Picks and Pans Review: America Observed

UPDATED 03/06/1989 at 01:00 AM EST Originally published 03/06/1989 at 01:00 AM EST

by Alistair Cooke

"Have you ever been to England?" asks the Dickens character Martin Chuzzlewit. The American who is being questioned replies, "In print, I have, sir, but not otherwise." Ronald A. Wells reverses that notion in his introduction to this wonderful collection of columns Cooke wrote for the Manchester Guardian from 1946 to 1972: "Many modern British men and women, if asked if they had been to America, might reply that they had because they had read and listened to Alistair Cooke for years." Wells, who edited the collection, notes that in his role as the Guardian's chief American correspondent, Cooke was given carte blanche to roam the States and report on what interested him. There was one notable exception. Cooke was in California covering the opening of the Central Valley hydroelectric project in 1951; meanwhile, Britain's Randy Turpin and Sugar Ray Robinson were heading for the ring to determine the world middleweight boxing championship. "Go New York soonest," cabled Cooke's editor. "Blood thicker than water in this country." Cooke brings a freshness, a keen eye, a fine sense of the droll and a lovely humanity to his subjects. Of the Turpin-Robinson bout, for instance, he wrote, "No myth dies harder, and none is more regularly debunked by the facts, than the one about international sports contributing to international friendship." Among his other subjects in this volume are Neiman-Marcus, the New Yorker, Marilyn Monroe, Joe McCarthy, Frank Lloyd Wright, Henry Luce and Sen. John F. Kennedy. ("He was the Frank Sinatra of the Democratic party, bringing to the platforms of bigger men a boyish pompadour crowning a handsome grin.") The Miss America Pageant, he notes, "started in 1921 in a naive and fumbling way as a 'bathing beauty' contest. By now the process of succession has become as complicated as the rights to the Spanish throne. The civic fathers of every county of every state choose a comely girl, who must be certified as a practicing spinster, a high school graduate and an idealist who ignores her smashing beauty in the search for some admirable 'goaf': to be a nurse, a sociologist, a concert pianist or an archbishop." "Bedlam in Chicago," an account of the 1968 Democratic Convention, conveys as well as any other piece on the subject those horrific days: " 'At least,' said a Chicago police official this morning, 'no one was killed.' No one, that is, except the Democratic Party. Now that the smoke and clatter and weeping have died down, there is only a faint rhythmical sound ruffling the horizon on this beautiful day. It is the sound, North, South, East and West, of the Republicans counting votes." Cooke became a U.S. citizen in 1941 and in recent years has concentrated on his PBS hosting duties, but these dispatches to the Guardian (none ever published in book form) remain a major achievement. Meant to enlighten the British about the bewildering colonies, they gave—and still give—Americans a chance to observe themselves. (Knopf, $19.95)

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