Special Report—United We Stand

Literature Lessons: Firsthand Accounts

"No Words: September 11, NYC," Julia Lee Barclay

"Playing for the Fighting Sixty-Ninth," William Harvey


Literature and history are often intertwined. The form of literature perhaps most connected to current and historical events is called a firsthand account—a description of events, sometimes historic events, by someone who has witnessed or experienced them. When soldiers fought in the Civil War, their diaries, journals, and letters brought their experiences home to friends and family. More than a century later, soldiers fighting in the Gulf War kept up that literary tradition, writing letters and keeping journals that described events and expressed their feelings about the war. (You can read firsthand accounts of historic events in Prentice Hall Literature: Timeless Voices, Timeless Themes: The American Experience and The British Tradition.)

The events of September 11 create another chapter in the literary tradition of firsthand accounts. With the destruction of the World Trade Center and the attack on the Pentagon, new literature made immediately available recorded the human response to these events. The Internet has added a new element to the equation. Within days, people shared firsthand accounts and photographs through e-mails to family and friends around the world. People also included such accounts in newspaper articles, letters, and speeches.

In his Nobel Prize acceptance speech, William Faulkner said that literature had a responsibility to reflect the human spirit. In the wake of the terrorist attacks, literature is rising to the challenge, as writers look for ways to express their grief, to share their anxiety, to help in the rescue effort, or to be closer to others who are hurting or frightened. This literature has appeared in several forms:

  • Letters to tell family and friends about events, or to report about personal experiences
  • Letters to share personal thoughts or feelings
  • Letters or speeches written for a wider audience intended to persuade others to adopt a particular point of view
  • Speeches by public officials
  • Newspaper and magazine articles that describe the experiences of single individuals

The two selections above provide examples of writing born of the recent tragedies. Julia Lee Barclay wrote for a public reading on September 18. William Harvey wrote an e-mail to his family to describe his September 16 experiences at an armory in New York City where people went to get information about the missing.