Catalogue


Letters of the century : America, 1900-1999 /
edited by Lisa Grunwald and Stephen J. Adler.
imprint
New York : Dial Press, c1999.
description
741 p. : ill. ; 25 cm.
ISBN
0385315902
format(s)
Book
Holdings
More Details
imprint
New York : Dial Press, c1999.
isbn
0385315902
catalogue key
3361686
A Look Inside
Awards
This item was nominated for the following awards:
Excerpts
Excerpt from Book
Introduction In 1955, the day after Jonas Salk announced that he had found a vaccine for polio, an expectant mother in Nyack, New York, sat down to write him a letter. The gratitude she expressed in this letter still mingles, on its pages, with a note of relief and longing, and an echo of recent pain. The difference between knowing that Americans were grateful to Jonas Salk and reading this letter to him is like the difference between knowing the words of a song and hearing it sung. Letters give history a voice. This book celebrates that voice, as it has changed and deepened, whispered and shouted, wept and teased, laughed and pleaded, throughout the letters written during the last hundred years in America. Yet this is not a book about letters. It is a book about the twentieth century, as told in letters. The 423 letters printed in this volume are arranged chronologically--with the hope that as you read them, you will feel as if you are hearing successive verses in a national ballad. Throughout the last hundred years--beginning, in fact, with the very first letter in this book--observers have lamented the fact that people don't write letters anymore. Yet letters have described most of the century's major events, have reflected or reflected upon most of its social and cultural trends, have captured most of its political passions, and have been written by most of its principal figures. We may think we've heard the whole story, but that story resonates more deeply when we read the century's letters. Part of the reason for that resonance is the immediacy of letters. Letters are what history sounds like when it is still part of everyday life. While aftershocks from the San Francisco earthquake continue, a man who owns a clothing store recounts the terror of watching it burn. A teacher who doesn't yet know how many friends of hers have been killed describes being forced to leave her home during the St. Louis race riots of 1919. A nurse living in Honolulu tells her brother in Ohio how the smoke looks over Pearl Harbor just a few hours after the bombing. Immediate and evocative, letters witness and fasten history, catching events as they happen. Sometimes letters even shape those events: the order to drop the bomb on Hiroshima; the Lindbergh baby ransom note; Nixon's letter of resignation. In addition to immediacy, letters have intimacy, and this, too, gives history resonance. Lord Byron wrote: "Letter writing is the only device for combining solitude and good company," and the safety of that combination seems to inspire the courage to be honest. Dreams are confided in letters--both the nightmares and the hopes. Love is confided in letters--without fear of hearing laughter. Sex and jealousy, money and drugs: all of these are subjects that the intimacy of letters allows. A young man dying of AIDS describes to his parents how he wants to be buried. A woman tells her mother about having an abortion. An illegal immigrant reveals for his family his journey across the border. A lot of the joy of reading letters comes from hearing the ring of unaffected truth. People describe things in letters, in passing, that they take for granted but we need not. The pack of wolves passing the schoolhouse near the shack of a lone woman homesteader. The code words for ordering liquor during the dry days of Prohibition. The overcrowded schedule of a doctor's loyal secretary during the 1950s. The Kennedy calendars adorning the walls of ramshackle houses in Mississippi during the summer of 1964. These are the little details that refresh even the most familiar events. The same thing happens with the most familiar people. When Charlie Chaplin was offered his first film contract and sat down to write an ecstatic letter to his brother, he could not have known that that letter would survive him: as a consequence, we get to hear all his youthful, unsophisticated enthusiasm--misspellings and al
First Chapter
Introduction

In 1955, the day after Jonas Salk announced that he had found a vaccine for polio, an expectant mother in Nyack, New York, sat down to write him a letter. The gratitude she expressed in this letter still mingles, on its pages, with a note of relief and longing, and an echo of recent pain.

The difference between knowing that Americans were grateful to Jonas Salk and reading this letter to him is like the difference between knowing the words of a song and hearing it sung. Letters give history a voice.

