Book Review: Letters to Jackie: Condolences from a Grieving Nation

In the weeks following President Kennedy’s assassination, Jackie Kennedy received over 800,000 condolence letters. Professor Ellen Fitzpatrick sorted through over 200,000 of these letters in her latetst book, Letters to Jackie: Condolences from a Grieving Nation. I have to admit, as I was reading the book, I was a bit envious of the prospect of poking around in the letters myself. It must have been a treat and quite a task selecting the letters to include.

The book contains 250 letters sent to the first lady from Americans across the country. The letters range from clinical depression inducing (letters from widows whose husbands died when they heard that Kennedy had died) to the strange (a supporter who desired Mrs. Kennedy to send her one of the President’s socks). The letters are presented in sets, each with a specific theme. Among the most heart wrenching of letters are those from children, whose letters reflect not only their own sadness and confusion, but also that of their parents and communities. Also of note is a series of letters from African Americans expressing their deep gratitude for President Kennedy’s civil rights efforts.

Fitzpatrick does a fairly nice job of introducing each set of letters with the accompanying historical context, although I found myself wanting more substance at times. I was expecting a more intimate look at how Jackie coped with the President’s death, but instead was presented with an in-depth journey into the American psyche. In addition, after the book is complete, there is a short biography of each of the letter writers. I found this cumbersome and unusable after the fact; there was no mention of it in the introduction. It would have been better served to include the brief biographies with the letters themselves, as they would have provided additional perspective to the letters themselves.


Book Review: The Letters of John and Abigail Adams

This non-fiction classic is a collection of letters going between John and Abigail Adams written during the American Revolution. A lengthy introduction by the editor, Frank Shuffleton provides a thorough and interesting introduction to the lives and times of Mr. and Mrs. Adams. The content of the Adams’ letters range from, well, the revolutionary to the ordinary.
A good portion of the letters chronicle John and Abigail’s daily life – his in participating in the Continental Congress, and hers in raising the children and maintaining the Adams’ estate. Separated for long periods of time, the letters provide an in depth look at not only current events, but also the Adams’ marriage. Some of my favorite parts were when Abigail would gently chide John for not writing more often, and both parties frequently expressed their distress at the separation. The reader, like the Adams’ is plagued by the Revolutionary postal system, or the lack thereof. While the book is arranged chronologically, often several letters would pass before the other party had a chance to respond to a previous letter, making it difficult on the reader. Also making it difficult for a pleasure reader is the system of footnotes. Each letter is individually footnoted, and the reader must continually flip to the back of the book to gain historical reference. A time consuming task, that for me, because more troublesome than it was worth in that it broke up the “story”.

My favorite parts of the book often centered on Abigail’s political opinions, as her letters gave a unique insight into a woman’s perspective. I loved one particular letter in which she clearly expressed her opinion to John about the education of women: “If we mean to have heroes, statesmen, and philosophers, we should have learned women.” Abigail was, without a doubt, a woman ahead of her time. I would recommend this book to a Revolutionary War aficionado/history buff, or students looking for an amazing collection of Revolutionary primary source documents.