Of all the ways history is recorded, letters are among the most vivid and touching. They let us see through the eyes of another time, showing big events by creating a mosaic of the small, fragmentary details that individual men and women saw or thought or wondered about.
The following selection is taken from "Letters of the Century: America 1900-1999" (Dial Press), a collection of 412 letters compiled and edited by Lisa Grunwald and Stephen J. Adler. Some are printed here in their entirety, some are excerpted. Though it wasn't by design, Outlook's first and last choices focus on technology: the dawn of powered flight at the beginning of the century and the perplexities of the computer age at the end. The letters in between offer glimpses of war, race relations, politics, entertainment and poverty--a distinctly American reflection of the crowded 100 years now coming to a close.
Orville Wright sends a telegram to his father after the first airplane flight (the telegraph operator misspelled Orville's name), Dec. 17, 1903:
Kitty Hawk N C Dec 17
Bishop M Wright
7 Hawthorne St
Success four flights thursday morning all against twenty one mile wind started from Level with engine power alone average speed through air thirty one miles longest 57 seconds inform Press home Christmas Orvelle Wright 525P
Booker T. Washington writes to the Birmingham Age-Herald, Feb. 22, 1904:
Within the last fortnight three members of my race have been burned at the stake; of these one was a woman. Not one of the three was charged with any crime even remotely connected with the abuse of a white woman. In every case murder was the sole accusation. All of these burnings took place in broad daylight and two of them occurred on Sunday afternoon in sight of a Christian church.
In the midst of the nation's busy and prosperous life few, I fear take time to consider where these brutal and inhuman crimes are leading us. The custom of burning human beings has become so common as scarcely to excite interest or attract unusual attention . . . .
These burnings without a trial are in the deepest sense unjust to my race; but it is not this injustice alone which stirs my heart. These barbarous scenes followed, as they are, by publication of the shocking details are more disgraceful and degrading to the people who inflict the punishment than those who receive it . . . .
Is it not possible for pulpit and press to speak out against these burnings in a manner that shall arouse a public sentiment that will compel the mob to cease insulting our courts, our Governors and legal authority; cease bringing shame and ridicule upon our Christian civilization.
Booker T. Washington
A suffragette sends an anonymous valentine to a congressman, Feb. 14, 1916:
TO CONGRESSMAN EDWARD WILLIAM POU, HOUSE RULES COMMITTEE
The rose is red,
The violet's blue
But VOTES are better
Karl Spencer, a marine sergeant, writes to his mother from France, June 1918:
. . . I saw a wonderfully thrilling sight several days ago--an air battle. For several hours a Hun plane had been flying low, up and down our lines, observing our activities and probably signaling his artillery our range. He was loafing over our position, when out from the clouds above darts a frog plane straight for the Hun, when within range the frog opened up with his machine gun and the next minute the German plane was nothing but a ball of fire. . . . Three Boche planes were down that day in this one sector. Some of the men went out this morning to salvage the dead Germans. They returned with watches, razors, iron crosses, pictures, knives, German money, gats, and all sorts of souvenirs. I don't like salvaging, for the odor of a dead German is stifling. Nix on that stuff. The only souvenir I care to bring back to U.S.A. is yours truly. . . .
An expectant mother writes to Eleanor Roosevelt, Jan. 2, 1935:
Dear Mrs. Roosevelt,
About a month ago I wrote you asking if you would buy some baby clothes for me with the understanding that I was to repay you as soon as my husband got enough work. Several weeks later I received a reply to apply to a Welfare Association so I might receive the aid I needed. Do you remember?
Please Mrs. Roosevelt, I do not want charity, only a chance from someone who will trust me until we can get enough money to repay the amount spent for the things I need. As a proof that I really am sincere, I am sending you two of my dearest possessions to keep as security, a ring my husband gave me before we were married, and a ring my mother used to wear. Perhaps the actual value of them is not high, but they are worth a lot to me. If you will consider buying the baby clothes, please keep them (rings) until I send you the money you have spent . . . .
A memo from Henry Stimson to Harry Truman, Aug. 6, 1945:
TO THE PRESIDENT
FROM THE SECRETARY OF WAR
Big bomb dropped on Hiroshima August 5 at 7:15 p.m. Washington time. First reports indicate complete success which was even more conspicuous than earlier test.
Agnes Maxwell Peters, a worried parent living in California, to Dr. Fredric Wertham, Sept. 7, 1948:
Dear Dr. Wertham:
We have two boys, 7 and 13, with unusually high intelligence and excellent ability in school and in sports. . . . They have a library of fine books of their own, and read library books almost daily, yet in the presence of comic books they behave as if drugged, and will not lift their eyes or speak when spoken to. . . . What we would like to know is, what can be done about it before it is too late? My boys fight with each other in a manner that is unbelievable in a home where both parents are university graduates and perfectly mated. We attribute the so-called "hatred" they profess for each other to the harmful influence of those books, plus movies and radio. . . .
We consider the situation to be as serious as an invasion of the enemy in war time, with as far reaching consequences as the atom bomb. If we cannot stop the wicked men who are poisoning our children's minds, what chance is there for mankind to survive longer than one generation, or half of one?
A Beatles fan to John Lennon and George Harrison, 1964:
Please forward this letter to GEORGE.
I think you are WONDERFUL too.