This book celebrates that voice, as it has changed and deepened, whispered and shouted, wept and teased, laughed and pleaded, throughout the letters written during the last hundred years in America. Yet this is not a book about letters. It is a book about the twentieth century, as told in letters. The 423 letters printed in this volume are arranged chronologically--with the hope that as you read them, you will feel as if you are hearing successive verses in a national ballad.

Throughout the last hundred years--beginning, in fact, with the very first letter in this book--observers have lamented the fact that people don't write letters anymore. Yet letters have described most of the century's major events, have reflected or reflected upon most of its social and cultural trends, have captured most of its political passions, and have been written by most of its principal figures. We may think we've heard the whole story, but that story resonates more deeply when we read the century's letters.

Part of the reason for that resonance is the immediacy of letters. Letters are what history sounds like when it is still part of everyday life. While aftershocks from the San Francisco earthquake continue, a man who owns a clothing store recounts the terror of watching it burn. A teacher who doesn't yet know how many friends of hers have been killed describes being forced to leave her home during the St. Louis race riots of 1919. A nurse living in Honolulu tells her brother in Ohio how the smoke looks over Pearl Harbor just a few hours after the bombing. Immediate and evocative, letters witness and fasten history, catching events as they happen. Sometimes letters even shape those events: the order to drop the bomb on Hiroshima; the Lindbergh baby ransom note; Nixon's letter of resignation.

In addition to immediacy, letters have intimacy, and this, too, gives history resonance. Lord Byron wrote: "Letter writing is the only device for combining solitude and good company," and the safety of that combination seems to inspire the courage to be honest. Dreams are confided in letters--both the nightmares and the hopes. Love is confided in letters--without fear of hearing laughter. Sex and jealousy, money and drugs: all of these are subjects that the intimacy of letters allows. A young man dying of AIDS describes to his parents how he wants to be buried. A woman tells her mother about having an abortion. An illegal immigrant reveals for his family his journey across the border.

A lot of the joy of reading letters comes from hearing the ring of unaffected truth. People describe things in letters, in passing, that they take for granted but we need not. The pack of wolves passing the schoolhouse near the shack of a lone woman homesteader. The code words for ordering liquor during the dry days of Prohibition. The overcrowded schedule of a doctor's loyal secretary during the 1950s. The Kennedy calendars adorning the walls of ramshackle houses in Mississippi during the summer of 1964. These are the little details that refresh even the most familiar events.

