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The letter-writers in this collection are household names: Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, William Carlos Williams, Anne Bradstreet, Nelson Rockefeller, Frederick Law Olmsted…on and on, the list reads like a who’s who of America’s political and cultural past. But in addition to being great statesmen, writers, designers, philanthropists, and more, every person in this book was also a parent. It’s through the letters they wrote in this capacity, to their children, that we are offered a rare glimpse into the lesser-known private side of very public figures. In many of these letters, the brilliance and ambition that brought them fame shows itself in their careful advice to their offspring: study hard and beyond what is required; be good and faithful and disciplined; be strong and steadfast in the face of adversity. In others, full of compassion, anxiety, anger, penitence, and love, these American greats come across as intensely human. In their own words, Lawson’s collection brings us men and women at their proudest and most intimate, defining their personal legacy in their relationships to their heirs.

Questions and Topics for Discussion

1. Though most of the figures in the book are widely known and thoroughly studied, their personal letters often show a side of them overlooked by history books. Were you surprised by the content or tone of any of the letters? Did reading them change your opinion of any of the figures in the book?

2. Do any of the letters remind you of your own communications with family? What values do you feel you have in common with the correspondents?

3. One criticism of the current reliance on email and text messaging is that it’s difficult to convey tone and feeling accurately through the written word. Do you think this applies to the letters in the book, as well? How much emotion are you able to perceive through the writing? Are letters and emails similar or dissimilar in this way?

4. Many of the letters in the book, implicitly or explicitly, give the impression that the recipient is being groomed to continue a legacy of the parent. Whether John Quincy Adams, his father’s pride and joy; Frederick Olmsted, Jr., who was even renamed to take after his father; or John D. Rockefeller, Jr., who was tapped to continue his father’s philanthropic efforts, each was at the receiving end of much solemn advice and some prescriptions for self-improvement and some pretty tall orders for self-improvement and education. How do you imagine such letters were received? Do you find their contents useful, or overly proscriptive? How would you react to receiving such a letter from a parent?

5. Does any of the advice passed from parent to child in these letters strike you as particularly valuable? Do you take away any lessons for your own life?

6. Is there any advice in the letters that, with the benefit of hindsight, seems unwise or even inaccurate? Does any advice in the book strike you as ill conceived?

7. What do you think of the author’s selection of letters? Do you like the figures she chose? Whom would you opt to include or exclude?

8. Several of the letter-writers (Thomas Jefferson, Eugene O’Neill, Theodore Roosevelt, Frederick Law Olmsted, and N.C Wyeth among them) appear in a number of entries throughout the book, allowing the reader to get to know them through time and possibly to develop more of a relationship with them. Is there one writer who stands out as the one you grew to know the best? Is there anyone you would have liked to see more of?

9. Did any of the pull-out quotes in the text strike you as particularly apt, or moving? Which ones stood out? Were there instances where you would have chosen to highlight a different quote from that letter?

10. Do you find the author’s introductions to each letter helpful? Do you find her point of view objective, or do her comments betray certain favorites among the letter writers?

11. Of the figures in the book, who is the best parent, in your view? Who seems to fall short?

12. In your own life, how do you decide what letters to keep for yourself or for posterity?

13. Some of the letters in this book are timeless, and some firmly set the writer in a particular time and place. Which letters did you think gave timeless wisdom, and which were more specific to circumstance or setting?

14. Which letters were your favorites? Were there any that particularly piqued your interest and made you want to learn more about the person who wrote them?

15. If, a century from now, your letters, emails, or text messages were to be included in a similar collection, what impression would they give the reader? What would you want for them to convey? Are there any particular letters–yours or someone else’s–that you’d like to think will be preserved?

About this Author

Dorie McCullough Lawson is the author of the novel Along Comes a Stranger.  She lives in Maine with her husband and four children.
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