Alistair Cooke discusses his book "Alistair Cooke's America"
BROADCAST: Oct. 30, 1974 | DURATION: 00:51:26
Discussing the book "Alistair Cooke's America" and interviewing the author Alistair Cooke.
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Studs Terkel My guest this morning is Alastair Cooke. I think he's known to a great many people who watch public television, and years ago that very marvelous program "Omnibus", but before that a very excellent American correspondent for "The Guardian", It was then called "The Manchester Guardian" back in those days. You've seen him on a number of particularly one -- "Alastair Cooke's America" has been televised, it was BBC originally and then the network here and this is quite endearing and quite marvelous book dealing with old things yet freshly looked at by a -- may I say a friendly outside observer. In a moment Alastair Cooke and conversations about this book and memories and reflections that in a sense led to this book. The publishers of "Alastair Cooke's America" you probably know by now is Alfred Knopf and it's a quite remarkable and a good one to look at and to read and to brush up on again as to our past and perhaps future. In a moment after this message. [pause in recording] There was one thing you did, Mr. Cooke, as a preface to "Alistair Cooke's America", when you've been hosting a very marvelous "Upstairs, Downstairs" dealing with a caste system in Edwardian England. And then you did that great series you hosted on British culture and events of British life. One dealt with the music hall, and the attempt of the music hall performers to organize. And here's a song. You probably, set your thoughts going, hearing this very familiar music hall song.
Charles Coborn ["The Man Who Broke the Bank at Monte Carlo"].
Alistair Cooke Than was Charles Coborn, wasn't it? But not the Charles Coborn
Alistair Cooke Filmgoers, this is the English
Studs Terkel The one that you perhaps heard about as a small boy.
Alistair Cooke Yes, I saw -- as a matter of fact, you see, I was brought up -- was born in Manchester, England but we moved it when I was about seven to Blackpool, which was -- well, they used to call it the Atlantic City of England, not the Blackpudlians, they called Atlantic City the poor man's Blackpool, but it was a seaside resort for the working people of Lancashire and had a population of 90,000. And then on August Bank Holiday, had a population of a million and a half, and it was really something, and all the -- it was a great tryout place, but also it was a capital of vaudeville, of music hall, and as a small boy I saw all the great: Little Tich and Harry Lauder and Gracie Fields before she'd ever left Lancashire.
Alistair Cooke Mary Lloyd, and Vesta Tilly, who was this exquisite little sort of Fred Astaire character, always dressed in white tie and tails. All those people. But one thing occurred to me the other day, when I wrote this new chapter for the book which is called "A Passage to America", which is about my own -- especially about my own preconceptions of America that were shared by Englishmen of my generation and even beyond. This I'm now talking about was through the -- well, just at the end of the First World War and into the '20s. And I told that in those days Uncle Sam was not Uncle Sam, he was known as Uncle Shylock, because of the whole business of the war debts, and the United States had a very poor reputation, what we now call image because later through the '20s we learned mainly about skyscrapers, gangsters, and Hollywood, and that was all. One of the
Studs Terkel [Naturally?] of course you think of Chicago,
Alistair Cooke Oh, of course. Chicago was -- well, in fact, when I think I mentioned in the program I did in the America series called "The First Impact" about my own first impressions of America, when I came to Chicago first, which was in the summer of 1933, it was to join another man who had got the same fellowship, Commonwealth fellowship, and he was a reverend. He was a Scottish Divine, so to speak, very young, but he was an expert on Semitic languages, and he was naturally since this was the capital of those things, he was at the University of Chicago. I came to join him here, see some of the World's Fair, look around Chicago and then we started off, bought a car. Sixty dollars I remember, and then started driving around the country. And while I was here, when I'd, I'd written to my mother telling her why, what I was going to do, and she sent me a cable. I told her I'd be at such a place in Chicago. And she sent me a cable telling me to get out of Chicago as soon as possible, because the picture we had, you know, was just nothing but machine guns and people running for cover. Well it was that crude, but there were oddities. The South Promenaded of Blackpool has a great amusement fair, Pleasure Beach it's called. And you know it had everything that ever was seen in Atlantic City or any, or Coney Island. One of the things I now remember which I forgot about to mention in the book. It was very odd. It's probably the only place in England where a small boy would have learned about the Monitor and Merrimack, because it was a sideshow, which cost a lot of money, something like tuppence, and they had this thing going four or five times a day.
Studs Terkel That was a lot of money then, wasn't it?
