Dear Mrs. Roosevelt: Letters from Children of the Great Depression

Dear Mrs. Roosevelt: Letters from Children of the Great Depression

by Robert Cohen

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Dear Mrs. Roosevelt: Letters from Children of the Great Depression

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
An honest, splendid depiction of the hopes, fears, vulnerability, and aloofness that both Eleanor Roosevelt and the children who wrote her needed to survive the Depression. (Allida Black, editor of The Eleanor Roosevelt Papers)

Poignant, heartfelt, and brimming with childlike faith, these missives represent a portion of the population often overlooked by historians. (Booklist)

A must-read for anyone concerned about poverty and its impact on the young. (David N. Dinkins, former mayor of New York City)

A world of deep need comes into focus through a sampling of letters written by young people to Eleanor Roosevelt during the 1930s, the years when the Great Depression caused great economic and social distress. Ninety percent of the letters requesting aid of the president and his wife during this time were written by adults, but Cohen's search through archives reveals that children and teens, girls more often than boys, also wrote. Mrs. Roosevelt composed columns for the newspapers of the time and made radio broadcasts in which she spoke of great concern for the poverty-stricken state of the population, especially the youth, and invited listeners to write to her. President Roosevelt, in a memorable speech, said that one third of the nation was "ill clothed, ill housed, and ill fed," and here is very human evidence that he was correct. Cohen introduces the letters at length, and examples of the letters are clustered in chapters, which also begin with interpretive material. The letters almost always start with a note of apology for writing, and then reveal a heartrending desperation. The great majority of the writers requested clothing and imagined that Mrs. Roosevelt could dip into an extensive wardrobe of her personal discards or into a trove of used clothing it was rumored was stored in the White House attic. They believed that she could send them a package by return mail. It appears that the lack of proper clothing meant not only that the young people could not protect their bodies from the elements, but that it degraded them socially and prevented them from participating in important events surrounding high school graduation. Many asked for money and often offered to pay it back withinterest. They wanted it for daily needs (requests for food are surprisingly largely absent, and doctors reported little evidence of starvation), for gifts and bicycles, for medical and dental care for themselves and their families, and for books, tuition and typewriters. Government agencies developed income scales with which they estimated the lifestyle achievable at varying levels, and many of the correspondents clearly fell well below the minimum at which a family could sustain life with dignity. A final brief chapter comments on the response of Mrs. Roosevelt and her staff to the letters. A very few were answered fulfilling the request; most received rather cool form letters telling the writer that, because of the many similar letters Mrs. Roosevelt received, she could not send the desired aid. The editor feels the staff could have done a better job of personalizing the replies. The editor's essays are scholarly and will be challenging reading for most high school students, but they will appreciate the letters for how, through them, their counterparts of the 1930s become real persons. Teachers who treat the period will be delighted to find this fresh material on the library shelf. KLIATT Codes: SA—Recommended for senior high school students, advanced students, and adults. 2002, Univ. of North Carolina Press, 266p. illus. notes. index., Boardman

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The University of North Carolina Press
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6.08(w) x 9.38(h) x 0.66(d)

What People are saying about this

From the Publisher
After sifting through thousands of letters written by children to Eleanor Roosevelt in the 1930s Robert Cohen has masterfully organized several hundred into a rare and insightful look at Depression America. . . . This book offers a unique look into the American family from an insider's perspective at a time of great turmoil, and of all the academic studies on the Depression, none can offer what the children can. . . . We stand to learn a great deal from their words, and Dear Mrs. Roosevelt is a powerful vehicle for anyone willing to listen.—Journal of Children and Poverty

Poignant, heartfelt, and brimming with childlike faith, these missives represent a portion of the population often overlooked by historians eager to capture the heart and soul of Depression America. . . . A priceless primary resource for both amateur historians and Depression scholars. . . . Teens will be caught by the personal history and by the hopes and dreams similar to their own.—Booklist

The clear, real voice of people experiencing directly the conditions of the Great Depression will serve as a strong motivation for students of the Depression to learn more. . . . Although the letters stem from Depression conditions, they express needs that are universal: food, shelter, clothing, and better social conditions. The universality of the feelings and needs expressed in these letters make a strong bridge to an earlier time.—History of Education Quarterly

Cohen has assembled an excellent book that not only adds to our knowledge of how the Depression affected the lives of Americans, but also places the letters children wrote to the First Lady in an analytic framework that helps readers more fully understand the Depression and appreciate the magnitude of its grip upon the country.—Presidential Studies Quarterly

The simple eloquence of these letters, the stories they tell, and the pains and aspirations they convey make them extraordinarily powerful documents. The reader sees and feels the Great Depression through the voices of America's children and teenagers at a time when their imaginative powers and perceptions of reality were bound to be heightened.—Leon F. Litwack, University of California, Berkeley

This well-edited volume adds a new dimension to Eleanor Roosevelt scholarship, picturing her as a vulnerable human being unable to respond to numerous personal appeals from children for aid during the Great Depression. Filled with the touching voices of poverty-stricken juveniles, this book nevertheless testifies to the faith of Americans of an earlier era in their government and its leaders.—Maurine H. Beasley, University of Maryland

Dear Mrs. Roosevelt offers a rich documentary history of Depression America's young people—their troubles and fears, their hopes and dreams. It also reminds us that government can inspire the confidence of the nation's most vulnerable citizens—children of poverty—when it shows the kind of compassion that Eleanor Roosevelt embodied. This is a must-read for anyone concerned about poverty and its impact on the young.—David N. Dinkins, former mayor of New York City and professor in the practice of public affairs, Columbia University

Robert Cohen has reaped a rich harvest from the thousands of letters sent to Eleanor Roosevelt by young people during the Great Depression. The letters are often wrenchingly sad, but at times eloquent or funny, in recounting the limitations placed on these young lives by poverty. The organization of the letters under subject headings and Cohen's excellent commentary place the letters in their historical context and help the reader understand their significance.—John F. Sears, associate editor of The Eleanor Roosevelt Papers

[Dear Mrs. Roosevelt: Letters from Children of the Great Depression] is a revealing look into how the youngest in America were shaped by the Depression, and how they sought assistance from the First Lady.—Teaching History

A fine display of children's historical voice and an engaging interpretation of the 1930s. . . . A model history of childhood. . . . Especially valuable in helping the reader obtain a peek at young people's unique way of looking at the world.—NEWDEAL




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