Letters of a Most Uncommon Common Man

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TWO THINGS ABOUT Independence, Missouri, Harry Truman’s town, strike you immediately as different from what you might expect. It isn’t plain, flat Midwestern. And it isn’t hick.

The surrounding country is high and rolling with lovely, sometimes panoramic, views, which must have been lovelier still in Truman’s youth, before the town turned suburban. The Truman family farm, twenty miles south, was beside a village aptly named Grandview.

Traditions and outlook in and about Independence are almost as much Southern as Midwestern. Like most of their neighbors, Truman’s people were staunch Confederates, with bitter personal memories of the bloody Missouri-Kansas border wars. Martha Ellen Truman, Truman’s peppery little “Mamma,” remained thoroughly unreconstructed until her dying day, refusing in no uncertain terms during a first visit to the White House in 1945 to sleep in the Lincoln bed. Independence schools were segregated until the 1950s.

But Latin and history were taught superbly in the Independence high school Truman attended. There were wealthy people in town—“old money” families—who traveled to New York and Europe and gave fine parties in spacious Victorian houses, and with Kansas City just twelve miles down the road, nobody, then or since, felt exactly in the sticks. It may come as a surprise to some to read in Truman’s newly published letters to Bess that a young Missouri farmer in 1911 could be seeing full-scale professional productions of Parsifal or Taming of the Shrew on a Saturday night, or inviting his girl to hear a “real genius” like Josef Lhévinne play Chopin, or splurging on dinner for two at a first-rate hotel dining room—but not to anyone familiar with Independence and its proximity to Kansas City. Just as it probably comes as no great shock to older residents of the town to find the young man using words like nigger and coon in his letters.

The letters fill one large volume edited by Professor Robert H. Ferrell of Indiana University, a leading Truman scholar. They range across fifty years, from 1910 to 1959, and while they contain no large, surprising revelations about our thirty-third President, they are certainly a major publishing event. They confirm as nothing else could so much that was unique and admirable about Truman; they are filled with the attitudes, vocabulary, the spirit of that particular part of America and a largely vanished way of life; and they are delightfully written, without side or pretense and with much tenderness and humor.

He is never anything but authentic Harry Truman, the name itself like something from allegory, the true man. He can be cocky, callow, narrow-minded, bigoted. He moralizes. He brags. He can play to Bess’s sympathies like a ten-year-old. But he’s also a worker and more idealist than practical, as he says. He is interested and irrepressibly good-natured and full of life. He never ever gives up.

Were they the newly discovered correspondence of a man from Missouri who had no particular historic importance, they would still be a find, so vivid are the accounts of farm life and its hardships, and of his experiences in the First World War, so entirely genuine and very likable is the personality that emerges. They would be rightly regarded as an American classic of a kind. As the letters of a President, they are like nothing else we have.

Once, years ago, a discovery was made in the attic of an Independence house of the private papers of Josiah Gregg, whose famous book, Commerce of the Prairies, published in 1844, was the bible for those heading out from Independence on the Santa Fe Trail. Incredibly, the letters to Bess, over a thousand in all, were found in much the same way. Nobody knew of their existence until early last year, when some of the staff from the Truman Library, working on an inventory of the Truman house on North Delaware Street, went into a storage room over the kitchen and found several bundles of letters tied with string. Later, in the attic, they found more, including a whole box of Truman’s World War I letters, which appeared to have been untouched since 1919.

The discovery was kept quiet. Following Bess Truman’s death several months later, Margaret Truman, as the executor, gave the letters to the people of the United States. It was early this year that they were made available at the Truman Library, which is where I had my own first look. I was so excited by their contents I kept wanting to interrupt the others who were working nearby to read something aloud to them, an impulse I still have when reading those Professor Ferrell has selected. (Of the 1,268 letters that were discovered, Dear Bess includes 600-plus.)