America From the Revolutionary War to the Present
Edited by Lisa Grunwald and Stephen J. Adler
Dial. 824 pp. $35
"I am ready to place a Company of fifty Lady sharpshooters at your disposal," Annie Oakley wrote to William McKinley in the lead-up to the Spanish-American War. Though the president didn't take her up on the offer, it's typical of the pluck and plain-speaking revealed in the letters of American women over the centuries.
War bookends this carefully culled collection, with a letter from Rachel Revere to her husband, Paul, as the first letter and an e-mail from a Wall Street Journal correspondent in Iraq as the last. Threaded throughout are eye-opening accounts of every other American war: "I expected to deliver my country but the fates would not have it so," a Union soldier known to us only as Emily, disguised as a man, wrote to her father as she lay dying after the Battle of Lookout Mountain in 1863. "My native soil drinks my blood."
Lisa Grunwald and Stephen J. Adler -- she a novelist, he the editor-in-chief of Business Week -- have managed to find women who provided first-person reports on most of the major events in American history. This is no easy task. Considered unimportant by generations of scholars, women's letters have been lost by families, ignored by libraries and buried in historical societies. The editors' ability to unearth so many on such a wide-range of topics is a testament to their tenacity.
They located a letter from a woman who was in Ford's Theatre the night Lincoln was shot and from one who was in the Washington train station after President James Garfield was assassinated. There are accounts from eyewitnesses to the Chicago fire of 1871, the San Francisco earthquake of 1906, the Triangle Shirtwaist Company fire of 1911, the Kent State shootings of 1970 and the mass suicide at Jonestown in 1978. (The last was found next to the body of a nurse in the cult's compound.)
Presented chronologically, with short introductions to each epistle, the sections begin with iconic images of the era and some snappy facts: "1900: The United States population is 76,212,168. . . . Women occupy a third of all government jobs. L. Frank Baum publishes The Wonderful Wizard of Oz." By headlining major historical moments as well as cultural phenomena, these brief passages add context to the letters ahead.
Letters to and about presidents -- from George Washington to George W. Bush -- are often revealing. The former slave and preacher Sojourner Truth in a dictated letter revealed that when she told Abraham Lincoln in 1864 that she had never heard of him before he ran for president, "he smilingly replied, 'I had heard of you many times before that.' " As the Democratic Convention convened in 1964, Lyndon B. Johnson was having second thoughts about running for president, until Lady Bird intervened: "To step out now would be wrong for your country, and I can see nothing but a lonely waste land for your future." Even more striking is a note from Jacqueline Kennedy to Nikita Khrushchev the week after her husband's assassination: "You and he were adversaries, but you were also allies in your determination not to let the world be blown up."
The famous are well-represented here, with letters from actors and artists and entertainers such as Marilyn Monroe, Mary Cassatt and Joan Baez, who informed the IRS in 1964 that she refused to finance the Vietnam War. Not surprisingly, letters to and from writers also occupy many of these pages. My personal favorite: Louisa May Alcott delivering her first novel to the publisher in 1868, noting that "I think 'Little Women' had better be the title."
The infamous show up as well. A husband-killer begged for the life of her unborn child in 1775; Jean Harris raved to her lover, Herman Tarnower of Scarsdale Diet fame, two days before she killed him in 1980; Nicole Brown Simpson ranted to O.J. Simpson in 1992; and an ABC News producer tried to "book" the Unabomber in 1999.
The "celebrity interview" is just one of the many cultural trends covered. In these pages are fans of Elvis and the Beatles; a young woman telling her mother she's moving in with her boyfriend and a woman coming out as gay. At their heart, these letters are uniquely female. In longing for romance during the Revolution, fearing pregnancy on the frontier, rebuffing a pass in the dentist's chair, agonizing over abortion, enduring fertility treatments or fighting the "mommy wars," the feelings of these women as women are recognizable over the centuries.
Here are heartwarming and heartbreaking stories, heartache suffered and inflicted (Marge to Walter in World War II: "I don't know how to tell you this but you need to know! I met this really nice guy, he drives a blue ford convertible"), history told and repeated. Margaret Mitchell answered "No" when asked if she wrote Gone With the Wind with the Depression in mind, but she added, "I feel that the same qualities of courage are needed when, at any period of history, a world turns over. And the same qualities of gentleness and idealism are needed too." Those qualities appear in abundance in these women's letters. *
Cokie Roberts, a news analyst for ABC News and NPR, is the author of "Founding Mothers: The Women Who Raised Our Nation."