Andrew Carroll '93: Man of
By Shira J. Boss '93
The letter is
on Hitler's stationery, written at the dictator's desk in his
Munich apartment on May 2, 1945, two days after his
"I saw a
swastika on it and thought, 'This is some neo-Nazi thing,'" says
Andrew Carroll '93. He received the letter in the mail as a
contribution to his War Legacy Project, which is gathering
thousands of wartime letters for preservation.
It turned out
to be authentic, a letter written by an American soldier sitting in
Hitler's chair at the very end of World War II. The troops were
securing buildings, and while going through particularly lavish
quarters, they realized they were inspecting Hitler's personal
apartment, one of several he maintained throughout
Horace Evers, 26 years old, sat down at the desk, took Hitler's
personal stationery embossed in gold, crossed out "Adolph Hitler"
and in its place wrote his own name. He then proceeded to write a
moving letter home to his mother and stepfather.
proximity of that is chilling," Carroll says. "That this was paper
from Hitler's desk - just that is incredible. But he goes on to
talk about the horrors of Dachau. Here he is at ground zero in many
ways, and he's writing about what Hitler had done."
is still alive, and the letter remained tucked away in his Florida
mobile home until he read about Carroll's War Legacy Project. "He
didn't realize the historical significance of it," Carroll says.
"Now every museum I've talked to wants this letter."
himself is a true man of letters. In addition to writing 50 to 100
of them per month (not including business correspondence or
e-mails), he is the editor of the best-selling Letters of a
Nation: A Collection of Extraordinary American Letters.
Recently he has been spending most nights perusing stacks of
first-hand accounts of fighting, homesickness, love and
perseverance from the American Revolution to Kosovo.
Legacy Project, conceived and run by Carroll, was featured on ABC's
Nightline on May 7. It is fueling an exhibition of soldiers' last
letters that opened at the Smithsonian's National Postal Museum on
November 11, Veteran's Day. That evening, A&E aired a
documentary about the project, which is getting attention in part
because it is the first mass appeal to Americans to preserve their
war letters and contribute some of them for archives and
publication. Mostly, says Carroll, it is popular because letters
transform textbook history into intimate encounters with those who
liked history. It seemed overwhelming, an onslaught of names and
dates. I couldn't get the narrative of it," Carroll admits. "But
once I started reading the letters, it came alive. You get the
unfolding of the drama, the things going on. You learn about human
however, are only part of Carroll's literary involvement. His work
on the War Legacy Project is all volunteer. His main job -
supported by fellowships and grants - is as director of the
American Poetry and Literacy Project in Washington, D.C. He founded
the non-profit organization with the late poet laureate Joseph
Brodsky shortly after Carroll's graduation from the College in
1993. Its mission is to bring poetry to the people, and so far
Carroll has orchestrated the giving away of a half million free
volumes of poetry. That includes handouts in libraries, hospitals,
truck stops, diners, prisons, hotels, grocery stores and jury
waiting rooms. When Brodsky used to describe their work he would
say, "We give away poetry anyplace people kill time," and then
would add under his breath, "as time kills them."
APLP has gotten poetry included in the Yellow Pages, 15 million
phone books countrywide.
It's a good
time to be a messenger. Poetry has been making a well-publicized
comeback in both reading and writing, and letter writing is
rallying as an appreciated art form.
While many of
his classmates claw their way past six-figure incomes, Carroll, 30,
the son of a publisher and a realtor, subsists on about $24,000 per
year and a conviction to nurture literacy. He runs both the letters
and poetry projects out of his one-bedroom apartment in D.C. and
has designed a Thoreau-like lifestyle. "I don't travel, I'm not a
slave to fashion, I rarely eat out and I don't eat any sugar or
caffeine," he says.
the lounge at Philosophy Hall on campus for a recent interview,
Carroll, with his casual khakis, unassuming backpack, and scholarly
looking horn-rimmed glasses, resembles any self-supporting graduate
student. Few would recognize him as having been featured on three
major television networks, Oprah, Tom Snyder, NPR and in the
country's top newspapers.
