About Letters from Erastus: Field Notes on Grace

Grace, that rare key to compassion and clarity, is the mortar of this book, which spans five generations, from letter-writer Erastus Hopkins, to his great-great granddaughter, author Anne Emerson.  Emerson, an artist in a family of artists, finds answers to the challenges of her twenty-first century life in letters written in the 1850’s, making this a riveting, timeless memoir illuminated by the past.  It is the kind of book that I long to give to a good friend.”

Sally Ryder Brady, author of A Box of Darkness

In the middle of the road of our lives, few among us would think to enter the doors of an august archive on Boston’s Fenway to browse through the contents of several acid-free manuscript boxes. But Anne Emerson did just that, and the result is a surprising confrontation with raw experience and emotion derived from real lives, past and present, recounted with quiet dignity in her remarkable family memoir, Letters from Erastus.

Megan Marshall, author of The Peabody Sisters and Margaret Fuller: A New American Life, winner of the 2014 Pulitzer Prize in biography and memoir.

In all the many hours I’ve spent reading the religious diaries and letters of 18th and 19th century New Englanders, or reading scholars’ studies of personal religion, I’ve never come across someone who penetrated the core of their inner lives so well as Anne Emerson has done with Erastus Hopkins.  In this amazing book, she deepens her own exploration of a life of love and loss by engaging Hopkins’ remarkable faith in the face of family tragedy and a young cousin’s equally profound descent into schizophrenia and violence.  As readers, we inhabit these spiritual worlds at once, and come away enthralled by the exercise.”

Richard Rabinowitz, author of The Spiritual Self in Everyday Life: The Transformation of Personal Experience in Nineteenth-Century New England


Most books tell either the story of the present or the story of the past.  Letters from Erastus tells the story of the present seeking and meeting the past, of the past nourishing and enriching the present.  Facing the crises that make up her own life, Emerson is consoled by her great-grandfather Erastus Hopkins.  His letters strengthen her faith and proffer comfort across the decades.  This wise book is a quietly passionate testament of the value of historic preservation.”

Michael Thurston, author of Making Something Happen: American Political Poetry between the World Wars



“An absorbing family memoir of triumph and tragedy rendered in lyrical prose.”

Bruce Laurie, author of Rebels in Paradise




Reviews from Amazon

By Shelly Eager April 26, 2015
Format: Paperback
I am not much of a reader, especially of books with an historical context, but I could not put this book down. While it certainly is a book based in history, it is the history of a New England family, and a very interesting one at that. Anne has woven a beautiful tale of her new found connection to her past. Through the discovery of some letters that were written by an ancestor, Erastus Hopkins, she has discovered and unleashed many of the questions and answers about why and who she is. I fell in love with the man Erastus Hopkins was, and his staunch beliefs in doing the right thing. His tenderness for his family and his softly rendered guidance to his children makes me long for what I never had. The poetic voice of his letters is echoed in the poetry Anne used to tell the story. It is beautifully written, deeply felt, and often quite revealing. I hope Anne, the artist, will put on canvas the story she now holds. I hope she will paint for her ancestors her own version of the portrait she found of Erastus.

A Contemporary Dilemma and a Timeless Response
By Robert Kinerk on May 17, 2015
Format: Paperback
Anne Emerson writes of an ancestor who studied for the ministry and a nephew who’s serving time for manslaughter. There’s a gap between those two extremes that’s probably familiar to many families. How to navigate that gap is what “Letters from Erastus” is largely about. What’s good about the book is that the ancestor with ministerial leanings does not come across as doctrinaire, and the nephew serving a manslaughter sentence is not so hardened he remains immune to sympathy. Ms. Emerson constructs a bridge of art between those poles of her family. Her passion is painting, which she took up after wearing many hats in civic and other affairs. Painting suggests a metaphor for a desire to perfect and the reality of imperfection. It is a pursuit that requires faith, and faith, in a very quiet way, is the rock upon which this warm and sensitive story rests.

Grace compounded
By D. E. Tingle on June 15, 2015
Format: Paperback
This book is an elegant time-and-culture capsule of an American subset that grows ever quieter in our public life: Yankee liberal Christianity. In the crass, noisy, ungenerous and contentious first decades of the American 21st century, there could hardly be a neater formula to invite neglect. This beautiful book by a genuine Emerson leaves its publicists a forbidding task.

