In the first days and years of the Peace Corps there were many books written by people who had never been PCVs, never worked for the agency, never worked overseas, and never volunteer for anything, but were academics or free lance writers who saw a great new subject areas that they could write about, especially since no one knew anything about who, what, where, when and how the Peace Corps might develop or what would happen to all those bright young people joining up and going off to live in the middle of nowhere.
A small cottage industry of ‘Peace Corps books’ began in the publishing world at a time when there were no Volunteers.
Over the years I have haunted yard sales and bookstores and now the Internet and have collected enough of those books to cause my wife to roll her eyes whenever I come home clutching another history or anthropological study of the first Peace Corps years. The best books, of course, are those coffee table size ones full of photos of hard-working PCVs with happy faced HCNs. It is enough to make you want to barf.
Here, in no particularly order, are a few ‘classic’ titles of those early book treasures.
The very first book on ‘us’ was New Frontiers For American Youth by Maurice L. Albertson, Andrew E. Rice, and Pauline E. Birkey published in 1961 by the Public Affairs Press of Washington, D.C. This book is based on the work they had done at the Colorado State University Research Foundation funded by a grant from the the U.S. Congress. While it is full of information about ‘what the Peace Corps is all about” there were no Volunteers interviewed or were they consulted (at the time there weren’t any PCVs).
However, this book has reprinted some great early newspaper and magazine cartoons featuring PCVs. The Peace Corps was a new subject for cartoonists, too, and they cut us to the bone. These cartoons are almost worth the price of the book, which by the way in 1961 was $4.50. And it was a hardback.
That all said, Maurice Albertson of Colorado State was a great believer in the Peace Corps, an early and strong supporter of the agency, and an important voice in outlining what the Peace Corps would become over time. We owe him a great deal.
Co-author Pauline Birky-Kreutzer, by the way, would go onto write her own book on this early study entitled Peace Corps Pioneer or “The Perils of Pauline“. Pauline would do several training sessions of early Volunteers. Her book was self-published in 2003 when she was living in a retirement community in Arizona.
Also published in 1961 was Charles E. Wingenbach’s paperback: The Peace Corps Who, How, And Where with a Foreword by Senator Hubert H. Humphrey and a quote from Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson on the jacket. This paperback adds little to what is known about the agency in those early years, but it does gives a quick summary of the first weeks and months in 1961 when the agency was being constructed.
One of my favorite books from this period is a novel by Wiliam Sayres entitled Do Good. Sayres was another anthropologist who had gone to Harvard (where else?) and was one of the Peace Corps Trainers of the first PCVs to Colombia.
Sayres’ novel is about a new PCV who goes to a Latin American village. The flap copy reads, “a Harvard anthropologist laconically unfolds the story of a Peace Corps reject coming of age in the bush….Peter is a twenty-two-year-old American, a seeker of Basic Truth, a pussy-cat Quixote. Peter has come to help.”
It has been my experience that many anthropologists disliked those first PCVs. They saw us coming into their private domain and playing around with their toys, i.e., HCNs. I’ve never met an anthropologist back then who had kind words to say about the work of the Peace Corps. I am sure, of course, that friendly anthropologists are there, and also quite a few RPCVs came home again and became anthropologists.
Meanwhile, we have more books about the Peace Corps written by non-volunteers. U.S. Peace Corps: The Challenge of Good Will by Susan Whittlesey and published in 1963 by Coward-McCann. This is an ‘inside-out’ book as Susan was on the staff of the old (very old) Peace Corps publication called The Volunteer. It was a monthly magazine and she hustled this book ‘on her free time’ it says (well, she won’t get away with that today, given our Peace Corps lawyers!). She uses in her book the Peace Corps photos of early great Peace Corps photographers: Paul Conklin, Phil Hardberger, and my favorite photographer, Rowland Scherman.
Susan didn’t go to Harvard. She went to Smith College, and before going to the Peace Corps she worked for the Berkshire Eagle, once a great newspaper in Pittsfield, Mass, and did a number of international tours, but never was a PCV. Her account (with plenty of photographs) is really a YA book for high school students, as were many of those first publications about the Peace Corps. These books were aimed at the ‘youth market.’ Remember the first name for the Peace Corps was “Youth Peace Corps” until Kennedy took ‘youth’ out of the title when he made his famous speech at the Cow Palace outlining his new agency in the last days of his campaign for the presidency.
Another early book was a collection of letters called, of course, Letters from the Peace Corps, selected and edited by Iris Luce and published in 1964. Luce was working then for the Division of Volunteer Support and reading early letters by PCVs sent back to Peace Corps Headquarters. She self-published that book. I am particulary fond of Luce’s book as it has one of my letters in it (page 49). Also published in ’64 was Sargent Shriver’s Point of The Lance, a collection of his speeches and commencement addresses that gives a positive Shriver view of the Peace Corps. This is a useful book to understand the thinking and vision that Shriver (and his writers) had about the new agency.
There are other early books that I will detail in my next blog, but these are a few of the very first in the long hisotry of the Peace Corps.
What these writers were trying to do was tell our stories even before we had a chance it tell it ourselves. Next time, I’ll talk about the books written by early PCVs, and how we began to write our own history in poetry and prose and now on the Internet with blogs from all over the Third World. Who would have imagined that the Peace Corps story would begin with letter home written on thin aerogrammes that would take days to reach American and now is immediately told and available in cyberspace?