What the Assassination of President Kennedy Meant to Americans in 1963

Ellen Fitzpatrick, University of New Hampshire

After the shots rang out in Dallas on November 22, 1963, Americans of all ages and backgrounds poured out their grief and reflections in condolence letters to Jacqueline Kennedy. Their eloquent words come alive in Fitzpatrick's book and in a film by Bill Couturié.

More than 1.5 million condolence letters reached Jackie Kennedy in the days and months after the shocking assassination of President Kennedy. Drawing on her widely praised book, Letters to Jackie: Condolences from a Grieving Nation, Fitzpatrick's brief shares what she found in the selection of 15,000 letters preserved at the Kennedy Presidential Library in Boston, Massachusetts. Americans had intensely personal reactions – and many also understood the tragic assassination through the lens of the civil rights struggles raging in the months before Kennedy's violent death.

As the half-century anniversary of the assassination approaches, writer-director Bill Couturié has assembled contemporary sounds and film footage to dramatize Kennedy's presidency and Americans' reactions to the shocking Dallas events. "Brilliantly conceived and beautifully crafted" is how reviewer Gary Goldstein describes the new film in a recent review in the Los Angeles Times. "Letters to Jackie" will be televised at 9pm on November 17 on TLC – and a trailer offers a glimpse of the documentary's power.

Ellen Fitzpatrick is a leading intellectual and political historian of modern America. Her previous books focus on progressive reformers and muckraking writers, and probe the evolution of historians' understandings of the nation's past from 1880 to 1980. She publishes regularly in leading magazines and newspapers and does interviews on radio and television. She has appeared regularly on the PBS Newshour to offer historical commentary on current political events.

November 2013