Letters of a Most Uncommon Common Man

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THE LETTERS IN Dear Bess are the heartfelt expressions of a most uncommon common man. But they are also a window on a time and setting that is as vivid and memorable as almost anything in our literature. Mark Twain would have loved them.

To read them in their original form in the Truman Library, in Independence, is to feel something close to direct touch with not only the man but also his world. It is why it is so absolutely right, in my view, that our presidential libraries be situated in the place of origin—the hometown, the country estate—and not all lumped in Washington, as some historians would have it.

In the research room of the Truman Library, the windows overlook the central courtyard where Harry and Bess Truman are buried, side by side. When you look up from your work you see the crowds of visitors streaming past outside, many of them obviously from abroad. In the distance, above the tree line, stands the town water tower, with the word Independence writ large.

The visitors stop to look at the graves, to read the inscriptions, or to take pictures. Their faces make an interesting study.

Truman died the day after Christmas of 1972, at the age of eighty-eight. The first morning I spent working with his letters at the library, I had the enormous pleasure of reading the following to Bess, written in his own clear hand one winter evening in 1911. “Farmers get all kinds of experience in lots of things though besides the best table manners. This morning I was helping dig a grave. It is not nearly such a sad proceeding as you’d think. There were six or seven of us, and we’d take turns at digging. Those who weren’t digging would sit around and tell the one who was how it ought to be done and tell lies about the holes they’d dug and the hogs they’d raised. We spent a very pleasant afternoon and then went to the funeral.”