Alistair Cooke It was. A performance at 2:30, another one at 3:30, and you went into this little theater and there they had these canvas drops, and they had like it looked like say three layers of footlights. The whole point of that was that behind each layer there were waves, you know, canvas waves which wobbled, and then they brought in, they tugged in from offstage the Monitor and the Merrimack, you see these first ironclads, and then all hell was let loose, you know. Then there were explosions, firecrackers and things, then we went home, and I didn't know anything about the Civil War, didn't know where it was happening. But vaguely we saw these flags flying, it had something to do with America. It was -- I don't know why anybody brought that show
Studs Terkel And here you were, this small boy in Blackpool, by the way, it's interesting, this is where the poor people always go for vacation or those with small incomes, that's the big
Alistair Cooke Well, you see Lancashire in those days, even in the late '20s of course, the cotton industry took an enormous nosedive, and in fact I do remember as a less small boy, I must have been about in my teens when the, I remember the big story of the Japanese coming over and going to all the cotton towns. They were all cotton factory towns, you see, and they used to close up for the week and move to Blackpool, the whole town. And they used to -- the railroads and the landladies, the boarding houses had a whole roster of what they called wakes, which is the Lancashire pronunciation of week. You may have heard of a play called "Hindle Wakes", Hindle being a small town in Lancashire and we'd say, "What's happening next week? Burnley wake." It's the Blackburn wake, the entire town shut up, and everybody moved to Blackpool, you see, and it was the paradise for that week. You know, the
Studs Terkel -- Interesting. By way of introducing -- coming to "Alistair Cooke's America", the book, you mentioned Lancashire textile workers and Manche-- stories told to me, cotton. Somebody told me about Mahatma Gandhi once visiting the Manchester workmen, and here was India's policy of making their own cotton, they're putting these guys out of work. And yet these working men cheered Gandhi when he explained what it was to them, they had workmen chained up. They had a certain humane understanding
Alistair Cooke Well, they're tough, cynical people, Lancashire people, but they do have this extraordinary -- they can be appealed to, and there's something if I may say so even more moving than that. In the Manchester Public Library on the first floor there's a letter which is framed, and it's a letter from Abraham Lincoln to the cotton workers of Lancashire, and their entire life depended of course on shipping cotton to the Southern states. I mean, shipping them manufactured goods, receiving it, receiving the cotton from -- in fact the first correspondent "The Manchester Guardian" ever had was based in Memphis, which is not in Washington or New York. Well, they honored the blockade, and they refused to accept the Confederate ships, and for almost two years, Lancashire was in a terrible way during the Civil War. They were out of work.
Studs Terkel And yet they understood
Alistair Cooke And they got, and
Alistair Cooke And Lincoln, when the war was over, wrote a -- before the war was over, obviously, wrote a letter to the -- and it was addressed to the cotton workers of Lancashire, and it's a very moving little letter.
Studs Terkel This is the area then you were from. Suppose we hear this song, this is, would lead into the opening sequence of "Alistair Cooke's America", the preface, a passage to America and your small boy memories, and this song no doubt you heard doughboys and British soldiers sang them, too.
Unnamed Group ["Pack Up Your Troubles in Your Old Kit Bag"]
Alistair Cooke Well, of course that that just pumps, you know, primes the pump of an awful lot of memories, because you see I was moved as a little boy, I was about eight to Blackpool, and Blackpool was the great training ground of the armies, because they had a beach which was twenty miles long, and at low tide a mile wide, so you could really march people up and down. And in 1917 of course, the Americans came into the war, and at the end of 1917 we suddenly had -- I don't know, 10,000 Americans in the town. A very tense, tense time. And that's where we learned -- I learned scraps of American. We had seven of them in our house, and that was the first thing of course I'd ever seen of Americans, they were extraordinary people. As I explained in the program and the book, they were they were yellow, and I mean, no insult is intended. But my father told me that because they lived in these towns with skyscrapers, they kept the sun off their faces. Of course we didn't stop to think that maybe some of them came from the South, from the West, but they also wore these extraordinary Boy Scout hats. You know, to us they were Boy Scout
Alistair Cooke Doughboy hats and big leather collars, like a man -- the only people I'd seen previously wearing those collars, and I thought as a little boy they'd all been shot in the neck, because my schoolmaster subsequently -- many of them wore braces in their neck, because as you know the casualty rate was falling, but they paraded up and down the sands, and of course we learned their songs. In fact, the day the war broke out, we had not yet moved to Blackpool but we were we were holidaying there, I was on the sands on August 4th, 1918, and from the central pier there was a band playing "Alexander's Ragtime Band". I remember that. My father heard these newsboys shouting and went and got a newspaper, and he said, "We're at war with Germany."
Studs Terkel So I'm thinking of the preconceived notion, then you came to America. And we'll come to that -- and so the book begins after passage to America, but your helpmates were guidebooks, the Work Projects Administration guidebooks.
Alistair Cooke Well, you see that's -- that came later, as you know. It came in the mid-thirties. When I came back, the WPA guidebooks to America state city, county, some of them; were pouring out from all publishers as you know. Out of work writers and scholars and so on got together. And it -- I remember my first trip, my first two trips around America really were just hit and missed because we had no guidebooks that were any good at all. And then suddenly we had -- I think I have 150. I think there were over 300 that came out, and of course I used to pack those in the trunk of my car and just wander off.
