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Letters of a Most Uncommon Common Man

July 2024
10min read

Harry Truman’s lifetime correspondence with his adored Bess opens a window on their time

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.)

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.”

HE LIVES FOR HER letters he tells her again and again all through their long courtship and on into married life whenever they are apart. He writes, he says, only to get her to write back and because, “I can never say what I feel when I see you. …” But the impression is also of somebody driven by nature to write, and to write mainly about himself. In all he has to say to his adored Bess, in more than five hundred printed pages, we learn hardly anything about her, which is a shame, since she was far more important than has been generally understood.

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.

Dearest of all to him are the three women in his life—Mamma, “for whom there is no substitute,” Margaret, his “Baby, ” and Bess, who, as he tells her time and again, is the finest, most beautiful girl in the world. He is burning with ambition chiefly to please them, to be worthy of them. “There’s no one wants to win half so badly as I do, ” he writes to Bess in 1916 when he’s looking into a Texas land speculation. “I am so crazy to make things go I can hardly stand it,” he confides later, when he’s caught up in a mining venture in Oklahoma. He had first proposed to her (by letter) in 1911, and she was still keeping him waiting. As it turned out, they weren’t married until he returned from the war in June 1919, when he was thirty-five, she a year younger. Ten years later, having at last made a name for himself in local politics, he would tell her, “I might even have been a financial success if I’d started with you sooner.” And twenty years later still, as President, he would write, “I hope to make you a happy wife and a happy mother. Did I? I don’t know. All I can say [is] I tried. There is no one in the world anyway who can look down on you or your daughter.”

It is the high-hats and the stuffed shirts of the world, those who are nearly always looking down at someone, who figure foremost among his pet dislikes. He also has little use for coffee, cigarettes, guns, California (“rich and God forsaken,” he calls it), dentists, lawyers, J. Edgar Hoover, Joe Kennedy, jaywalkers, and daylight saving time. Interestingly he doesn’t seem to care much for Franklin Roosevelt either. To Bess at least, he portrays Roosevelt as a supreme egotist, unreliable, an easy dispenser of “hooey.”

In judging himself, Truman is characteristically direct and, in sum, pleased. He has a “gift of conversation, ” he knows, and a good smile. He proves an exceptionally able officer in the war, with a marked gift for leadership, and he is as proud of that as anything he ever accomplishes. In Washington, as a senator, he can outwork just about anybody. If he has no talent for making money, then, he tells Bess, no Truman ever did.

The letters also show him to have been more softhearted and far more affected by emotional and mental strain than he let on. The Harry Truman who makes the toughest sort of decision, then goes upstairs and goes immediately to sleep, is not the man encountered here. As a county official during the Depression, he has to fire some two hundred people in a single day, at the end of which, at home alone, he vomits his supper and is sick much of the night. Later, faced by the “continual pounding” of his Senate work load, always desperately short of money, he suffers from insomnia and savage headaches.

FOR SOMEONE WHO read all that he did and was so fond of history, there is surprisingly little said about the happenings of the world at large, even in the Washington years. Nor do such figures as Tom Pendergast or Dean Acheson or George Marshall, men who mattered vitally in his public life, receive much more than passing mention. But then, throughout, there come those lines that are so superbly, characteristically Harry Truman—the straightforward, bedrock philosophy.

He obviously wrote with no self-serving sense of “history” watching over his shoulder.

“I don’t expect to go into anything where I can’t say what I please when I please,” he tells Bess in 1918 contemplating his future.

“I want her to do everything,” he says later of their child, “and have everything and still learn that most people have to work to live, and I don’t want her to be high hat.”

“Politics should make a thief, a roué, and a pessimist of anyone, but I don’t believe I am any of them,” he concludes in 1933, on the eve of his first run for the Senate.

While his talk of niggers or of the Chink doctor who attends his dying father, of kikes in the Army and New York, is disturbing, it is also a sure sign that he wrote with no self-serving sense of “history” watching over his shoulder. Besides, the Chink is “more honest and trustworthy” than any doctor he knows. For his partner in his first business venture, the ill-fated Kansas City haberdashery, he chooses a Jew, his Army friend, Eddie Jacobson, and Eddie Jacobson is a “crackerjack.” As President, moved in part by Jacobson’s impassioned views, he would provide the crucial support of Israel.

Once, in 1949, as Truman was beginning his second term, the writer Jonathan Daniels, who was working on a Truman biography, came to Independence to soak up some of the local atmosphere. At one point, as he was being driven out to the Truman farm by Truman’s sister, Mary Jane, she turned to him and said, “You know, Harry isn’t any more in favor of nigger equality than I am.” But she was wrong. Harry had changed, where she and others hadn’t. He became a champion of civil rights because, as Daniels and others knew, it was a matter about which he felt strongly. The change was a measure of his growth, his underlying decency.

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.”

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