"We are of opinion that instead of letting books grow moldy behind an iron grating, far from the vulgar gaze, it is better to let them wear out by being read." - Jules Verne
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Wednesday, March 25, 2020

ALISTAIR COOKE'S AMERICA by Alistair Cooke



Published in 1973.

In 1973, undoubtedly to prepare for the upcoming 1976 bicentennial of the American Declaration of Independence, BBC reporter and author Alistair Cooke released a book and a television mini-series telling the history of the United States to the U.K. The book and the series came to America as well with the book selling nearly 2 million copies. This massive "coffee table" type book has 393 pages and weighs in at 3 pounds, 9 ounces (compare that to a random paperback book I weighed at just 5 ounces).

Photo by Lewis Hine
Cooke presents a straight-forward history of America, skimming over lots of details but getting the highlights. This has to be the case when you cover more than nearly 500 years of history in less than 400 pages. He focuses half of the book on the exploration/colonial/Revolutionary War/Constitutional era and it is by far the strongest part of the book.

This book is filled with beautiful, sometimes profound photographs. On pages 312-313 there is a two page spread of a lynching. Cooke claims that "no one knows who took this picture, or exactly when." (p. 311)   It was taken by Lawrence Beitler in Marion, Indiana on August 7, 1930. Beitler sold this photo for 10 days straight to sell as souvenirs of the lynching. Here is a link to a great book on the topic: 
A Lynching in the Heartland: Race and Memory in the Heartland by James H. Madison. Here is a link to the Wikipedia page on this lynching: Lynching of Thomas Shipp and Abram Smith.

The photograph of the girl working in a clothing factory in North Carolina is another great photograph in book full of great paintings and photographs. I have included it in this review.

It is very readable, but clearly a product of its time, and Cooke is a reporter, not an historian. The book has a bit of a racist feel to it. For example, when discussing where the United States lays on the globe (not too hot, not too cold), he notes: "...the United States spans the limits of the climates that white men can live and work in." Cooke mostly skips over the Native American civilizations that inhabited the Americas before Columbus. He spends almost as much time discussing entertaining but mostly nonsensical theories about the Phoenicians settling in the Americas as he does the actual Native American civilizations themselves. Cooke's reasoning is that he is covering a history of the United States itself, so Native Americans get the short end of the stick, except as an impediment to American expansion for the first 2/3 of the book.

Cooke does a similarly poor job dealing with African Americans, a group that he cringingly calls "the blacks" throughout. 
He does, however, clearly observe (in a clunky manner) that slavery and the continuing racial prejudice against African Americans is an ongoing open sore and has never been dealt with properly.

Final rating - 4 stars out of 5, keeping in mind that this history book is clearly old enough to be an historical artifact itself.

It can be found on Amazon.com here: 
ALISTAIR COOKE'S AMERICA by Alistair Cooke.

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