MELISSA BLOCK, host:
This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.
MICHELE NORRIS, host:
And I'm Michele Norris.
The White House says President Obama regularly reads a selection of citizen letters as a way to stay in touch with the American people.
Many presidents have reached into the mailbag. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, in particular, closely monitored the mail during a period of much greater economic turmoil.
Unidentified Man #1: November 15th, 1935.
Unidentified Man #2: November 7th, 1934.
Unidentified Woman #1: January 19th, 1934.
Unidentified Man #3: October 19th, 1935.
NORRIS: A new book compiles some of those letters to the White House.
Unidentified Man #4: Dear Mr. President, would you please direct the people in charge of the relief work in Georgia to issue provisions, plus other supplies, to our suffering colored people?
Unidentified Man #5: Dear Sir, could you live on $13 a week if you had a family of eight to support?
Unidentified Woman #2: Dear Mrs. Roosevelt, I am write to you to ask you if you would send me some of the clothes that is of no longer use to you. It would be…
Unidentified Man #6: Dear President Roosevelt, What I would like to know is this. How can a bank take our money and get by when an old couple have to let their houses go?
NORRIS: That's a sampling from the book, "Down and Out in the Great Depression: Letters from the Forgotten Man." Robert McElvaine is the editor. He says FDR used the letters to gauge how people were weathering the Depression.
Mr. ROBERT MCELVAINE (Editor, "Down and Out in the Great Depression: Letters from the Forgotten Man"): In the very beginning of his administration, there was no scientific opinion polling - it came in in 1936. But he always felt that getting a letter from somebody who was actually out there suffering and experiencing the New Deal programs was the best way to understand whether they were working or not.
NORRIS: I'm curious about what these letters actually looked like.
Mr. MCELVAINE: A large number of them came from people who were very poorly educated, some of whom were barely able to write a sentence at all, and many of those were written most commonly on a page torn from a notebook or anything that could be found. I remember a substantial number that were written on paper bags.
NORRIS: Can we talk about some of the letters? One that really struck me is on page 75, and someone writes, I write to ask if you would send me some of the clothes that are no longer of use to you.
Mr. MCELVAINE: Yes. And that sort of letter was actually very common. It's remarkable, women often writing to Eleanor Roosevelt and saying such things as you appear to be about the same size as I am. If you have any sort of old clothes that are no longer of use to you, please send them to me.
NORRIS: Did the first family ever answer these requests?
Mr. MCELVAINE: I don't believe they ever sent direct hand-me-downs from them. What they did with most of these letters was pass them along to relief agencies. And quite often the people would receive something, but it wouldn't be directly from the first family.
NORRIS: Which of these letters have stayed with you for all these years? Which letters really stand out?
Mr. MCELVAINE: Well, a number of them do. One that I really think about most is one that was from a 12-year-old boy in Chicago. Children in the Depression era seemed to quite often have taken on responsibilities that certainly in more recent decades, adolescents would not take on.
This one, for instance, says, my father, he's staying home. All the time he's crying because he can't find work. I told him, why are you crying, Daddy? And Daddy said, why shouldn't I cry when there's nothing in the house? I feel sorry for him. That night I couldn't sleep. The next morning, I wrote this letter to you in my room.
We're American citizens and were born in Chicago, Illinois, and I don't know why they don't help us. Please answer right away because we need it. We'll starve.
NORRIS: You get the sense in reading the children's letters, also, that there are no filters there, that they're saying things that their parents wouldn't say because of pride, or shame or something that might keep them from writing that letter.
Mr. MCELVAINE: That's exactly right. The children are talking directly to the problems and about the problems that they see. But this is really true of even of the adult letters. The thing, when I started going through these letters, that really struck me was that it was the first time I really thought I really had some feel for what it was like to be living in the Depression because this is unfiltered.
As good as some oral histories are, people remembering 30 or 40 years later isn't the same thing as how they felt at the time and these letters really provide that.
NORRIS: Well, Mr. McElvaine, it's been a pleasure to talk to you. Thanks so much. For your time.
Mr. MCELVAINE: Enjoyed talking with you, Michele.
NORRIS: That's Robert McElvaine. He's the editor of "Down and Out in the Great Depression: Letters from the Forgotten Man." And you can hear a longer sampling of the letters at npr.org.
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