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Cannonball Read #39: Letters to Jackie

04/18/2010

Letters to Jackie: Condolences from a Grieving Nation is a wonderful book that I urge you to read. This collection of letters sent to Jaqueline Kennedy after the assassination of her husband is so powerful and moving, I had a lump in my throat for much of the time I was reading it – ouch!

What is remarkable about the letters sent to Kennedy, was not only the sheer numbers

” When the condolence mail was officially deeded over to the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library in Boston in 1965, it comprised some 1,570 linear feet (that is, the boxes would have extended more than a quarter of a mile if laid end to end).”

but the fact that they were written at all. The average citizen in 1963 was very private compared to today’s standards. Many of us think nothing of posting our deepest (and shallowest) thoughts on the internet on at least an hourly basis. However, at the time of JFK’s death:

“The early 1960’s, in this respect, seems closer to the Victorian era than to modern America… In a sense, the letters many Americans sent to Jaqueline Kennedy seem paradoxical–a fact the writers themselves were acutely aware of at the time. For they revealed deep emotion to a public figure with whom they lacked a close personal relationship.”

The education and writing skill varies with each letter, and the authors have kept them, in for the most part, as written. Letters from a few famous people such as General Macarthur and Langston Hughes are included, but the majority are regular American people, young and old, from all kinds of backgrounds. However they had all been affected  by the president and his family in some way,

“‘The fact of the matter is,” a Californian pointed out, ‘is that both you and your late husband grew very dear to us…during the all too few years we had to get acquainted with you through the media”‘

The advent of television made the Kennedys feel like members of the letter writers’ families, and that made it easier for the normally reticent individual to express his/her feelings.

The letters are quite varied, some addressed to Mrs. Kennedy and some directly to her children. Many related their past meeting of Pres. Kennedy, or of a moment where he had influenced or inspired the writer’s life. One woman writes a poignent letter about trying to help in JFK’s election and driving an elderly illiterate black man to the polls who was then turned away from voting due to a literacy test (the election was before the Voting Rights Act of 1965). Another is from the doctor who intubated the Kennedys’ son at birth.  Many of the letters apologize for burdening Mrs. Kennedy with their  condolences, and some ask for pictures or mementos (one asks for JFK’s suit!) even within the same letter!

Many Americans had experienced losses of their own, and their letters are particularly touching and raw. One sweet and sad letter is shown in as a photograph on the page, along with photograph of the writer laid on top, a young African American boy saluting the camera.

December 1, 1963

In 1963 September 23

Some mean man killed my dady too. Here in Dallas. My dady was a soldrer.

Sanda Clause diden get my letter

I hope he will get my letter. i wont a bicycle

when you write him- tell him my name

Monroe Young Jr.

A thoughtful index at the end of the book gives a brief biography of Mr. Young, who had been seven at the time of the assassination.

“The letter writers or their heirs were invited to provide a brief biographical statement about the letter writer. Some wished to remain largely anonymous, while others offered varying material and observations.”

This end material is interesting as well.

I wasn’t born when JFK was killed, but I have heard how my parents and those alive then can still recall where they were when they heard the news. I can sympathize with my remembrance of 9/11 or the Challenger explosion.  But the eloquence and raw pain expressed to Mrs. Kennedy by the nation during a time of societal reticence really is quite moving.

The enormous amount of letters posed great problems for the Kenndey Presidential Library. Eventually the National Archives had to destroy all but a fraction of the letters.  The archivists saved letters from each major category of their system, along with “a random sample of 3 linear feed (approximately 3,000 letters) of the general condolence email from Americans ‘as an example of the original inflow of messages to Mrs. Kennedy.'”

I’m so glad the editors were able to tell us about Monroe Young, Jr. and the others, and I highly recommend Letters to Jackie as a snapshot of the time and hearts of the world.

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