Studs Terkel I like what you say in the -- early in the book about the guide books that were came forth during the Depression part of the New Deal, made work, an America which had had no guidebooks worth the name suddenly had a library of the best, and it was these unsung historians who [beyond?] hundreds of places along the roads that few tourists heard about, because the WPA had been so maligned in its day you know.
Alistair Cooke Oh, very much. And then eventually suspended, as you know. The saddest thing was the killing of the Federal Theatre.
Studs Terkel Yeah. Then how did you go -- I think then comes the chapter beginning with Indians and you go to background and conjecture. And by the way, [that's? got?] some marvelous photographs and some of these -- some of those you've taken, old photos you found, and paintings.
Alistair Cooke Yes. Well, "The Newfound Land". I -- when the, when I devised the television series, the BBC asked me to do it, and I said what I wanted to do in that case was not what they wanted, they wanted 13 -- you know, every series is 13 weeks. Thirteen programs of themes, American themes, and I didn't like that, so I thought that it would be wonderful to try and do something so preposterous, so simple, so impossible to do, that it -- you might aim at the stars and land on the roof, which was to do a history of the United States, of the land that became the United States. That's why we start really 15,000 years ago with the Indians, where they came from we don't know. But then you see we began to look around for places and hit this marvelous place, Acoma in New Mexico. Strangely enough, I had all kinds of ideas for the Indians. I thought of Mesa Verde. But then I discovered Acoma, and I have in my study an old, very early 17th century Amsterdam map of the new world. And do you know I've had that thing for 20-odd years, and I only discovered after we had been to Acoma and filmed it, that it's one of the three places in the West that's on that map: the Santa Fe, Acoma and one other. No Los Angeles, no anything, and Acoma, the Indians there, the Acoma Indians, that's the tribe name, have been there for over a thousand years on this what they call the city in the sky. It's this enormous butte or mesa, and the town is right on the top of it. And of course it withstood attacks from the Spanish for I think 59 years before they conquered it, because they just used to drop boulders down on them, you know, and we had a very difficult time getting to the Acoma, they'd never been filmed, and they were very much against it, but eventually we persuaded them.
Studs Terkel This book then is a fusion, is it not, of two media, isn't it? Of TV itself and of your writing as well,
Alistair Cooke Yes, it's really a fusion of -- well, first of all, TV, I mean the thing that gave me the gall if you like, the courage or whatever, to do it was the fact of all these town-- these places I'd been, that many of which I'd not read about, many obviously you have like Vicksburg or Bull Run or whatever. And I thought if I can only write the thing from the land, instead of writing it from the books, you know when you've been some place, it's much more exciting.
Studs Terkel But there's [also?] something else you add that perhaps an American, a guy born here wouldn't -- you have the fresh eye too of the outsider.
Alistair Cooke Yes, I think it is the outsider. You see things which an American doesn't recognize as American, because he takes it for granted.
Studs Terkel In "Newfound Land", you speak of the hunting, you know, the seeking of the spices and the mistakes made, and you know the goal was wrong, and you speak of the Spanish, the Spanish conquistadores coming here, and you hit something I think is a key to American [unintelligible]: Coronado seeking El Dorado. El Dorado is the eternal never-found place.
Alistair Cooke Yes, of course it is. And the same thing in Saguenay, you know the -- in Canada it was the same thing there, they were always told that if they'd push west there was gold beyond this marsh and this river. And of course in the Southwest, it was beyond the next range of mountains. Well, as you know, as we go into looted Central America all the way over to Peru, and it was it was really a ghastly performance which the Spanish to this day don't like to be reminded of. And then they developed this myth about the Seven Cities of Gold as a whole literature, that if you went north it was even better than anything they'd seen, and of course that was the impulse for Coronado's expedition to go north and find the Seven Cities of Gold, which of course he never found, because they didn't exist. All they found was the was the barren Southwest desert.
Studs Terkel So as though it were, as though it were in a sense one aspect of the American Dream, that city never one found. This -- the whole country being Coronado.
Alistair Cooke Well, you see where I pick up at the very end of the series
Alistair Cooke In the end of the book and I got this, I was really pleased with this idea, I thought, "Now, how do we end this whole series, because it's going to be about today, and as you know it's called "The More Abundant Life", which is a slightly wry use of Roosevelt's prescription that he was going to bring the more abundant life. And then I recall really go back sort of 400 pages to recall, that it was the Spanish had this idea that the New World was a place paved with gold, and you're always looking for El Dorado, and now where do you look for it, and then I remembered that in the late 18th century the French philosophers were so dejected about their materialistic society that they decided that there must be noble natives living the pure life somewhere, and they found it in the Pacific. So of course because of what was his name -- Bougainville -- who found Tahiti, nobody had been there except him, and of course he's left his name in the flower. We went to Hawaii. And that was the thing, that you keep pushing west.