Carroll promote himself as a celebrity, or a micro-celeb, even
among friends. "He won't tell you about any of his successes until
after the fact, usually after you've read about it somewhere," says
his friend, Peter Leheny '92E, '96B. "He'll come up to New York,
we'll say, 'Great, you can crash here.' Then a couple days after,
we find out he was in New York to be interviewed by Peter Jennings
Legacy Project got its start with the Letters of a Nation
book. The "Letters of War" chapter contained mostly letters that
were previously unpublished. "It made me think there must be so
many other letters out there," Carroll says.
movie Saving Private Ryan last year and realizing how many veterans
are dying and their letters being lost moved him to get going on
the project. Carroll had the idea to ask Abigail Van Buren if she
would write a "Dear Abby" column for Veteran's Day asking people to
send copies of their war letters to the Legacy Project. She did,
and Carroll rented a post office box.
A few days
after the column was printed last fall, he got a call to come clear
out his mail. "Okay," he replied. "I'll bike right over."
"Bicycle?" the man responded. "Oh, no, you're going to need a
Bins and bins
of letters jump-started the Legacy Project. A year later, they
haven't stopped coming. In addition to some other publicity, the
original "Dear Abby" column is still getting passed hand-to-hand
and inspiring people to make contributions. Carroll estimates the
collection at about 15,000 letters. Some arrive as packets of
entire correspondences over years.
and say, 'There's nobody left but me, and I want someone to
remember what my father (or husband or whoever) did. Please hang
onto these," Carroll says.
Part of the
project's aim is to get more people to realize the value of these
our most cherished personal possessions," Carroll laments. "Kids go
through their parents' houses and throw out boxes of letters
without realizing what they're throwing out.
eyewitness accounts of battles, personal accounts of encounters
with generals, love letters that show the destruction of war. We
have Civil War letters that are marked with flecks of mud and
blood. There are Dear John letters that these guys have kept their
whole lives and still say, 'The war tore us apart.'"
A Civil War
soldier wrote a letter describing a deserter being executed by
firing squad. Many soldiers wrote about the horrors they saw
touring the concentration camps at the end of World War II. "I
cannot expect you to believe it," wrote a 25-year-old who helped
evacuate the Bergen-Belsen camp in 1945, "indeed I who have seen it
A series of
letters between a mother and her son spanned his being drafted,
boot camp, and eventually action on the front lines. In the early
letters the young soldier, who by mistake was drafted a year before
being eligible, begs his mother to correct the error and free him.
Eventually, he warms to being a soldier. The last letter was
written by his brother, who had returned home, as well as his
mother. They ask, "And when are you coming home?" not knowing the
young man already had been killed at Guadalcanal.
is run by Carroll and other volunteers. Right now they are
categorizing letters and responding to those who have sent them.
Some will be included in a planned book, the royalties from which
will be entirely donated to veterans' projects, Carroll says. "It's
very important to me that this is seen as clean and pure," he
through the letters, Carroll has himself become a kind of
are really peace letters," he observes. "Nobody writes about the
joy of war. It's all about the horrors. Letters, along with
diaries, are the best resources we have for understanding that
drama. When letters are lost, we all lose. Society at large
'Well, my husband wasn't famous, he was just a common soldier.' But
that's exactly the perspective we want."
especially searching out letters from pacifists and war resisters,
letters from the home front (which were harder to hang onto and so
are more scarce now), and letters "by those who haven't gotten
their due: nurses, women spies, African-American soldiers,
Japanese-American troops, Native American soldiers," Carroll says.
"Millions of people served in World War II alone. Fifteen thousand
letters isn't even the tip of the tip of the iceberg. All of the
stories are still out there - and the thought that they might be
lost if there's not a concerted effort to preserve
"Missing You: Last Letters from World War II" runs at the
Smithsonian's National Postal Museum from November 11, 1999 for six
contribute war letters to the Legacy Project, send photocopies with
a phone number to:
Project, P.O. Box 53250, Washington, D.C. 20009
project requests copies, some originals have been donated, and they
are being kept temporarily in two fire-safe vaults. In addition to
those that will go in the book, many more may be put on a website,
perhaps in an on-line archive. Others will be donated to museums or
libraries. Carroll's criteria for donating letters are that they
cannot ever be sold or thrown away and must be available to the
to public preservation, the Legacy Project encourages people to
care for their personal collections. The book and website will
include tips on how to preserve letters.
thing you can do is laminate them," Carroll says. "Just keep the
letter the way it is. Don't write on it, staple it, stamp it or
even put sticky notes on it. Just keep it in a safe, dry, dark
place." Preferably in acid-free folders, he adds.
