The letters in this treasure-trove date from September 1630--when John Winthrop, newly ensconced as governor of Massachusetts, wrote to his wife in England--to August 1996, when a young adopted woman named Michelle Song addressed a moving letter to her yet-undiscovered birth mother. In between are more than 200 other epistles--written by the celebrated and the obscure, the powerful and the powerless--that in aggregate paint a revealing portrait of the United States. The collection's range is enormous--from Groucho Marx's hilarious 1947 tirade to Warner Brothers, which was trying to block him from using A Night in Casablanca as a movie title, to a June 1744 letter from "The Indians of the Six Nations" to William & Mary College, politely declining an offer to educate some of their young (and noting that some previous white-educated Indians "were bad Runners, ignorant of every means of living in the Woods, unable to bear either Cold or Hunger, knew neither how to build a Cabin, take a Deer, or kill an Enemy, spoke our language imperfectly, were therefore neither fit for Hunters, Warriors, or Counsellors.")
Whenever possible, editor Andrew Carroll presents the letters in their original form, complete with capitalization and spelling quirks (including misspellings), which adds to their vividness. His brief introductions tell just enough about each letter without overshadowing their subjects. This splendidly presented piece of research offers a revealing, eminently readable window onto America's past.