Studs Terkel And also as you tell us, you also speak of the bringing about Christianity to the heathens, ironically and brutally and that you have this -- you have here and this is -- I never came across this one. Quoting from Alastair Cooke's "The Newfound Land" chapter of "America", one unforgettable story he tells of a native king who would not renounce his religion, was about to be burned at the stake. "As he felt the first fires lap his body, he was for the last time offered the rite of baptism. He refused, saying he feared that if he accepted, he might go to heaven and meet there only Christians."
Alistair Cooke Yeah, it's a murderous line, isn't it?
Studs Terkel Wow. It's a Mark Twain line.
Alistair Cooke It is, isn't it? Yes, it is.
Studs Terkel That one and the other one down below. There's another one here, similar, about Spanish books written by scholars and [divines?] who've never been to sea, talk about the north of New Spain, said to contain mermaids and volcanoes and fantastic animals. "It was the place where Judas took his annual vacation from hell." That was Texas! That was Texas, was it? Oh, there's a lot of songs about
Alistair Cooke Good thing we're not in Dallas, but that was part of the myth, that there were these mermaids, that the trees were hung with jewels, and that there were whole landscapes of gold that had been originally molten, because they didn't find any trees, let alone trees hung with jewels.
Studs Terkel As you write this then you speak of the Spaniards and then British, their own kind of
Alistair Cooke -- The French [first?], that was the big mistake I made. One thing I regret about the whole series is that having taken Coronado as the symbol of the Spanish conquest, I should have taken LaSalle. What we did was try and
Studs Terkel -- You spent time with LaSalle.
Alistair Cooke Yeah, but in the book yes, but very briefly I'd like tell you what I would have done. You see, what you do with people who mapmakers and river men and trappers was very difficult. We could use maps. We decided to sort of give the program a shot in the arm by killing a moose in the hope it would give a lot of action. What I should've done was take LaSalle, because his voyage, his discovery of the Mississippi is really more hair-raising and in the end more tragic than Coronado because he was the man who went from Quebec, found the headwaters of the Mississippi, and eventually went all the way down to the mouth in the Gulf New Orleans, and planted a flag in the name of Louis and then went back to France and got money to found a French Empire there, and with enormous to-do he got three ships and I think 140 people, men and women, and was going to found the southern end you see of the French empire in New Orleans. And he started off, and they had very vague notions of longitude in those days. So he had a lot of storms and things and he lost a ship, but eventually he comes into the Gulf of Mexico, and what happens? He lands 350 miles west on the Gulf of -- west from New Orleans, and then he gets a, then he began to lose his people. They deserted, some drowned and so one, some died. And then he starts looking for the Mississippi, marching in circles, coming on a little Indian tribe and they had never heard of the Mississippi. And at the end after two years he was down to 24 men and they marched and they came to a place which is now Navasota, Texas. And by the river there, they thought there was no hope of finding the place that he had discovered, finding it again, and they shot him and stripped him and left his body to the buzzards, and he would have been rather marvelous I think to have stood in Navasota and told that.
Studs Terkel The French to some extent, not that any of the invading colonial countries were that good at the end of it, but they were the least bad, weren't they,
Alistair Cooke Yes, they were the best, they were the best -- the Spanish, by the way, when we showed the sort of VIP show of "The Newfound Land" episode in London on a big screen, the Spanish minister walked out, because they've heard this before about the barbarity of their conquests and especially to the natives. But the French were. The French made a compact of course about the, about the Huguenots and that it was better and the Catholics to live, and they did live in peace, and of course the French were far and away the best at not merely domesticating the Indians, but learning from them and respecting them.
Studs Terkel Interesting analogy. It's not really in your book, and yet it is. You spoke of Catholics and the relationship to Black people -- to Indians, Brazilian. I'm think of Brazil and miscegenation, Catholic country as against a Protestant country and slavery.
Alistair Cooke Well you see, the Catholic tradition was -- you know, there's the great man Gilberto Frere who wrote the great history of Brazil called "The Masters and the Slaves", and from that and from well from every other source and from Brazil today, the Catholic tradition was that Black or white, they really believed that the souls of men were on this earth only for a brief time. You could earn your freedom through manumission, so that in no time in one generation you started having Catholic priests, eventually bishops, archbishops who were Black. You see, this was not the Puritan tradition at all. To the north it was much rougher.
Studs Terkel And so England. Now we come to the third country. We'll take a slight pause here, we come -- a certain moment Elizabethan times they were map-crazy.
Alistair Cooke Yes.
Studs Terkel So let's -- for the moment Alastair Cooke is my guest, "Alistair Cooke's America" is the book that as you know has been a best-seller for quite a while and once more we hear of the book and trust we'll read the book and you've seen television versions of sequences from it. Knopf the publishers, and it's marvelous one to look at, to read and to reflect upon, too. We'll resume in a moment after this message. [pause in recording] And so here comes England, Elizabethan times, Drake, other -- forgive me, freebooters.
Alistair Cooke Oh, absolutely right, Drake was
Studs Terkel And queen of the sea, and now, and now we come to -- there was, it was a Renaissance moment there that -- tremendous excitement about the world outside. And so the hearing about this new, new continent.
