• U.S.

Books: Touchstones

3 minute read
John Skow


Alistair Cooke is an amiable and intelligent Englishman whose journalistic duties require him to explain to the Old World the behavior of Americans. He is also one of those Europeans who, to the utter astonishment of the natives, seem to like the U.S. very much.

This book, a beautifully illustrated historical sketch of the U.S., was made from materials gathered for his much praised 13-part TV series done for the BBC and Time-Life Films: America: A Personal History of the United States. The author’s knowledge and his generosity of spirit are evident throughout.

Still, a complaint must be made. Obviously Cooke assumes that his readers have no solid grasp of U.S. history. In this he is certainly correct. His solution, though, is to cover the whole subject in a chalktalk. This he might have done, and usefully, but not in a 400-page book. Among the subjects not mentioned are the Spanish-American War, the trial of Sacco and Vanzetti, the building of the Erie Canal, the suffragettes, baseball, universal secondary education and the establishment of the land-grant colleges, the writing of Thoreau, Melville, Twain, O’Neill, Faulkner, Fitzgerald and Hemingway.

What Cooke does include is very good indeed. He is not simply an urbane purveyor of condensed data but a reporter, with a gift for getting down on paper the human content of what he sees. Here he is on Franklin Roosevelt, who was paralyzed by polio at 39: “Yet, throughout the twelve years of his presidency, the press, including the inveterate smart alecks among the still and newsreel photographers, respected a convention unlikely to be honored today; they never photographed him in movement. I saw him once being lifted out of his car like a sack of potatoes, and put on his feet, and given two sticks and two helping hands, and his hat stuck on his head for him. This was not the Roosevelt the public saw. They saw the burly upper body, the bull-like neck, and the tossing head, the confident saviour of the republic in a dark time.”

He also finds space for an elderly immigrant’s recollection of Ellis Island: “Din, confusion, bewilderment, madness!” There is a memorable sting to his words about the Supreme Court. The Justices, he writes, “have proclaimed the right to keep blacks and whites apart on trains and then, decades later, proclaimed the right of blacks to sit with whites on trains … They had interpreted the letter of the Constitution to say … that the individual’s rights are imperiled when an oil company gobbles up its competitors.”

The illustrations include fine, haunting photos of a hungry Kansas farm family in front of their sod hut in the 1880s, and of young, self-consciously warlike Confederate soldiers posing in their first uniforms. There are paintings of a wagon train, a cancerous color photo of cars and advertising signs turning a Tucson street into the seventh circle of hell, and an oddly cheerful painting by a 19th century Chinese of George Washington ascending to heaven.

Cooke’s last chapter is titled “The More Abundant Life.” He sees the bright truth and the ironic falsity of that phrase. There is a strong sense in his summation that the U.S. is a kind of Distant Early Warning system for the rest of the world. His book, in fact, has the feel of a memorial, and perhaps that is a key to its charm. Cooke’s America is really a handful of well-polished touchstones for those who know this country’s history well.

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