An illuminating collection in which Americans talk back after listening to Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s famed fireside chats.
“Tell me your troubles,” FDR invited after his first chat on March 4, 1933, and so the nation did, flooding Washington with millions of letters—most of which, note historian Lawrence Levine (The Opening of the American Mind, 1996) and independent scholar Cornelia Levine, were read, many of which were responded to, and all of which were carefully stored away in the White House archives. Wading through this sea of correspondence was surely a daunting task, but the Levines have exercised fine judgment in selecting the hundreds of texts that make up these pages, using them, often inventive language and all, to shed light on historical events now buried away in textbooks. Following a succession of bank failures that plagued the early days of his first term, for instance, Roosevelt urged his listeners to give the shored-up system their confidence: “I can assure you, my friends, that it is safer to keep your money in a reopened bank than it is to keep it under the mattress.” His listeners responded, in turn, with sentiments such as, “bankers who have betrayed trusts imposed in them shall be brought to trial and punished,” or, “I felt heartily ashamed that I did not vote for you last November and I sincerely hope your acts will be successful in relieving our country of at least some of it’s present depressing influences so that I will feel even more ashamed of myself.” The letters were not always so positive, and many that the Levines reproduce take Roosevelt to task over such matters as allying the US with England against Germany (“Yanks are not coming we will not die for Wall Street,” one telegram reads), advocating peacetime military conscription, and failing to act on Jim Crow discrimination laws. Almost all are respectful, however—even the few certifiably loony ones.
Consistently interesting, the Levines’ gathering of letters will be useful to any student of 20th-century American history.