MEMORIES OF THE GREAT AND THE GOOD By Alistair Cooke Arcade Publishing 277 pp., $24.95
Ever since he left Cambridge University at the age of 23, Alistair Cooke disapproved of the then-current (and now even more widely accepted) belief that "the business of literary and historical criticism is the cutting down to size of the famous, of the eminent dead in particular."
Cooke's colorful, appreciative portraits prove that one doesn't have to be disrespectful or prurient in order to make a vivid impression. The 21 brief character sketches collected in "Memories of the Great and the Good" are meant to serve as a gallery of men and women whose lives are worth reading about. Not all were indisputably great or unalloyedly good. But each was in some way truly admirable.
The subjects of Cooke's portraits come from many fields: from movie legend Gary Cooper, who seemed to embody the virtue of taciturn rectitude to Nobel Prize-winning geneticist Barbara McClintock, who plugged away in obscurity for decades before her "eccentric" findings were finally seen to be true.
Cooke's own candidate for the most purely good is Georgia-born golfer Bobby Jones. Even in the days of Lou Gehrig and Babe Ruth, when sportsmanship was the rule rather than the exception, Bobby Jones was an outstanding exemplar of decency. "I do believe," Cooke says, "that a whole team of investigative reporters, working in shifts like coal miners, would find that in all of Jones's life ... he nothing common did or mean."
When it comes to greatness, Cooke believes no one can match Winston Churchill. "He braced a listless, and still war-weary Britain to believe it was heroic, and under his leadership, it became so."
Reporter James Reston, playwright and gadfly George Bernard Shaw, yachtsman Francis Chichester, poet Robert Frost, architect Frank Lloyd Wright, jazzman Duke Ellington, and columnist Erma Bombeck are among the luminaries represented. All were people Cooke had the good fortune to meet, however briefly in some cases.
A sizable number were people who contributed to public life. In our current age of disillusionment with politics, it is salutary to be reminded, not only of Churchill, but of Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt, the crusty old Texas politician John Nance Garner, Gen. George Marshall, Dean Acheson, and the independent-minded, refreshingly honest Arizonan Barry Goldwater.
One reason this appreciative approach lost credibility was the suspicion that hagiographies were not truthful enough. After all, the habit of cutting famous figures down to size is not always solely an exercise in spite, but often an honest effort to get at the truth behind the legend. It behooves authors who praise rather than disparage to maintain a high degree of accuracy. Here Cooke falls short.
Reading an otherwise lively and enjoyable essay on Franklin Delano Roosevelt, for example, one is brought up short by Cooke's assertion that "during the Second World War, it would always be one Secret Service man, one marine, and Elliott, Roosevelt's oldest son" who helped the crippled president out of the car. Cooke does not seem to realize that during World War II, Elliott not only served in the military, but also flew missions over the North Atlantic and took part in the invasions of North Africa, Sicily, and Normandy, among much else that would have prevented his "always" being at his father's side. Furthermore, the oldest Roosevelt son was not Elliott, but James.
In the same chapter, Cooke improbably claims that arch-conservative Lady Astor was an early supporter of Soviet-style Communism and that FDR's program for America amounted to "National Socialism."
It is one thing not to ferret out bizarre and embarrassing trivialities, quite another to show a cavalier disdain for facts. One would enjoy Cooke's engaging portraits even more if only he were a little more meticulous.
*Merle Rubin reviews books regularly for the Monitor.
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society