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Letters of a Most Uncommon Common Man
Harry Truman’s lifetime correspondence with his adored Bess opens a window on their time
December 1983 | Volume 35, Issue 1
There are these lines, for example, from one of the earliest letters written from the farm at Grandview in 1911. They show what a reflective fellow Truman could be. He was not just a voracious reader, as is often said, but one who thought about what he read, which is something else again. He is writing here about a young woman Bess has introduced him to: “I did certainly enjoy Miss Dicey’s (I guess that’s how you spell her) excitable conversation. I bet she is a person who enjoys life. You know when people can get excited over the ordinary things in life they live. You know a good author makes common things seem great in books and people who can live them that way always enjoy life. I never did know but one boy that way and only one man. Neither of them can cross the street without having an adventure worth telling of.”
Or there is this about a day riding the hay binder that has cost him his voice: “It is necessary to sit about a half mile or so from the horses when you drive an old binder and it’s yell or stand still. My whip is just too short. If I make it longer it grinds up in the machinery and causes a disaster not only to the insides of the binder but to my record in the Book of Justice. It’s cheaper to cuss the team.”
His many likes and dislikes, the doings of his days, his ambitions, travels, his views on books and people and morals are set forth in wonderful detail, from the time he’s still on the farm until the years in the White House and after. He is at heart and remains a nineteenth-century man. Born in 1884, he is already twenty-six when the letters begin in 1910; by the time he goes off to war in 1917, he is thirty-three, which means he was really too old for that war, he could have stayed home. He is witness to the advent of the automobile. He can’t learn to like the telephone, he tells Bess, which is a blessing for us, since otherwise he might not have written the letters. As President he made many of the most far-reaching decisions of the twentieth century—to use the atomic bomb, to launch the Marshall Plan, to support the creation of Israel, to fight Korea. He started the CIA. He was the first President to appear on television. Yet in the privacy of his letters to his wife, he belongs to another, earlier era. His values, he knows, are often out of fashion.
He has a farmer’s fondness for food, he loves “a good spread”—cake and pie especially and his Mamma’s baked chicken. He loves Verdi and Holbein and David Copperfield and telling Bess about the “real characters” he meets traveling by train, or telling her about his own 240-pound, bald-headed Uncle Harrison Young (for whom he was named), who plays cards, cusses grandly, drinks too much, hates preachers, and can “lead every big lie that is told in his presence by a bigger one.” He prizes horse sense and a good night’s sleep and obviously enjoys dressing up in a new suit or new uniform. “Bought me a Sam Brown belt today and I look real fussy in it,” he writes after arriving in France the spring of 1918.
Truman wrote so often to Bess, he says, because “I can never say what I feel when I see you.”
His reading on the farm includes the Kansas City Star and Everybody’s magazine, Life, Adventure, murder mysteries, history, biography, Byron, and the Bible. (He confirms, too, that he actually did read all the books in the Independence Library, “including the encyclopedias,” by the time he finished high school.) As a freshman senator in Washington, he discovers Douglas S. Freeman’s four-volume R. E. Lee, then goes to hear Freeman lecture at the War College—“one of the greatest talks I ever heard.”
His craving for an automobile, in the years he was still on the farm and desperately in love, is almost heartrending. “Just imagine how I’d burn the pike from here to Independence,” he tells Bess, who was living in the house on Delaware Street, the Gates house as it was then known (after her grandfather George Gates, who built it). Much about his first car, a 1911 Stafford, is chronicled. He loved it, as he would the others he owned as time went on. Indeed, if there was ever a prime example of the American male’s love affair with the automobile, it is Harry Truman, and like his love for Bess, it lasted through thick and thin. That it was the automobile that turned Independence suburban in his lifetime, bringing shopping centers and much else he didn’t like, is one of the ironies of the story.