DEAREST Darling BEATLE GEORGE
I was very disappointed when you came to the U.S.A. and didn't come to see me. You don't know what you missed. I'm really a beautiful doll. I am 5'3" tall and slender and very good looking. I would make some Beatle a very lovely wife. Since I consider you the prettiest one, I'm giving you first choice. If you decide that you will be my lucky husband, then I will know that not only are you pretty, but also very intelligent.
Every night before I go to sleep, I say, Goodnight, Georgie. I love you. Yeah, yeah, yeah!
So think it over my love and give me your answer. If you are stupid enough to decline my offer, forward this letter to Ringo and Paul. Forget about John, he's married, you know.
I think you are the most.
All my love,
Peter Roepcke writes from Vietnam to Gail, Dec. 6, 1969:
Hi, doll. How's my girl today? I hope you are not feeling too blue. Well, we are on the move again. We got the word to pack our stuff, and we are going to Ban Me Thuot. We are not going to the village itself, but to the airfield. I think we are going to guard the airfield for a while. From what we have heard, we can get showers there and we can even get sodas or beer. Boy, we have not had anything cold to drink in a long time. It does get us mad that we have to move again. We just got our bunkers built--it took us about 1,000 sandbags to build--and now some other company is coming in and using them. That's the way it seems to be all the time. We do all the hard work and then we have to move. Well, that's the Army for you.
I remember in one of your letters you said you were surprised that I said I don't mind being here. Well in a way, that's true. Sure I want to be home with you and have all the things we dream about. But yet being here makes a man feel proud of himself--it shows him that he is a man. Do you understand? Anyone can go in the Army and sit behind a desk, but it takes a lot to do the fighting and to go through what we have to. When we go home, we can say, "Yes, I was in Vietnam. Yes, I was a line dog." To us it means you have gone to hell and have come back. This is why I don't mind being here, because we are men . . . .
Baseball player Curt Flood writes to commissioner Bowie Kuhn, Dec. 24, 1969:
Dear Mr. Kuhn,
After 12 years in the major leagues, I do not feel that I am a piece of property to be bought and sold irrespective of my wishes. I believe that any system that produces that result violates my basic rights as a citizen and is inconsistent with the laws of the United States and the several states.
It is my desire to play baseball in 1970 and I am capable of playing. I have received a contract from the Philadelphia club, but I believe I have the right to consider offers from other clubs before making any decisions. I, therefore, request that you make known to all the major league clubs my feelings in this matter and advise them of my availability for the 1970 season.
From a memo by political strategist Lee Atwater for the Reagan campaign, October 1984:
--The capacity to endure a 90 minute TV debate has nothing to do with the capacity to govern the Nation. Debates don't measure effectiveness, judgment, shrewdness, innovation, or other qualities that bring about results.
--TV debates are artificially contrived "pressure cookers" which do not coincide with the actual pressures that confront a president.
--Debates can be and frequently are misleading and deceptive: winning a debate often depends more upon an effective "cheap shot" than anything else. A sitting president is a sitting duck for such tactics.
--Polished oratory is more frequently used to hide or disguise the facts than it is to reveal them. A good juror can and should, for example, "tune out" a slick lawyer's rehearsed advocacy in favor of an unpolished, but credible, witness's testimony.
--There is something fundamentally degrading about the entire process.
--Most, if not all, civilized nations manage to select their leaders without subjecting them to this bizarre ritual . . . .
From a note left at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, 1986:
This is the first time I've written you since April, 1970. But I know you wouldn't think it silly. I've written a lot of poems from my heartache of being without you. I wish that you weren't shipped out on that early flight. We would have been married before you left. Not seeing you after made it hard for me to believe. I looked for you in the face of every young man. I thought about having your baby and making love to you. We really were ripped off of the most beautiful things in life. . . .
Remember the letter you wrote? When you said you were fighting a war you didn't understand? It seemed no one really understood. We were only 19 then babe and here I am, 16 years later, still wondering. I went to the cemetery once in California where they buried you. I hope you saw me . . . .
The following exchange concluded seven days of back-and-forth e-mails between Robert Riche and Compuserve. The first is from Compuserve to Robert Riche, April 4, 1996:
. . . If your baud rate is set to 19200, try changing it to 14400. If the baud rate is set to 14400 try changing to 19200. If you are connecting at 28800 bps, try 38400 and 57600 baud rate settings. In addition, make sure that the system.ini file has the default comm.drv=comm.drv. if you see anything different in the [boot] section of the system.ini, such a comm.drv=fax.drv, replace it with the default setting.
If these suggestions do not work, copy the \CSERVE\CID\WINSOCK.DLL to the \CSERVE\WINCIM\, and \CSERVE\MOSAIC\ directories . . . .
Thank you for using Feedback! Please let us know if you need further assistance.
From Robert Riche to Compuserve, April 6, 1996:
Thank you all for being so patient with me, and so helpful. I have decided to use the radio for weather reports, The Wall Street Journal for stock market reports, The New York Times for news reports, the telephone for my "chats," my travel agent for travel reservations, the movie and television media for entertainment, and the town library (fortunately, only a short stroll from my house) for reference materials. I also plan a trip into New York City soon to visit the Metropolitan Museum of Art to view some of their paintings.
Please cancel my subscription, and do accept my best wishes.