Monday, May 03, 2010

Letter from America

Letter from America – Alistair Cooke – creative nonfiction - written to be heard
Robert L. Fielding
Covering a vast array of events in contemporary US history, Alistair Cooke’s well known and beloved broadcast, ‘Letter from America’ was delivered in a style that was unique – probably still is.

His disciples, not just members of the American diaspora living and working within earshot of the BBC’s weekly broadcasts, sat close to the radio to listen to the velvety syrup of his voice roll out the significant happenings that particular week in America, many more of us did too.

And we heard this supremely English man talk eloquently and entertainingly about all manner of things – from the night Joe Louis, the ‘Brown Bomber’, won his first title fight, to the somber days after the Kennedy assassination – from the very different styles of messrs Carter and Reagan, to the death of John Gotti, an infamous gangster.

In all his talks, now back in paper, Letter from America Penguin (2004), Cooke, born in Salford in 1908, displayed an amazing breadth and depth of knowledge on American culture, letting us know how George Washington spoke to folk, and how Robert Frost used everyday items to say something profound about the human condition.

It felt as if he knew his subjects, which he did, of course – intimately, either personally or through reputation in word and deed. His illustrations were perhaps sometimes a little too apostolic for some tastes, particularly where grandees from DC where concerned, but he was acutely aware of something journalists ignore at their peril – the mood of a nation in times of consequence.

I say his talks are now back in paper, for that is how they began. Cooke sat down and penned them afresh, calling upon historical fact and a sort of anecdotal knowledge of the good and the great of American society; he quoted Joe Louis accurately after a bruising encounter with another Joe – Jersey Joe Walcott – asked if he had been worried during the fight, and expected to say that he hadn’t, he said – “ I was worried the whole way through. Yes, sir, I aint 23 no more.”

And being written to be spoken, as they were, his letters retain the freshness of the day they were written. Something more; his phrasing is rhythmical in a way that purely written prose – wrote to be read, usually isn’t.

No doubt Cooke heard the words he composed, like some playwrights claim they do, hearing cadence and rhythm, rise and fall of the language being written. Poets – good ones – inevitably ‘listen’ to the words they write, but it does seem rare in what is something akin to journalism.

Read a column in one of your classier dailies and I doubt whether you will hear any such sounding composition. Only with writers like Edward Abbey (Down The River), Anthony Burgess (Homage to QWERTYUIOP), or anything by Diane Ackerman (A Short History of the Senses), do you find this preoccupation with the ‘sound’ of words on the page.

Of course, novelists have long known the lure of the sound of words striking a reader’s ear. Who can forget the repetitive beginnings of Bleak House, or A Tale of Two Cities – ‘Fog everywhere….’ – ‘It was the best of times……’, but that is the novelists stock-in trade, or used to be. Now, writers of that new genre with the paradoxical sounding name of ‘creative non fiction’ are doing it everywhere and on all sorts of topics, from descriptions of rascals in Papua New Guinea to high fashion houses in Milan, Paris and London.

It sounds new, especially if you haven’t heard of it yet, but Alistair Cooke knew how it was done even before it had a name.
Robert L. Fielding


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