Alistair Cooke on life and living

cooke“Courage men! The human beings may yet defeat the politicians.” Thus the late Alistair Cooke ended the foreword to Talk about America 1951-1968. For decades, I have been in awe of Cooke’s skill with words, his style as an journalist and essayist. The series began in 1946 and continued weekly almost without a break until this week. Too few of the talks have been properly collected and printed. There are three books, Letters from America 1946-1951 (London, 1951), Talk about Americ 1951-1968 (London, 1968), and The American letters from America on our life and times, 1969-1979. Some of the talks are on the BBC website. Another book in similar style is his set of biographical essays Six men (London, 1997), about Charles Chaplin, Edward VIII, H.L. Mencken, Humphrey Bogart, Adlai Stevenson and Bertrand Russell. (All of these books were republished as Penguins.) In Memories of the great and the good, Cooke offers 23 more biographical pieces on worthies he has met, including Dwight D. Eisenhower, Winston Churchill, P. G. Wodehouse, Duke Ellington, Erma Bombeck, and Barry Goldwater.

Cooke was not a great, great, writer of classic prose; he was simply a master of the craft of words, an intriguing story teller, and very, very, good journalist, dedicated to his profession.  In “Politics and the human animal”, the prologue to the 1951-1968 collection, Cooke said: “let us take our stand on the Middle East, or Vietnam, or whatever, and in the process perhaps lose a friend or shoot a friend, or agree to differ and do neither. Then let us get down to life and living.” Quite.