesson to provide an appropriate amount of context; a bit of personal reflection about the situation currently; and then the delivery of his insightful conclusion or thoughts about the subject and its relationship to an aspect of America--its world status, its global or domestic politics and responsibilities, its social issues and attitudes, its culture, its dreams, and its future.

The 12 programs I've chosen are those I would recommend to anyone who wants to hear Cooke at his best, but who also wants to get a feel for the breadth and depth of the subjects that Cooke covered over 58 years. Some of the letters I've selected deal with important historical events; others cover events that I experienced; some mark key points in Cooke's career. All are fascinating. The word "encyclopedic" always comes to mind when I consider the range of topics about which Cooke wrote and broadcast over his career at the BBC.

1. The First Letter From America 1946, re-read 22 March 1996
In the original letter, Cooke returns to New York following a month's stay in the UK during the worst year of post-war deprivations. He reflects directly, and ironically, on the differences between the UK and the US at the time, and on the types of deprivations for which Americans will stand in line.

Vietnam protests in USA - Getty image for Letter From America promotion

2. 1000th letter - American reactions to Vietnam, 24 March 1968
Cooke describes a Congressional Inquiry into the Vietnam War and then the war itself. About five minutes into the Letter he asks a series of questions that still apply to America's involvement in wars today. It is an unsettling--and therefore brilliant--letter to listen to because the underlying issues--rhetoric, policy, and the cost of the war--of America's involvement in various world conflicts that Cooke succinctly summarizes remain the same. One need only substitute the current names of American congressmen and generals.

3. Assassination of J F Kennedy, 24 November 1963
This letter, about the meaning of the assassination of JFK, is one of Cooke's shining moments. He captures brilliantly what Kennedy meant to "a new generation of Americans" and what a blow to the country his death was. His comments about JFK's rhetoric and the blockades he faced early in his administration could have been written today about President Obama's early days in office.

4. The LA Watts riots, 30 May 1965
This letter about the Watts riots contains so many of the prejudices, stereotypes, and statistical bigotry of its day that it is difficult to listen to. It's an example of how Cooke's privileged, white "Fifth Avenue" American lifestyle blinded him to the reality of the daily lives of black people across America at that time. What he says about the south, where I was growing up in 1965, is so rose-colored as to be offensive. Listen carefully to his tone of voice, his metaphors and similes, the examples and the words he chooses, and you can see how much he had absorbed and justified this pervasively negative point of view about black Americans. The underlying premise of Cooke's letter is that the riots are caused by envy of the white man and his material possessions. As I listened, I wondered if Cooke had ever talked to a black American in the south, north, east, or west about his or her life in 1965.

5. Boston busing crisis, 18 October 1974
Cooke discusses enforced busing in Boston in a detached, cool manner that summarizes the issues in a way that is a bit too simple. Interestingly, in his descriptions of the black community, probably inadvertently, he does not mention directly that there were working families there too as they were in the nearby working-class Irish community. He also seems to play down the horrible vitriol and frightening bigotry that was on display every day by a hardcore group of people in the Irish enclave. Today, the underlying issues that Cooke discussed are still alive in Boston and the US, but in different, somewhat more subtle ways. Cooke's attitudes revealed in the letter have changed since his letter nine years earlier on the Watt's Riots, broadcast on 30 May 1965.

6. Bobby Kennedy's assassination, 9 June 1968
Cooke describes the events leading up to and following his being just on the other side of the doors from where Robert Kennedy was assassinated at the Ambassador Hotel on June 6, 1968. His description of Ethel Kennedy's eyes, the emotional, visceral reactions of people in the room upon hearing the news, and his own feelings are vivid and unforgettable--Cooke at his best. But then he steps back, using the device of talking about the situation with an old friend to place the assassination in the context of the larger struggle for civil rights by black people in America and what their reaction to Kennedy's killing might be. His closing summary is very much what the majority of white people in America, then still viewing all black people as one dark, unfamiliar "other," feared most--wrongly.

