Tuesday, July 4, 2017

A review of Alistair Cooke's “America: A Personal History of the United States”

" ... these United Colonies are, and of right ought to be, FREE AND INDEPENDENT STATES; that they are absolved from all allegiance to the British crown and that all political connection between them and the state of Great Britain is, and ought to be, totally dissolved ... "

- The American Declaration of Independence (July 4, 1776)

The British writer George Bernard Shaw is supposed to have once told a joke about the relationship between Britain and America. "The United States and Great Britain," he said, "are two countries separated by a common language." We argue about how to spell words and how to pronounce them, I think, and the "common ground" between us can sometimes be a battleground. All kidding aside, though, there is something special about the relationship between our two countries; and our shared English language could just be the most obvious manifestation of this extreme closeness. In ways that we sometimes take for granted, I think, we understand each other's humor and share each other's values. Our love of democracy and liberty, furthermore, is a characteristic that is somewhat rare in the world; and though it is found abundantly in both countries, it is not often found elsewhere to the same degree.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt meets with Winston Churchill aboard the HMS Prince of Wales - Atlantic Charter, 1941

The divide between the Americans and the British

Our culture is much the same, I think, and our view of the world is identical in many ways. But there are some differences between us that cause us both to misunderstand the other at times. It is somewhat unfortunate that my fellow Americans, for example, sometimes see the British as stuffy and unemotional (perhaps even snobbish), while the British sometimes see Americans as unsophisticated rubes who can be impetuous (and even obnoxious). I suspect that these differences have their origins in the fact that our histories diverged somewhat after the American Revolution, when the colonies declared that "all political connection between them and the state of Great Britain is, and ought to be, totally dissolved" (in the words of our Declaration of Independence). Thus, we have some significant differences between us, it is true; but these differences are not insurmountable. Thus, the BBC made this series about the history of America in 1973. This series was hosted by the famed journalist Alistair Cooke. This series attempted to explain us Americans - and I am an American, as you may have guessed - to our valued brethren in Britain. Thus, it helped to bridge the occasional gap of misunderstanding that sometimes pops up between us. (Although the misunderstandings are still pretty minimal even without this, and we are still a common family that gets along well most of the time.)

Alistair Cooke, the series presenter

Alistair Cooke was a British immigrant to the United States

Alistair Cooke was a radio journalist that later became a TV journalist (or "telly," if you hail from my British audience). He was born in England, you see, but emigrated to the United States in his late twenties, becoming a citizen at age 33 (six days before Pearl Harbor, incidentally). He was thus raised British, and learned about the United States more "on the fly" than any other way. (Which is true for many an immigrant, before and since.) Alistair Cooke passed away in 2004 at the age of 95, I should note here; so he is no longer with us today. Nonetheless, Mr. Cooke's famous series is still relevant today, I think, and debuted on public television when he was in his sixties. This was after he'd already been in this country for over thirty years, I should mention here. I think he understood this country very well for the most part, although he may have gotten a few things wrong that I will discuss later. But his British perspective on our history is nonetheless interesting, I should be clear to say, and his first episode was a "personal reflection" of sorts on his time in America. (The actual "history" that this series promises doesn't begin until the second episode, I should note here. This is when he starts with Native American history, just prior to their first contact with the white man.)

Hernán Cortés, the great Spanish explorer

The European colonists came from Spain and France as well as Britain

Although many Americans don't realize it today, the first European colonists in our homeland were not the British who eventually won, and they did not speak English as a native language, either. The first European colonists on this continent actually came from Spain, and came up from Mexico to what is now the Southwestern United States - or "the West," to those of us in the region today. (And I am from Arizona myself, if that means anything to anyone here.) Mr. Cooke's coverage of the Spanish colonies is among the best of the series, and his coverage of the French colonies is on a par with it in at least some ways. The French controlled a substantial part of what is now the American heartland, and it was not until the Louisiana Purchase that this region was transferred to the United States. In contrast to the peaceful nature of this purchase, though, the United States conquered the Spanish-speaking West in a terrible war with Mexico; and joined the ranks of colonial nations that were scourging and oppressing the Native Americans. Mr. Cooke says in passing that "we know who won North America" (or words to that effect), but he wanted to spend an episode paying tribute to the people who were the "losers" of this struggle, in the sense that they lost political control - although they made a great contribution to American culture. Thus, his second episode covers Spanish and French colonization in some detail; and it is not until the third episode that he discusses the British colonization and its permanent presence. (Although that's not bad - the Spanish and French stuff is still pretty compelling, and makes for great television to boot.)