Grace is distinctly the word. In the title, it invokes the Christian definition: the unearned yet unstinting blessing of a loving God. And Anne Emerson’s long-limbed, evocative and supple prose breathes grace — but in the more secular sense apposite to a book lover who might, like this reviewer, be an atheist. The grace here, of both kinds, makes me think of how insubstantial an atheism that has controlled the board for all of an adult life can nevertheless be, in the presence of humanity behaving well. The existential stakes are the same for the faithful and the unbelieving: joy and sorrow, love and more love, health and decrepitude, life and death — the usual stuff.

The conceptual bookends — but never the start nor the finish of this timeless enterprise — are Erastus Hopkins, Anne Emerson’s great-great-grandfather, and “Linc”, her incarcerated second cousin, a homicide and an opportunity for grace that’s still obscure. On the record, the sheer mass of intelligence, artistic talent and civic engagement in this extended family is humbling.

Letters from Erastus, in its global grace through generations living and dying in a cosmically infinitesimal space hard by Boston (which was not just incidentally understood to be the Hub of the Universe), reminds me to be content that I’m human and at least temporarily on the scene.

By Alfred J. Alcorn on July 24, 2015
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
In this keenly felt and deftly crafted book, Anne D. Emerson gives a vital new meaning to the phrase “extended family.” In Letters from ERASTUS Field Notes on Grace, the departed, through their resurrected words, reach across more than a century and a half to touch the living with their sympathy, their passion, and, most poignantly, with their love. Thus does Emerson recount how she not only found the letters that her great great grandfather Erastus Hopkins sent to his children (several of whom died young, as happened in those days), but passed some of these same letters on to her cousin Linc, an emotionally troubled young man incarcerated for manslaughter. In so doing, it’s as though this author has responded to a plaint in a poem by Seamus Heaney: “So much comes and is gone/that should be crystal and kept.”
It’s a remarkable book, nearly a new genre, a weaving of journal, memoir, history, family history, and, one might venture, inadvertent poetry. At a time when the American family is going from nuclear to atomized, Emerson presents us with a new, renewing vision of that beleaguered, exasperating, marvelous institution. To wit: those departed men and women lived and loved and are still with us in more than our genes if we would but beckon to them. It’s a vision of family that also looks forward. It reminds us that our own work and our own words may some day reach beyond us to touch and comfort those yet to come.

When I was a boy my great uncle wrote to me every Christmas
By Maurice on June 17, 2015

When I was a boy my great uncle wrote to me every Christmas from a thousand miles away. He bought me a war bond the day I was born. He sent me books. I carried his letters in my pockets until they faded or disintegrated. Never more than a page his message was clear, just like Erastus. My uncle wrote in calligraphy, an art form long gone, it seems. Letters From Erastus, is music to my ears. A concerto in L. Read it and you’ll know what I mean.

Maurice in Ottawa, Canada

Reflect and rejoice.
By Joan Tiffany on June 29, 2015

I loved this book because of the way Anne Emerson has intertwined the experiences of her family today with the letters of her great great grandfather. It is beautifully written, surprisingly (to me) personal and filled with insights that make you think about history, family and faith.
Read this book! It is a wonderful history of a New England family; however, more importantly, the story will make you reflect on events over which you may have little control and also rejoice about life’s small and large pleasures and revelations.

An untold weight of love
By Miriam Weinstein on June 8, 2015
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
Don’t we all wish that we could discover a mid-19th century ancestor who was an abolitionist, an exquisite writer, an emotionally wise and giving man? And wouldn’t we then wish that we could use his letters to help a young cousin in deep distress? Kudos to Anne Emerson for embarking on a remarkable journey, and for taking us along.

Emerson’s Book Is a Gentle Wonder
By Nancy Moses on June 11, 2015
Format: Paperback
Anne Emerson’s book, Field Notes on Grace, weaves past and present, memoir and spiritual musings. The book is gentle and wise, infused with the candid voice of a woman who continually strives for grace. Emerson’s book is a must-read for those of us who seek to integrate disparate elements of our lives and to enrich them with a spiritual dimension.