fascination with letters - especially with preserving them - dates
to his sophomore year at Columbia, specifically Christmas, 1990,
when his house in Washington, D.C. burned down. "It made me much
less materialistic," he says. "Before that I'd wanted to go to Los
Angeles and be a filmmaker and make gobs of money."
destroyed boxes of letters he had been keeping in his closet: love
letters, notes from friends, dispatches from friends studying
overseas, including one who had witnessed the Tiananmen Square
uprising and wrote an account to Carroll.
also inspired by Ken Burns's documentary series on the Civil War,
which had just come out and used letters to add emotion to the
narrative. In his reading for Columbia classes, Carroll often came
across fragments of letters - sometimes a single quotation, often
with "those frustrating ellipses." He started jotting down
references to letters and put what he found in a folder. "It grew
fatter and fatter," he says. "This school could not have been a
better place at which to have this idea. It was a field
Carroll seven more years to track down the letters in their
entirety, to negotiate permission and to buy reprint rights, for
which he spent over half his book advance.
"He was able
to tell the history of the United States through correspondence,"
says Victoria Walch, an archival consultant in Iowa City, Iowa.
"It's easy for we archivists to get, like, 'Ho hum, it's just
another George Washington letter.' But [Carroll] brought so much
enthusiasm and excitement to it."
is annotated with an introduction and sometimes a follow-up. In
addition to letters of slavery, exploration, war, social concern,
love and death, the volume includes humorous gems such as E.B.
White writing to the ASPCA on getting a dog license, and Groucho
Marx writing to Warner Bros. responding to the company's protesting
Marx's film title, A Night in Casablanca. "Apparently there is more
than one way of conquering a city and holding it as your own,"
Marx's letter began. "Even if you plan on re-releasing your
picture, I am sure that the average movie fan could learn in time
to distinguish between Ingrid Bergman and Harpo."
that the most talked-about letter in the book is Elvis Presley
writing to President Nixon offering to help fight drug use in
from Columbians include Alexander Hamilton (Class of 1778) writing
to George Washington on the new Constitution, Thomas Merton '38 to
pen pal Henry Miller on them looking alike, Jack Kerouac '44 to his
friend Sebastian Sampas on living for "vodka, love and glory," and
Mark Rudd '69 to University President Grayson Kirk protesting
previously unpublished letters and some were written by people who
are not famous, such as a woman writing to her birth mother
wondering if they will ever meet.
a Nation was published in 1997 and became a national
bestseller, rising to No. 18 on The New York Times's list. The
hardcover went into three printings and the softcover is in its
seventh, together generating sales of 100,000 copies. Royalties
from it help support Carroll, who will not use any donation money
to APLP for overhead costs.
"I wanted to
show that letter writing is the most democratic art form there is,"
he says. "You don't need an instrument, paint, a canvas or a brush.
You only need pen and paper."
letter writing, he organized giving away the book to Amtrak
passengers along with a care package of stationery, stamped
envelopes and a fountain pen. Part of the outreach efforts of the
War Legacy Project, he says, is to get people to appreciate letters
and write more of them today.
"This is the
best time in history to write letters," Carroll says, "because we
have so many other options - faxes, e-mail, cell phones. When you
sit down to write a letter, you're making a decision to do that.
The implicit message is, 'You're worth the time.'"
confesses he was never a big fan of poetry, and can understand
readers of it being intimidated. His view was changed when he took
Kenneth Koch's class on poetry at Columbia. Then a friend of his
gave him a copy of a speech that Brodsky had delivered at the
Library of Congress advocating giving away poetry in supermarkets
and other public places.
"It was so
egalitarian, that poetry is for everyone," Carroll says. "I wrote
him a letter on a whim, not knowing who he was and definitely not
knowing that he'd won the Nobel Prize."
surprise, Brodsky, who was living in Greenwich Village, responded.