Alistair Cooke Yeah. One of the things you say is about these Elizabethans being map-crazy. Of course, it was the age of exploration, and you know a lot of people had been a lot of places. After all, America had been discovered for 100 years, and it was as exciting to them as our discovery of the moon. I mean, as our landing on the moon, the whole space program. John Donne, you know, has a great poem I quote very discreetly from it, which is called, "On His Mistress Going to Bed" [sic - "To His Mistress Going to Bed"] and he describes her body in terms of discovering the New World, which is a very naughty
Alistair Cooke But -- Hakluyt, you see, Hakluyt was the man who sold Elizabeth, Richard Hakluyt, a Welshman and mapmaker [sic - he wrote accounts of travel to far-off lands, he did not create maps], on America. He'd never been there. In fact, he'd never been west of Bristol, but he with great confidence described this this continent of an unknown wonder and magic, and you know everybody was excited by the idea of the wonders of America which they didn't know
Studs Terkel Here came the migrants then. It's interesting, you point something out here about a -- coming say, coming to Jamestown, we'll come to tobacco in a moment. Jamestown and a caste system among the
Alistair Cooke Yes, but it was a very flexible -- I mean, there were orders of society well understood. But the plantation owners were not -- they may have got the original land from the crown, but very soon they developed a system whereby you worked it and you had to be a very able man, and you could even be like one man who is mentioned there, who was an indentured servant, which was just -- a servant meant slave. I mean, in the beginning they were Black and white. It was only later that that the Blacks did the stoop labor so to speak and the whites started turning into craftsmen or ne'er-do-wells. But an indentured man could, if he worked hard, become a free man, and then he could like this fellow within twenty years he could own his own plantation.
Studs Terkel But thinking about Jamestown also, there were categories of people though there was more mobility than would have been on the
Alistair Cooke Oh, very much so. Yes.
Alistair Cooke That saved them, you see, because they had a miserable failing colony. They were something like I think 70,000 pounds in debt. After three or four years in Jamestown. They were shiftless, the original settlers of Jamestown, and they
Studs Terkel Were some of the settlers, you say it was also -- ways of getting out of prison, perhaps coming
Alistair Cooke Oh yes, that was a very simple way to get to America was to swipe somebody's hat, and you did a turn, and then you could go to America, and they were -- they were a bad lot the first ones, and they didn't have a crop. You see, they knew nothing about a sustenance crop, and eventually of course they had to steal from the Indians, and they had very bad relations. First they bartered, and then of course they chopped the trees and they built a palisade, and then they built houses, and then by about the third winter they were chopping down the houses for firewood. It was only the arrival by a sheer fluke of a ship full of provisions and much better types of settlers that saved the Jamestown colony.
Studs Terkel Here then is a song I know that reflects that
Alistair Cooke And tobacco saved them.
Unnamed Male Singer [Song about tobacco]
Studs Terkel It goes further warning us about
Alistair Cooke Yeah, that's very, very nice. It's a contemporary song. Interesting thing there is that I couldn't get it into the television series, but I put it in the book that Jamestown as I say was a failing colony. And before the Mayflower ever sailed, to found, start Plymouth and New England. There was a successful colony, a British colony, and it's astonishing how really nobody mentions it in the schoolbooks, which was Bermuda on Ambergris and there came a point between about 1609 and 1620 when you know there'd been an expedition which foundered and everybody was wrecked, and they assumed everybody had died, and yet a later ship came and found in Bermuda four men still alive. And they had settled, and they were in good health, and they started the ambergris trade, which comes from the sperm whale, and you know is rather musky as a scent itself, but it is used to intensify the scent of perfumes, and there was a roaring trade, and there came a point in fact when the people who owned the charter in London, the London company would much rather put their money into Bermuda than put it into Jamestown. And that was a going thing, a really going prosperous colony before New England.
Studs Terkel I'm thinking of the investments too, here. And at the same time just, there's an interesting moment in your book here. You speak of the Mayflower Compact and the people that came on the Mayflower, the separatists and those who wanted freedom here. At the same time, the Portuguese had begun the slave trade and
Alistair Cooke Oh, they invented it.
Studs Terkel Yeah. And two kinds of ships were coming here, then, weren't there? That's the irony, isn't it?
Alistair Cooke Yes, but now let's not say they came seeking freedom. What they came was to propound and dictate their own kind of religion. They were as bad -- far, in fact worse in some ways than the Church of England that they'd left. If you didn't -- if you weren't a separatist and you didn't want the religion that they came to found, you had a very rough time, like the Quakers who were thrown out. Tortured!
Studs Terkel Roger Williams [had it? headed?].