7. How ice cream changed America, 4 February 1994
I like this letter because Alistair admits that he was wrong and has changed his mind. Being British, he quickly apologizes for this change. This letter covers the issues of American English and immigration. He illustrates why he changed his mind through the stories of four immigrants. Two deal with teaching bilingual education and some of the problems surrounding this approach. Stories three and four, however, are not just about immigration--they are stories about two brilliant, simple entrepreneurs. Cooke weaves his personal experiences, his historical perspective, as well as his insights about human beings into a satisfying letter that is timeless.

How ice cream changed America - Getty Image for Letter From America episode

8. The English language and immigration, 18 December 1992
Starting with a curious discussion of a British writer's perceptions of American names, this letter provides an intriguing, sometimes amusing and always informative essay about immigration at that time as well as about learning English and other related issues. Cooke offers a quick historical sketch of some of the anti-immigration movements in America and the groups at which each was aimed. Cooke is an admirer of President Theodore Roosevelt's beliefs about the need for all immigrants to speak English. What's fascinating is that parts of this 1992 letter could have been written about immigration in America today.

9. Duke Ellington, 31 May 1974.
Beginning with a little history lesson about the St. John the Divine Cathedral in New York City, Cooke offers a thoughtful, personal tribute to the art of jazz, but moreover to the music and accomplishments of Edward Kennedy Ellington, "The Duke." The insights Cooke provides in his digressions, especially those about Earl Fatha Hines, and his memories of the recording sessions he did with The Duke are unforgettable and illuminating. The story of his visit to Ellington's apartment is a jewel. Throughout, it is clear that Cooke admired Duke Ellington as a musical artist, as a stylish human being, and as a symbol of humanity. Before closing the letter, Cooke does a lovely twist on a phrase that at the time was, among black people, thought of as a backhanded compliment for a good black person. The letter closes with a superb adaptation of a quote by John O'Hara!

10. Louis Armstrong, 10 July 1971
This Letter opens with Cooke's memory of his ordering and receiving his first jazz record, "St James Infirmary" by Louis Armstrong. After a brief lesson on the early negative reactions to jazz (which were certainly part of my childhood), Cooke makes a beautiful transition into a tribute to Armstrong's distinct life (especially the early and later parts of his life); his exceptional talent (among both black and white jazz musicians); and his originality that was praised around the world.

11. Chicago and the Democratic convention, 30 August 1996
In this letter, Cooke talks about the history of political conventions in the city of Chicago and reflects on Clinton's decision to hold the 1996 Democratic convention there, the first to be held in the city since the "disastrous convention" of 1968. He begins by reading passages from a 1968 letter describing his dismay at the "murderous ferocity of the [Chicago] police" and more. The 1968 letter is unusual because Cooke's anger and disappointment are apparent, especially in his word choices. However, in the middle of the 1996 letter he incorporates a wonderful encapsulated history of the "astonishing" city of Chicago, a place he admired despite some unfortunate aspects of its history. Cooke makes the good and bad of the city memorable, and leaves you wanting to know more.

12. Alistair Cooke's Last Letter, 20 February 2004
This is Cooke's last letter. And while it is probably not one of his best, one has to be curious about how an iconic broadcaster closes out a 58-year run. The letter says a lot about how he saw himself and his career. He uses the motif of a fairy tale to look back and summarize the state of US foreign policy through Saddam Hussein, George H. W. Bush, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, weapons of mass destruction, John Kerry's presidential candidacy, and the hopes of the Democratic Party. There was no personal statement, no goodbye to his audience, no summary of his 58 years in broadcasting, no sentimentality at all. Near the end of the essay he says that the three top concerns of the US public in 2004 were to recover the two million jobs lost; to reform of the healthcare system; and Iraq. He tried to--and did--remain relevant until the end.

Wall Street educator and broadcaster Alvin Hall presents "In Alistair Cooke's Footsteps" on Radio 4.

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