The two met and eventually founded the American Poetry and Literacy
Project, which Carroll has headed as executive director after
Brodsky's death in 1996.
to the project as a lover of books, wanting to encourage literacy
in all age groups. To use poetry as the vehicle came from
year of their giveaways was 1993. They handed out 10,000 volumes by
Joel Conarroe that had been donated by the Book of the Month Club
and they considered it a smashing success. Now APLP gives away
100,000 books per year.
end to the demand," Carroll says. "We could give out 10 million
books if we wanted to."
do. What prevents them is only funding. APLP's file of requests for
poetry books is three inches thick. Every $1 donation funds two
thrift editions of poetry books to be given away. General donations
fund handouts to non-profits, and corporations often sponsor large
giveaways. This year, Target stores contributed $150,000 for a
giveaway in-store and to teachers, and Lancôme sponsored a
love poetry giveaway. "We've also had old ladies send $5 and say,
'Can you send 10 books to my local hospital?'" Carroll
recipient of books is the Martin Luther King Memorial Library, the
main public library branch in Washington, D.C. "In downtown
Washington, there are a lot of people who come to the library who
don't own books," says Eleanor Dore, head of the language and
literacy division of the library. "It's such a special thing to
them to be able to own a book and have that in their
that the day after a poetry reading and giveaway organized by APLP,
an elderly black woman came back to the library and timidly asked
if there were any books left. Dore gave her a copy of
African-American Poetry. "She said it meant so much to her to have
"Occasionally, we'll get people asking, 'Are you for real
giving away poetry books? How come? How can you do that?' And I
tell them about Andy."
organizes readings and giveaways throughout the year, often
customized by date, location, or event. In 1999 their theme was
travel. During National Poetry Month they gave away a volume edited
by APLP, Songs for the Open Road: Poems of Travel &
Adventure, to 4,000 Peace Corps volunteers, 5,000 departing
U.S. Navy sailors, 10,000 Amtrak passengers and 40,000 buyers of
new Volkswagen cars.
They like to
give out copies of Poe's "The Raven" on Halloween, love poetry on
Valentine's Day and T.S. Eliot's "The Waste Land" ("April is the
cruelest month...") on tax day. "It's corny, but it makes it easy
to draw attention to poetry," Carroll says.
especially creative on a 6,500-mile cross-country trip during
National Poetry Month in April, 1998. He and "Winona," his Ryder
truck, carried tons of books to large metropolises and tiny
outposts. Among the books distributed were 101 Great American
Poems, African-American Poetry, Spanish-language poems and poetry
books on tape for the blind.
He gave away
love poetry in a 24-hour, drive-through wedding chapel in Las
Vegas, animal poems at the St. Louis zoo and Civil War poems at
Gettysburg. Drivers through the Walt Whitman toll bridge connecting
Philadelphia and New Jersey were handed a Whitman collection
featuring "Leaves of Grass." Visitors to the UFO Museum near Area
51 in Roswell, N.M. got Lost Lunar Baedeker: Poems of Mina Loy, and
customers at White Castle in Chicago got Scrambled Eggs &
Whiskey by Hayden Carruth, who refers to White Castle in one of the
verses. "He uses White Tower, but he meant White Castle," Carroll
Not all of
the pit stops fit as well as planned. Carroll kept an on-line
journal during the trip. The entry on April 6 is entitled "Mistakes
Were Made" and begins: "Apparently there's been a slight error.
Zanesville, Ohio, in Muskingham County is the pottery capital of
On the trip,
as well as during other giveaways, Carroll says he didn't get any
negative feedback. "But we get a lot of 'No, thank yous'" he says,
"and what I call the Hare Krishna look: 'What is this all about? Is
it a cult, a religion?'"
are looking for a catch, he says. "It's unusual that a giveaway is
the end. There's nothing else to do. We don't give away a book and
say, 'Now, if you want to join our little book
is associated with a follow-up, hotels were initially reluctant to
take up the APLP on its offer to place poetry books in rooms like
the Gideons place Bibles. "They finally realized we're just
promoting poetry, there's no ulterior motive," Carroll says,
although he remembers one hotel executive asking, "Who's this
Robert Frost guy you work for again?"
As soon as
the books were put into rooms, they were taken out by guests - to
the delight of Carroll. "That's the idea," he says.
theme is "poetry takes flight," for which Carroll is working on
getting a major airline to give away volumes on board and getting
NASA to put a poem in the space shuttle. He is also working on
placing a book of international poetry in every hotel room for the
2002 Olympics in Salt Lake City.
poetry give us incredible insight into human nature," Carroll says.
"It's why we like gossip. It tells us what makes people tick.
Letters and poetry do that."
About the Author:
Shira J. Boss '93, who holds graduate
degrees from the Journalism School ('97) and SIPA ('98),
contributes regularly to The Christian Science Monitor and Crain's
New York Business as well as CCT. She still writes letters sealed