Studs Terkel At the same time, wasn't that par-- at the [same?] of the compact itself, spoke of certain fundamental rights. Yes,
Studs Terkel This is the paradox, isn't
Alistair Cooke This is when we come to the Massachusetts Bay Colony. That was John Winthrop. He managed to take not only the charter but its government with him, and that was really the beginning of New England. Of an independent co-- that really almost guaranteed that at some time they would be independent.
Studs Terkel And then you come, now we come to the breakaway now. Now comes to the seeking of independence, the making of the revolution. And here aside from familiar patterns which you offer in a fresh way come to British soldiers, too, there's a song in a moment play that I know you know, "The Dying Sergeant"
Alistair Cooke -- Yeah, we used it.
Studs Terkel Yeah. Is that used on the television program?
Alistair Cooke Yeah. What I pointed out there was the sad fact you see in a way of course, this was the Civil War, because it was Englishman against Englishman. I mean, children are taught to believe that Americans were a totally different stripe of splendid fellow, and there were all these cruel British, with the with the Germans, with the Hessians, which of course didn't go down very well, but they thought many of them fighting not wanting to fight, they thought of themselves as Englishmen who had been abused. They were right, and a lot of them thought the war would establish their rights, for instance not to be taxed without representation in the Parliament. It was only later on that they began to think about independence. And so I think I mentioned in Ridgefield, Connecticut there's a there's a plaque on the wall of a graveyard which moved me mightily at the time when I first saw it, really struck me, which gave you the feeling that must've existed between many of the soldiers. At the Battle of Ridgefield which must have been about 1777 I think, there is this grave, and there's a plaque sunk in the wall which says, "Here at the Battle of Ridgefield, beneath this stone the battle of Richfield so and so and so and so, April 1777, lie 16 British soldiers and five soldiers of the Continental Army. Five Continental soldiers and 16 British soldiers." [sic: "In defense of American independence at the Battle of Ridgefield, April 27, 1777, died Eight Patriots who were laid in this ground, Companioned by Sixteen British Soldiers"]
Studs Terkel In a common grave.
Alistair Cooke Yes. And then it says, "Living, their enemies, Dying, their guests." Which is marvelous, isn't it?
Studs Terkel Yeah. I think this particular song sort of
Alistair Cooke The same kind of feeling.
Unnamed Male Singer ["The
Studs Terkel And so it goes. I was wondering if God's on your side, do not fear of course is sung by all sides, isn't it?
Alistair Cooke Yes.
Studs Terkel Were there many deserters, British? I'm just curious, I suppose
Alistair Cooke Deserters?
Studs Terkel Deserters.
Alistair Cooke It was very difficult of course to desert and you know, you couldn't take a jet to the Canadian
Alistair Cooke There were. Yes, there were, not -- I don't know how many, I don't know if it's ever been computed, but where the desertions took place was in England when the when they were when they were recruiting
Alistair Cooke And even pressed to avoid the draft because the word got across the Atlantic and of course it got magnified about the -- I like that the grasshoppers [rise? ride?], one of the problems was you see as a general [sic - British commander] reported to the House of Commons, that "The Americans will not stand and fight." By which he meant that they didn't fight in formation, they didn't fight the way they fought on the continent. Professional soldiers lined. They went off and tilled their land for a weekend and then they came back and they were behind trees and houses. They were guerrillas, you see.
Studs Terkel The [damned?] Vietnamese.
Alistair Cooke And also -- exactly! And they had they had the so-called Kentucky, which was Pennsylvania rifle, which could -- the British didn't have anything like it, the [board?] rifle, and they used to stand in formation and spray a target, you see, but they had a lateral [era? error?]. There was -- the Americans could -- this, there's a report given to the House of Commons telling the horrors of this Pennsylvania rifle and they said they could pick a man off at 150 yards with it. And so this major [sic - A Pennsylvania Tory] ends his report by saying, "And so, I should like to," in his language, "I should like to recommend that anybody thinking to join the army and fight in America had better settle his affairs before he leaves." [sic - "Therefore, advise your officers who shall hereafter come out to America to settle their affairs in England before their departure."]And that scared a hell of a lot of people, and the word'd get around the pubs and so on, and that's where people deserted. They left -- in fact, you can find in graveyards and churches how people left one part of England for another to avoid to avoid being pressed into service.
Studs Terkel Yeah, it's interesting the use
Alistair Cooke It was this myth of the Yankee who just
Studs Terkel Suppose at the same time you intimated earlier that similar cultural background, there were many, many people opposed to the revolution living here too.
Alistair Cooke Yes, well John Adams said there were one-third for it and one-third against it, and one-third didn't give a damn.
Studs Terkel That probably is close. Though indignation, [unintelligible] phrase in fighting the taxation without representation, indignation meetings, a phrase used by a lot of Black communities too during
Alistair Cooke Yes, well, that's, no, that was the original phrase when you know that was the beginning of the Boston Tea Party, was Sam Adams rousing people in the old South meeting house there.
Studs Terkel And so your sequence deals with of course the various figures involved, Jefferson and Madison and Mason and the Bill of Rights and the Constitution. And then you go to the frontier. Now we come to "Inventing a Country".
