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America: 1900-1999

by Lisa Grunwald & Stephen A. Adler

Pub Date: Oct. 19th, 1999
ISBN: 0-385-31590-2
Publisher: Dial

A vast, voyeuristic view of the epistolary record of America’s last ten decades. Journalist and novelist Grunwald (New Year’s Eve, 1997, etc.) and editor and author Adler (The Jury, 1994) have selected 423 letters reflecting the century’s major events and issues and arranged by decade. The first chapter’s correspondents include Carnegie, Twain, Susan B. Anthony, and Teddy Roosevelt, while the latest letter-writers include George H. Bush, Magic Johnson, David Koresh, and O.J. Simpson. As happens too often here, the notes before each letter are more informative than the missive. Orville Wright’s 1903 telegram never gets off the ground. Similarly, the memo to J. Edgar Hoover after the Hindenberg disaster and Einstein’s 1939 letter warning about the danger of atomic power are, despite their historicity, a boring bust. The editors want to maintain the integrity of these letters, so they don—t delete irrelevancies or correct misspellings. While the inarticulateness of William Carlos Williams, Charlie Chaplin, and Dr. Kevorkian is disappointing, the hands-off editorial strategy works best in the letters of unknowns. Memorable and historic letters are written by an unemployed old man to FDR, an officer reporting the shooting of John Dillinger, and a white supremacist defending a lynching with indignation. Some celebrities do compose letters with conviction, emotion, or comedy, like Vanzetti to Sacco’s son, F. Scott Fitzgerald to Zelda, and Tom Wolfe to New York magazine. Including telegrams, memos, and e-mails allows us to hear the desire in JFK’s 1961 note to Lyndon Johnson: “Do we have a chance of beating the Soviets? Is there any other space program which promises dramatic results in which we could win?” Individually, the letters vary wildly in interest, but as a collection it forms an indispensably off-hand and over-the-shoulder glimpse of our late, great century. (photos and illustrations, not seen)