Alistair Cooke's "Letter from America" has become an institution on the BBC. Cooke started broadcasting these talks during the second world war and he has gone on doing so ever since. British listeners with no first-hand acquaintance with the USA have probably gathered much of what they know about the country through Cooke, who is particularly well qualified to interpret the USA for a British audience because he was born and brought up in England (in Lancashire). The present book is based on a series of television programmes which he made in 1973. It's historical, starting at the beginning with the "discovery" by Columbus and ending with a consideration of America's nuclear arsenal. Although well researched, it's a very personal account, as the title indicates, and its appeal to British listeners comes in part from the affection that many of them will feel for its author.
Cooke is of course a very experienced writer and he wears his scholarship lightly; the book is very readable and contains lots of lively accounts of the dramatis personae, who are brought vividly to life. One lack I found was the absence of a modern map of the USA; the end flyleaf does contain a map from 1873 but many British readers will need to keep an atlas beside them as they read.
The War of Independence is dealt with in a fair amount of detail; the Civil War is rather more compressed, perhaps because Cooke felt that if given too much prominence it might unbalance the book, though there are some moving photographs, including one of the very few actually depicting a battlefield. After the war the pioneers moved westwards, motivated in part by the hope of finding gold, and Cooke provides a dramatic account of the privations they endured and of the lawless nature of frontier life. This state of affairs didn't last long, however, as the USA developed methods of mass production and advertising that radically transformed the nature of small-town life and later spread across the world.
Cooke, it's plain, is fascinated by his adopted country and admires it for many reasons, but the portrait he presents is "warts and all". He includes an appalling account of a lynching in the South and there is a moving photograph of the former warrior chief Geronimo, now aged 76 and sitting in a top hat at the wheel of a touring car in 1905, which seems to sum up the fate of the native Americans. In an epilogue, he says he thinks he can recognize several of the symptoms that Edward Gibbon maintained were signs of the decline of Rome: love of show and luxury, a widening gap between rich and poor, an obsession with sex, freakishness in the arts masquerading as originality. These things, as he says, were also to be found in western Europe, though less obviously. More than a quarter of a century on, they seem to be becoming ever more noticeable.
Much has happened since Cooke wrote this book, including the end of the Cold War and the scandalous presidencies of Nixon and Clinton. All these events, which Cooke has of course meditated on in his journalism, would merit a book in themselves, and to this extent the present book is out of date. However, as a popular survey of the history of the USA up to the 1970s it remains of value and is still worth reading.