Alistair Cooke Well, before -- inventing a country is the making of the Constitution, and then we come to the thing called "Gone West".
Studs Terkel "Gone West", rather.
Alistair Cooke Yes.
Studs Terkel And here we come to, now here's this vast, what did de Tocqueville describe it as, a magnificent arrangement or something? You quote
Alistair Cooke The "grand arrangement" of the of the American continent, yes.
Studs Terkel This was it, then.
Alistair Cooke Physically.
Studs Terkel To the whole matter here now of the heading West, the frontier, when there was a physical frontier. And here again, we come to El Dorado, another version of Ed Dorado, out there, out there, out in the territory is something.
Alistair Cooke Well it started, you see, really the frontier was originally as we know, there's a peculiarly American meaning to the word 'frontier,' it does not mean a foreign border. It means really where the forest begins and the Indians, and I try to point out that in the 17th century, in the early 17th century, the frontier was the first belt of trees inland from the Atlantic Ocean. It was quite a business if you lived in Massachusetts you lived in one of those small towns, [dead or more?], Brockton near Boston. If you went on a journey west as they said, you might go, you only go 10 miles west. It was quite an undertaking. But of course the main, the main theme of that chapter is the break through the Appalachians, because why the
Studs Terkel Wilderness road.
Alistair Cooke Well, that was [unintelligible], but it happened because of the French and Indian wars. The men from the east who had fought in the French and Indian wars in the Appa-- over the Appalachians, had seen a new land, very, very rich land for the having, and then when the war was over the British said, "Look, you've now tripled the western frontier of the colonies and you've got to patrol it, it's dangerous ground," and a lot of people were leaving and filtering, and they forbade it. They said that "The crest of the Appalachians is forbidden. That's the end of the line. You can't go." The moment they were told they couldn't go, a lot of people wanted to go, and then eventually started breaking -- after the revolution was successfully won, then they started especially in the 1790s.
Studs Terkel I'm thinking of something else, there's something, and then of course there's Jackson and his attitude toward Indians, and here come more and more, more of a more predatory aspects of, on the part of the whites, but then comes gold, and I thought of this in, early in the book you speak of the trek Westward by boats coming to the New World to find something, and a lot of the ex-cons and others had a rough time coming, here you have those going West to find the gold. And a similar theme to make it, to find out what's happening.
Alistair Cooke Well yes, the gold rush was a freak, you see historically, because what was my main theme in that chapter "Gone West" is the genuine settler, a person pushing through and finding a clearing and building a home and planting crops. The gold rushes were just people who, who regarded the whole continent as an intermediate nuisance. They weren't going to settle anything, they wanted to get to get out to the American River in California and mint a fortune.
Studs Terkel You know Mark Twain of course, used to write about them a lot, and there's a song. It's a very -- it lasts about 30 seconds or so, "What Was Your Name in the States?"
Alistair Cooke Yeah.
Studs Terkel And this is about many getting away and
Alistair Cooke Of the Argonauts.
Unnamed Male Singer ["What Was Your Name in the States?"]
Studs Terkel Just
Alistair Cooke That's right. Well, of course a lot of people changed their names and they were all kinds of scoundrels that took the opportunity to go either by ship or around Panama or even right 'round the Horn and through Mexico, there were there were three or four routes because the one we memorialize is the people who walked from, went from St. Joe across the river in a ferry boat and then walked the Overland
Studs Terkel And then the covered wagons and "Sweet Betsy from Pike" and
Alistair Cooke Yes.
Studs Terkel And so we come all that time, though, there's slavery. And so you come to the sequence of "Fire Bell in the Night," a Jeffersonian
Alistair Cooke Phrase.
Studs Terkel Phrase.
Alistair Cooke Yeah, he didn't use that, you know, until the Missouri Compromise was coming up, but he said, "I tremble" when he's thinking about the condition of the Negro, that when these two clash, when the free states in the North and the slave states in the South meet as they did in Missouri. That was the battleground, and he said, "It will be a fire bell in the night." And of course it was, it really [anticipated?] the Civil War.
Studs Terkel At thinking though of something at the beginning of this program, we're just touching in a very cursory fashion some of the excellent passages and sequences in the book of Alistair Cooke, "Alastair Cook's America" that Knopf has published, the very -- toward the beginning, you were speaking of the Lancashire workers who did not send the stuff to the South, they could have made jobs and then didn't, and here is about this moment too that was happening, you know. [Unintelligible]
Alistair Cooke Oh yes, yes. Oh well, you see where I was born, the America that we knew was the South, because that was it, that was the place that grew the stuff that we made into clothes and so on, and it kept Lancashire going. But I was going to say and forgot in the, earlier about I'll never forget the day when the Lancashire cotton industry was hit very hard by Egyptian cotton, India, of course you mentioned Gandhi, and suddenly it was not the world capital of manufacturing cotton, you see, and Japanese came in, 1925 and six, into Lancashire, and we all know the Japanese made shoddy imitations of everything, you know, that was the theory, and they dismembered the factories, bought them out and shipped them back to Japan, because it was an even worse future.
