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Lives in letters

‘Letters of the Century’ delivers intimate account of history

By Leigh E. Rich

Letters of the Century: America 1900-1999
Edited by Lisa Grunwald and Stephen J. Adler
The Dial Press

With the dawning of the next millennium and the ever-increasing encroachment of high-speed, mass communication technology into our daily lives, collections of historical correspondence (that’s “snail mail” to you online folk) are sure to go the way of the dinosaurs. Letters of the Century, one of the many celebrations of the past 100 years, is therefore a charming, sure-fire treat.

But Letters of the Century is more than an enjoyable romp through the personal mail of well-known and anonymous 20th-century individuals. It is a chronology of American history revealed in preserved moments by the actual participants themselves. The book’s editors, historians and collectors Lisa Grunwald and Stephen J. Adler, selected 429 letters representative of America’s yesteryear, from countless thousands, and reprinted them sequentially. They briefly introduce each communication to give the reader a sense of context and then allow the letters to simply speak for themselves.

“Letters are what history sounds like when it is still a part of everyday life,” Grunwald and Adler explain.

The book restores this “voice of America” through words penned by both the famous and the forgotten, including FDR, Truman and Kennedy, Martin Luther King Jr., Micky Mantle, Jonas Salk, the Marx Brothers, David Selznick, James Watson, Ayn Rand, Frank Lloyd Wright, concerned newspaper readers, nameless soldiers from both world wars and Vietnam, among many others.

In a letter from Albert Einstein to President Roosevelt in 1939, for example, the great physicist changed U.S. and world history with his admonitions of nuclear energy. “This new phenomenon [the conversion of uranium into energy] would also lead to the construction of bombs. … A single bomb of this type, carried by boat or exploded in a port, might very well destroy the whole port together with some of the surrounding territory.” Einstein then urged the creation of a government-funded research team—the underpinnings for the formation of the Los Alamos project.

Interestingly, some letters reify what we know of public figures and others force a different perspective. One from Ernest Hemingway—on his way from Paris to Pamplona—to friend and colleague F. Scott Fitzgerald depicts the writer’s efficiently descriptive and concise style faithfully. Hemingway’s oft noted ribaldry and cynicism also shine through, as he describes feeling better than ever because he “hadn’t drunk anything but wine since I left Paris.”

On the other hand, Dorothy Parker’s writings, usually succinct, witty and hard-hitting, are verbose and even sentimental in Letters of the Century. Her emotional and patriotic description to Alexander Woollcott of witnessing her husband, Alan Campbell, enlist in the army in 1942 far differs from biting poems like Résumé and Godspeed: “When the sergeant had finished reading it [the oath of induction] to them, those sixty men said ‘I do’ as one man. I have never heard a thing like that. There were no stragglers, no piping voices, no quavers. Precise and proud and strong it came, from sixty men—‘I do.’ Jesus, Alec, I will not soon forget that sound.”

Not all the authors in the book are easily recognized names. A Marine sergeant serving in Vietnam, known only as “Dusty,” wrote a friend about this “senseless” war after having killed an 8-year-old girl. “Myself and six others were walking along, when she ran out to throw that grenade at us. Of course there is the old argument that it was either us or her, but what in the hell right did I have to kill a little child? All I can do is ask God to forgive me—I can’t forgive myself.” Though his name and life are all but forgotten, his story and pain persevere.

Such moving and magnificent pieces in Letters of the Century inherently condemn the invention of electronic mail, which fails to convey the intricacies of how the penned word can move, sway, emote, incite and grip. Although, as the editors are apt to point out, the same complaint was once said of the popularization of the telephone. Perhaps good, old-fashioned quill pen and wax-seal letter writing will remain despite the rampant use of e-mail.

One certainty remains: Letters reflect the complexity of the human spirit, as “even great men have a right to search for their beginnings” and common men a right to demarcate a place in history. So, ignore the rest of the new millennium fanfare and savor Letters of the Century. It is an illuminating delight—and completely Y2K safe.

Rich, L. E. (1999, November 25). Lives in letters: ‘Letters of the Century’ delivers intimate account of history. Tucson Weekly.

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