Summertime, and the reading is …

Cover of "Posterity: Letters of Great Ame...

Cover via Amazon

It’s summertime. For many, it’s reading time. In a little departure today, I’d like to share one good read that has a subtle but important message for anyone who has aspirations of changing the world.

“That old barn is terribly lonely for me alone,” President Harry Truman wrote to his daughter Margaret from Berlin in 1945. “Especially since I’m so hemmed it.” President Truman had just met with Stalin and Churchill at Potsdam. Just hours before, the decision had been made that would issue in the atomic age.

His life was arching on a plane that was historic, yet in the hot summer of 1945, Mr. Truman bemoaned the loneliness of the White House without his beloved wife and daughter. He was, after all, an ordinary man.

President Truman’s letter is part of a collection of letters edited by Dorie McCullough Lawson, daughter of writer David McCullough and brother of David McCullough Jr., recently in the news for telling a group of high-school graduates that they were not special at all.

The younger Mr. McCullough has a point. And his sister’s book underlines it.

In her gem of a book, Posterity: Letters of Great Americans to Their Children, Lawson reveals the letters of famous Americans. The letters — some clever, some scolding, many quotidian —  display something quite interesting. By in large, the authors of these private communications are ordinary people, subject to the same mundanity that we all face.

Writer Jack London railed on his daughter for her failure to write and visit him. F. Scott Fitzgerald reminded his daughter that there is little point in worrying about insects in general, the past and boys. Actor Hume Cronyn warned his daughter of the perils of opinionating. “The barbarian lies miserably close under the skin of us all,” he wrote of his hope for understanding.

Alexander Graham Bell sent jokes to his daughter “Daisy”: What is the longest word in the English language? The word ‘smiles,’ because there is a mile between the first and last letters. Groucho Marx’s dog wrote to Groucho’s son Art: “….the letters you receive nobody mentions my name. This is not unusual; it happens to many dogs.” Moe Howard (of Three Stooges fame) crocheted afghans in his spare time.

Albert Einstein, John Steinbeck, Mary Todd Lincoln, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, John J. Pershing, George Catlin, W.E.B. Dubois, Frederick Law Olmstead, John D. Rockefeller and the many other letter writers in McCullough’s book all left lasting impressions on the world.

But as their letters so poignantly detail, they were more like us than one might think. Mr. Truman hated living in the “old barn.” Woodrow Wilson missed his daughter. Harriet Beecher Stowe expressed weariness. Abigail Adams struggled to make ends meet. Eugene O’Neill was disappointed in his son Shane. Jack London suffered family problems. George Patton was good at sermonizing. Woody Guthrie knew hardship and infirmity.

In Lawson’s rich collection of letters, these “great” American feel much more like us. What made them famous is what they did with their lives. In the final analysis, the young McCulloughs confirm that ordinary people become extraordinary people not by who they are but by what they do.

You don’t have to be special — you have to “do” special.

So, what are you reading this summer that is making you think????


About James Madison University
This blog is about the people of James Madison University — a caring, committed and engaged community spread all over the world, making lives better and brighter, healthier and safer, kinder and bolder. As Gandhi suggested, we are taking steps to BE the CHANGE we wish to see in the world. And these are our stories....

One Response to Summertime, and the reading is …

  1. Pingback: Actor hune | Beyondnauvoo

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