Thu, 20 Nov 2008
Almost 3000 letters by renowned writer and broadcaster Alistair Cooke are to be made available to the public through an electronic archive at the University of East Anglia.
For more than half a century Cooke, who died in March 2004 aged 95, reported on every aspect of American life. He was the Guardian's senior correspondent in New York for 25 years, but was best known both here and abroad for his weekly BBC broadcast Letter from America.
Reaching millions of listeners in 50 countries, he monitored the pulse of life in the United States and relayed its strengths and weaknesses over a total of 2869 broadcasts before his retirement in February 2004.
Publisher and UEA alumnus Colin Webb first met Cooke some 20 years ago and worked closely with him as his British editor for his book publications. He now acts as his literary executor and said the digitised archive would give students and the public access to the “extraordinarily” wide range of topics and content covered through almost 60 years of broadcasting.
“It was as a student at UEA in the early 1970s, that I was first inspired to discover more about American history and literature, which then informed my work as a book publisher working on many diverse US subjects over a 40-year period,” said Mr Webb. “It is an exciting prospect to imagine that the scripts for Letter from America, which exist largely only in the original printed and annotated form, will be made available for easy access in conjunction with such an established School of American studies at UEA.”
Christopher Bigsby, Professor of American Studies and the university’s Dean of Advancement, described Cooke as a “master interpreter of his adopted country”.
“He was a teller of American stories who had no equal. I can’t think of anywhere better to house this collection than UEA, with its contribution to American studies and writing of every kind.”
March 1946 saw the first edition of American Letter, which in 1949 became Letter from America. When Cooke retired from the show due to ill health after 58 years, it was the longest-running series in history to be presented by a single person.
Cooke witnessed some of the most significant episodes in US history - JFK, Vietnam, Watergate, Nixon's resignation and Clinton's scandals - and was only yards away from Senator Robert Kennedy when the latter was assassinated in 1968.
His letters covered a variety of topics, from his first encounter with a native American as a youth and the first American to orbit the Earth, to the aftermath of the terrorist attacks of September 11 2001 and, in what was to be his final broadcast, how the war in Iraq and domestic issues were to be key elements in the run-up to recent the US presidential elections.
The original scripts are held at the BBC and at the Howard Gotlieb Archival Research Center, Boston University (Massachusetts).
The planned Cooke archive follows the announcement last month of the donation to UEA of a major collection of papers from Nobel Prize-winning author Doris Lessing. It is hoped these collections will form the basis of a literary archive, which would ensure that such important material is available for future generations.
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