Lord Charles Cornwallis surrenders to George Washington at Yorktown, 1781

Comments on his coverage of the American Revolution

His coverage of the American Revolution is among the most interesting parts of this series. He is not always correct about this, in my opinion, and his British origins sometimes interfere with a fair depiction of the Americans, in the opinion of this Yank. For example, he argues that the Americans rightly owed (some amount of) money to Britain for its defense of the colonies, and doesn't mention that the only part that the Americans really objected to here was the fact that they were not represented in the body that was taxing them (the famous "no taxation without representation" slogan). Nonetheless, he does side with the colonists more often than you might expect, and he even seems to object to forced taxation from Parliament when the colonists were not represented in it. This has the tendency to make one wonder how he thought Britain should instead raise the revenue, which is an issue he does not go into here. (My apologies to any Britons that might be offended here, but you're not going to find too many Americans that would disagree with me about these things. We may have to accept that we may not see eye to eye on this particular subject.) His episode about the Constitution is also one of the best episodes, I think, and the British and Americans have some major areas of common ground here. Whatever our disagreements about the Revolution (and we do have some, I acknowledge), few would dispute the wisdom of the U. S. Bill of Rights; and we acknowledge our debt to the British in this regard. John Locke and other British philosophers contributed much to the Constitution of my country, I acknowledge gratefully, and we owe them a great debt of gratitude for their contributions.

Brigham Young, the Mormon prophet

Comments on his coverage of the Mormons

His treatment of the Mormons is among the less satisfactory parts of this series for me, because I am a Mormon myself who disagrees with (some of) what he said. For example, he describes the administration of Brigham Young as an "iron rule" and a "virtual dictatorship," and I find this an unsatisfactory characterization of the Mormon leader. In fairness, I think his characterizations are more the result of ignorance than animosity, but he was wrong about a number of these things; and he may have benefited from investigating them more thoroughly than he seems to have done here. As they say in Hollywood, though, "any publicity [for the church] is good publicity" (to add in a few words of my own); and the church may have actually benefited from this coverage despite these unflattering comments. As Brigham Young himself said, "you can never kick the church down, but only up" (a paraphrase there); and one can only hope that the coverage here will create more curiosity about the church than there would have been otherwise. (I invite any interested parties to go to Mormon.org, if they seek information about the church.)

Immigrants arriving at Ellis Island, 1902

Comments on the strengths of the series

Many parts of this series are much better than this, I should be clear to say. His treatment of the American immigration in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries is among the best I've seen (and he is an immigrant himself, as I noted earlier). His episode on the Civil War (and its roots in African American slavery) is as good a treatment as there can be in this short amount of time. I might have some minor quibbles about his coverage of the Great Depression (and a few other issues he discusses in this series), but I'm astonished that this series has as few goofs as it does. It's certainly possible that this series covered American history better than some Americans cover it, and his perception of what's important about this country is revealed in which topics he chooses to cover in his ten hours of the series. The American frontier, for example, is something that is quite different from Britain and its experience; and the British fascination with Hollywood "Western" movies has long been a source of information for them about American culture - some of which is even accurate, I might add! And even on the topics where I disagree with him - like the American Revolution, for example - he gives an outside perspective that is sometimes needed, and that Americans would not be poorly served to learn about, even when they don't agree (or shouldn't agree). It is well that Britons and Americans can listen patiently to each other's perspectives most of the time, and even be the better for it - using our cultures' open-mindedness and curiosity about other ways of seeing the world.

Psychedelic VW bug, painted in the style of the hippie movement of the 1960's
(which was still very topical when this series came out in 1973)

Comments on the series closing

The series closing may merit some special commentary here, because it's one of the best that I've yet heard. He compares America to the Roman Empire in its decadent phases, and points out some similarities to the problems noted by Edward Gibbon in "The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire." (This is a famous work from 1776, which was written by an Englishman.) Despite these problems he notes, though, Alistair Cooke has optimism about the American future in his closing; and his summation of where America is going in the future still rings true today, all these years later. Some of the problems have gotten worse (like the welfare state), while others of them have gotten better (like the opportunities for minorities). But the country still shows many of the signs of success that indicate a bright future; and whatever my quibbles with him about the details of American history, his overall take on America rings true to me.

Flag of the United States

Conclusion: The pros outweigh the cons

So the pros of this series outweigh the cons for me, and this series would seem to stand the test of time. This may be the best television history of America that's ever been done so far, and its distinctive perspective on American history seems to be worthwhile for Americans to listen to.

DVD at Amazon (European-format DVD)

If you liked this post, you might also like:

Robert Ryal Miller's "Mexico: A History" (book)

"Canada: A People's History" (Canadian miniseries)

Simon Schama's "A History of Britain" (BBC miniseries)

Andrew Marr's "Modern Britain" (BBC miniseries)

Kenneth Clark's "Civilisation" (BBC miniseries)

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