Letters of a Nation: A Collection of Extraordinary American Letters
by Andrew Carroll
Putting Heart to Pen: Letters That Reflect a Nation
A review by Merle Rubin
[Ed. note: This review originally appeared in the April 22, 1998 edition of the Christian Science Monitor and is reprinted here in light of the historical changes presently occurring in the lives of most Americans.
The title of this richly rewarding anthology suggests that it contains letters of historic import written by famous Americans. It does indeed. But it also includes equally fascinating letters written by ordinary Americans on all kinds of topics, public and private, political and personal. The editor, Andrew Carroll, who is executive director of the American Poetry & Literacy Project, has put together an illuminating collection of some 200 letters from Colonial times to the present.
The first part of the book is devoted to epistles of historical significance: impressions of early settlers and later immigrants, letters by the nation's founders, letters about slavery, war, and social problems. The letters in the second part of the book are more personal: letters of humor, love, friendship, family, faith, and consolation.
Many of the letters are classics, like Abigail Adams's to her husband, John, asking him and his fellow-patriots to "Remember the Ladies" when framing their new code of laws: "Do not put such unlimited power into the hands of the Husbands. Remember all Men would be tyrants if they could." Or Frederick Douglass's impassioned, brilliantly argued epistle to his former master concluding: "I am your fellow-man, but not your slave."
Some letters offer moving insights into the personal lives of figures like Emily Dickinson, Herman Melville, Rachel Carson, Albert Einstein. Others, like Groucho Marx's hilarious screed to Warner Bros., are clearly designed to entertain.
Not all letters by the famous are equally impressive, but all are instructive. Mark Rudd's insolent missive to Columbia University President Grayson Kirk exemplifies the uglier side of 1960s radicalism. In contrast, the editor offers the young Bill Clinton's ingratiating 1969 letter to his local ROTC director, a veritable masterpiece of ingenious equivocation.
Often, it is a letter by an ordinary citizen that breathes life into a moment or era in history. In 1917, an African-American in New Orleans writes to a black newspaper in Chicago: "I ... wish very much to come north ... away from the Lynchman's noose and torchman's fire. Myself and a friend wish to come but not without information regarding work and general surroundings.... we are firemen machinist helpers practical painters and general laborers. And most of all, ministers of the gospel who are not afraid of labor."
A woman homesteader in Wyoming extols her new life: "[P]ersons afraid of coyotes and work and loneliness had better let ranching alone. At the same time, any woman who can stand her own company, can see the beauty of the sunset, loves growing things ... will certainly succeed."
An ambulance driver writing home to his parents in 1945 powerfully conveys his horror on discovering the conditions at Bergen-Belsen:
"I do not believe that people reared as we have been are capable of comprehending the type of mentality that can revel in such abysmal degradation of helpless human beings.... If there are some who would argue a soft peace for these monstrous criminals, I would go to the end of the world to bring them back to this camp."
Whether moved by righteous anger, compassion, sorrow, or gratitude, most of the voices we hear in these letters share a basic decency. And while Carroll has carefully chosen letters reflecting both the darker and brighter sides of the American experience, the overall mood is one of hope. Two letters by early immigrants demonstrate the pattern:
Writing to a friend in England in 1794, William Cobbett expresses his disappointment in America, including its climate: "March was so hot that we could hardly bear our clothes ... June ... so cold ... that we were obliged to wear great-coats. The people are worthy of the country - cheating, sly, roguish gang."
But in 1830, an English-born factory worker urges his wife and children to join him in New York: "I do not repent of coming, for ... there was nothing but poverty before me, and to see you and the dear children want was what I could not bear.... [C]ome directly.... I know that you will like America.... [H]ere no man thinks himself your superior. There is no improper or disgusting equality, for Character has its weight and influence, and the man which is really your superior does not plume himself on being so. An American, however low his station, never feels himself abashed when entering the presence of the highest."
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