The same thing happens with the most familiar people. When Charlie Chaplin was offered his first film contract and sat down to write an ecstatic letter to his brother, he could not have known that that letter would survive him: as a consequence, we get to hear all his youthful, unsophisticated enthusiasm--misspellings and al
Full Text Reviews
Appeared in Publishers Weekly on 1999-09-13:
Leaving few stones unturned, the husband-and-wife journalist team of Grunwald and Adler (a former Esquire features editor and a Wall Street Journal assistant managing editor, respectively) have compiled a riveting epistolary chronicle of 20th-century America. Comprising 423 letters that are by turns intimate, bureaucratic, officious and epoch-defining, the book is divided by decades, and each chapter opens with a list of salient facts of the period, to give context. Ranging widely in subject and tone, the letters offer remarkable glimpses of various facets of American life. There's a missive from Carl van Vechten to Theodore Dreiser explaining how to acquire liquor during Prohibition (dial a certain number, refer to vodka as "white" and whiskey as "gold"); a letter from a Vietnam soldier named Dusty distraught over having killed a nine-year-old grenade-wielding girl; and from the Starr Report" a letter from an FBI examiner to the FBI declaring the semen on Monica's infamous blue dress to be Bill Clinton's. Some letters are extremely personal: there's a message from Ethel Rosenberg to her children, Jacqueline Kennedy's thank you note to Lyndon Johnson written the day after her husband's funeral, and a "coming-out" letter from a gay businessman to his parents. Others are of great public significance: Franklin D. Roosevelt's dispatch to His Imperial Majesty the Emperor of Japan, dated December 6, 1941, in which the president pleads with Hirohito to cease his belligerent activities (and of which FDR told his wife: "This son of man has just sent his final message to the son of God"); and John F. Kennedy's plea for rescue, written on a coconut, from the island to which he'd swam when his PT boat went down. Others, such as the exchange between the Ford Motor Company and Marianne Moore, are delightfully funny. Asked to suggest names for a new car, the poet responds, in a series of three letters, with such ideas as "Bullet Lavolta," "Mongoose Civique" and "Utopian Turtletop," only to be told, some time later, that the company has chosen a different name, one with "gaiety and zest"Äthe Edsel. "Surprisingly few" letters, write Grunwald and Adler, "contain truly famous lines." An exception they note is Lillian Hellman's dramatic, much-quoted letter to HUAC refusing to "cut my conscience to fit this year's fashion." The absence of celebrated lines, however, is not missed: aphorisms, after all, have a closed, independent quality, at odds with many of the engaging, profoundly revealing letters found in this volume. The reader is often too deep in dialogue with the voices emerging from these pages to miss anything that might have wished simply to be admired on its own. (Oct.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved
Appeared in Library Journal on 2005-06-01:
For many women, letters have been the only means of expressing an opinion. Here, the editors of the best-selling Letters of the Century put more than 400 opinions by American women on display. (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.
Reviews
This item was reviewed in:
Kirkus Reviews, September 1999
Publishers Weekly, September 1999
Chicago Tribune, October 1999
New York Times Book Review, November 1999
Boston Globe, January 2000
Library Journal, June 2005
To find out how to look for other reviews, please see our guides to finding book reviews in the Sciences or Social Sciences and Humanities.
Summaries
Main Description
In more than 400 letters from both famous figures and ordinary citizens, LETTERS OF THE CENTURY encapsulates the people and places, events and trends that shaped our nation during the last hundred years. In these pages our century's most celebrated figures from Mark Twain to Albert Einstein, Charlie Chaplin to Franklin Roosevelt become everyday people, and everday people become part of history. Here is a veteran's wrenching letter left at the Vietnam Wall, a poignant correspondence between two women trying to become mothers, a heartbreaking letter from an AIDS sufferer telling his parents how he wants to be buried, and an indignant e-mail from a PC user to his on- line server. Arranged chronologically by decade, illustrated with over a hundred photographs, LETTERS OF THE CENTURY creates an extraordinary chronicle of our history through the voices of the men and women who have lived its greatest moments.
Main Description
"Immediate and evocative, letters witness and fasten history, catching events as they happen," write Lisa Grunwald and Stephen J. Adler in their introduction to this remarkable book. In more than 400 letters from both famous figures and ordinary citizens,Letters of the Centuryencapsulates the people and places, events and trends that shaped our nation during the last 100 years. Here is Mark Twain's hilarious letter of complaint to the head of Western Union, an ecstatic letter from a young Charlie Chaplin upon receiving his first movie contract, Einstein's letter to Franklin Roosevelt warning about atomic warfare, Mark Rudd's "generation gap" letter to the president of Columbia University during the student riots of the 60s, and a letter from young Bill Gates imploring hobbyists not to share software so that innovators can make some money... In these pages, our century's most celebrated figures become everyday people and everyday people become part of history. Here is a veteran's wrenching letter left at the Vietnam Wall, a poignant correspondence between two women trying to become mothers, a heart-breaking letter from an AIDS sufferer telling his parents how he wants to be buried, an indignant e-mail from a PC user to his on-line server... "Letters," write Grunwald and Adler, "give history a voice." Arranged chronologically by decade, illustrated with over 100 photographs,Letters of the Centurycreates an extraordinary chronicle of our history, through the voices of the men and women who have lived its greatest moments.

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