Alistair Cooke They knew how to do it.
Studs Terkel We come now to something else you touch in the book before the hour is up, the matter of technology and things that were happening, it was the un-- building the Union Pacific, the railroad, and you speak of three aspects, the windmill, the plow and barbed wire
Alistair Cooke Well, that's opening up the prairie, yes. I point out that the railroad, the transcontinental railroad was an immense symbol, because coming after the Civil War it did unite the states in fact, as well as in mythology. But you still had to, you still had 1700 miles where nobody was settled, that the trains went roaring through. And of course the railroads then conned an awful lot of people, I mean in the beginning they offered land to people, and they'd sent their agents through Europe, especially through Eastern Europe to get farmers to come. And I simply point out in that I think that's in the, either "Gone West" or "Domesticating a Wilderness", that there were three things that made it possible to live on the prairie. First thing was this man from Vermont, John Deere, who invented the Deere plow, which had a steel shaft, and whereas the European plow could turn the soil easily, it could not turn the prairie, which was frozen stiff as we all know, and then in summer went to a hideous degrees of heat. It was fertile if you could turn it. Well, that did it. The other thing was of course the windmill for power. The third thing which really made it possible for the homesteader to create a home was barbed wire, because the cowboys, the cattle men, they were just marauders. I mean, they just went where they wanted, and they would stamp on anybody's property, and there was no way of saying, "This defines my land." The barbed wire said, "This is my home."
Studs Terkel Isn't that funny, though? Barbed wire. The image evoked by barbed wire today in the 20th century is what? Concentration camp,
Alistair Cooke It is, yes, and of course in the First World War, it was trenches and
Studs Terkel And we come to the sequence now involving money and into steel railroads, steel, and come the robber barons. And here the chap-- at the same time opulence, and there's child labor. Again we have this we had this double thread, don't we, this paradox throughout.
Alistair Cooke Yeah, well that's a constant theme I think in American life, is the few ingenious men who really suddenly realize that they don't have to stay owning a refinery in Ohio, that they may own all the refineries in the United States, and at that time there were about six families, men, who really owned the American economy. Wasn't the government, it was the Harrimans and the James J. Hills and the Rockefellers and the Carnegies, J.P. Morgan, really owned the country.
Studs Terkel I wonder what number today.
Alistair Cooke Well, it's just, you know, I don't know what it is. Thirty-two corporations or something, and the more we have conglomerates and the less we enforce the antitrust laws, it's even, it's just as true today.
Studs Terkel Even now we're just touching toward parts of the book, we haven't -- wouldn't have time. The assembly line of course and the immigrants from the old world and Europe coming in, and Prohibition and repeal, it's a very -- it also has, the book is colorful and also even though the events themselves in a general way are familiar to us, it's your outside eye that offers so much
Alistair Cooke Well you see, with the immigrants, we all know the story of the huddled masses coming to be free, which is sometimes true, sometimes a lot of baloney, because they were brought in very much to be a cheap labor pool. But what interested me there was, how do you become an immigrant if you start say in Russia? What do you do? What do you bring with you? How do you get in? What's required of you? And then where do you go, and how do you become an American? That's what that program, that chapter was about.
Studs Terkel And then of course the power, and World War Two and Hiroshima, and strategic air command and the dangers of what? [Unintelligible], madness, irresponsibility. The power that -- now we come to power and
Alistair Cooke And the nuclear, nuclear age.
Studs Terkel Nuclear power, and the automobile, and perhaps [if you?] read the last two paragraphs, I find this just about right, you know. The more abundant life is ironic, it's real and ironic at the same time. The book is "Alastair Cooke's America", Knopf the publishers.
Alistair Cooke Well yes, this is really the sum, sums, it's part of the sort of summation. "It is a bitterly and sometimes rousingly complicated place, this land thrashing over such incessant contradictions as control and permissiveness, the radical young and the conservative middle, the limitlessness of civil rights and the limitations of presidential power. The Swedish sociologist Gunnar Myrdal helped make sense of the constant commotion with his remark to the effect that while the American tradition is a conservative one, why did it struggle to conserve our very often very radical principles indeed?" And then I say, "A still more timely reminder that the government of a free people is meant to be argued about comes from the most famous of American jurists, it gives me at least some hope in the outcome of our present conflicts, for it embraces the notion of healthy life as a continuing conflict, and strongly suggests that the comfortable impulse to submit and yield to one view of American life or a single instrument of government is an impulse of decay. It is that tremendous line of Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, 'A constitution is made for people of fundamentally differing views.'"
Studs Terkel That's what it's about. In short, dissent is -- open society is not simply a right, but a duty perhaps. Alistair Cooke's book, it's "Alastair Cooke's America", Knopf the publishers, and it's available. Thank you very much.