Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Other than that, Mrs. Lincoln, how did you enjoy the play?

Reading a biography is always kind of interesting. It's pretty common for the reader to discover that the biographer really did not like his or her subject matter. In fact, some biographies are born out of a writer or a historian's strong antipathy towards a subject; the writer wants to prove just what a flaming asshat the person was.

I'm not sure just what motivated Jennifer Fleischner to write Mrs. Lincoln and Mrs. Keckly, but, wow, Fleischner definitely despised Mary Todd Lincoln. She basically concludes that Mary was a totally self-centered harridan who made Lincoln's life hell and deserved to die crazy and alone. On the other hand, Elizabeth ("Lizzy") Keckly, the former slave and dressmaker who wrote a tell-all about her association with the Lincolns, was one step away from sainthood because of her pluck and business skills. Doesn't matter what Mary does, Fleischner figures out a way to put a negative spin on it. Doesn't matter what Lizzy does, Fleischner turns it into a positive. I don't think I've ever seen a biographer before who even seemed to begrudge the fact her subject managed to have a decent burial. Fleischner manages that neat trick by contrasting Mary Lincoln's current resting place (next to her husband in an elaborate tomb in Springfield, Illinois) with Elizabeth Keckly's (unknown) in a way that makes it seem like it's Mary's fault Elizabeth didn't end up in a high dollar mausoleum, too.

I read a couple reviews of this book in which the reviewers seemed to think Fleischner painted Mary Lincoln in a sympathetic light. Well, maybe it's just me, but I don't see where calling Mary Lincoln self-centered or a narcissist when she breaks down with grief over the death of a child is a particularly sympathetic move on the part of a biographer. Her suggesting over and over that Abraham Lincoln never really loved his wife, that he was pressured into marrying her because he'd started courting her and couldn't figure out a way to extricate himself, also struck me as bizarre. It is true that Lincoln loved another woman before he met Mary. All his biographers agree he truly loved Ann Rutledge and was devastated when she died. That doesn't mean he was incapable of ever loving anyone else. I couldn't figure out just why Fleischner was so insistent on portraying the Lincolns as being trapped in a loveless marriage, especially when there's a fair amount of documentation showing that wasn't true. Not many letters between the couple survive (their son Robert burnt most of them in the 1890s), but the ones that do have been described by other historians and biographers as affectionate.

It is true Mary had a volatile personality. It is possible, if one wanted to indulge in retroactive psychoanalysis, that she suffered from bipolar disorder. She did seem to go through manic periods. Another possibility Fleischner suggests is that Mary had untreated diabetes. Both hypoglycemia and hyperglycemia can affect a person's behavior. On the other hand, in Team of Rivals Doris Kearns Goodwin described many of the same situations Fleischner does and put an entirely different spin on them. According to Kearns Goodwin, Mary's spending spree on furnishings for the White House wasn't a mindless spending spree to feed her own ego but an attempt to refurbish the President's residence after several decades of neglect. She wasn't indulging in shopping for her own gratification but in attempt to make the White House worthy of its public role. Unfortunately, she was unbelievably bad with money. She never met a budget she couldn't destroy. She'd grown up in a household where money was never an issue, and, once Abraham Lincoln became a successful lawyer, hadn't had to worry about a budget before getting to the White House.

For that matter, Kearns Goodwin describes a number of incidents that Fleischner glosses over. Fleischer describes Mary as visiting wounded soldiers once; Kearns Goodwin notes that Mary volunteered at the hospitals many times and would spend hours talking with and comforting the soldiers. She wrote letters for them, read to them, put in long hours, and avoided having her visits publicized, which is hardly the behavior of a self-centered harridan.

The parts of the book that focused on Elizabeth Keckly tended to tilt the other way. Elizabeth is the plucky heroine coping with adversity, she endures the hardships of slavery as well as the indignity of being owned by people who are just unbelievably bad with money -- Virginia planters who by birth are the closest thing this country would have to an aristocracy but through incompetence and over-breeding (when you have a zillion children, a family fortune can disappear pretty fast) are the equivalent of the impoverished vicars and down-at-the-heel landed gentry in 19th century English novels. In a Bronte novel, the daughters would all end up as governesses. In the real world of antebellum Virginia, the women struggled as poorly paid schoolteachers trying to operate private academies out of their own homes and the men became lawyers with not enough clients to prevent them from continually falling into debt. One of the ongoing features of Elizabeth Keckly's early life is that her owners, the Burwells, seem to be perpetually dodging bill collectors or bankruptcy.

The fact that Elizabeth manages to avoid being sold down the river is fairly notable in itself, slaves being one of the easily liquidated assets impoverished Virginia planters had, but she does. The Burwells take great pride in not ever selling any of "their people." Of course, how much of that determination not to sell was moral fortitude and how much was reluctance to try untangling a legal entailment to the Burwell estate that prevented selling slaves easily is debatable. They may have just been reluctant to spend money on attorney fees if challenged by another family member. In any case, instead of being sold, slaves were lent or bequeathed to family members. Elizabeth goes from one member of the Burwell family to another; eventually she ends up in St. Louis, Missouri. The city has a sizable number of slaves who are rented out by their owners; Elizabeth persuades her master to do the same: let her work for wages in the city while returning a portion of those wages to him. She's a skilled seamstress; she quickly builds a reputation for being able to do the difficult fittings the fashions of the time dictated. Her clientele grows and eventually help her buy the freedom of herself and her teenage son. For reasons that were unclear in the book, she decides to leave St. Louis and moves to Washington, D.C. It is in Washington that her path crosses that of Mary Lincoln.

Once Elizabeth Keckly becomes Mary Lincoln's dressmaker, they see a lot of each other. Elizabeth becomes Mary's confidante; she's in the house with the family when Willie Lincoln dies from typhoid, and she's there almost continuously comforting Mary when President Lincoln is shot. She even accompanies Mary back to Illinois to help her get settled there. She had a thriving dressmaking business in Washington, which she neglects in order to help Mary Lincoln. She behaves, in short, more like a close friend or a family member than as a paid employee. She continues to be close to Mary until she makes a fatal mistake: in 1867 she publishes a memoir.

According to Elizabeth, her book was intended to counter all the harsh things being said about Mary in the press. She wanted to show Mary in a good light. Mary doesn't see it that way; the two women never speak to each other again.

This was an interesting book, especially with Team of Rivals still fresh in my mind. There was a strong contrast between Goodwin's nterpretation of events and Fleischner's. One thing that struck me as odd was that some of the social events that one would think would be particularly interesting to describe in talking about Mary Lincoln were barely mentioned in Fleischner's book but were detailed in Goodwin's, which was ostensibly a book about Abraham Lincoln, his Cabinet members, and other men in politics. It truly felt as though Fleischner deliberately omitted anything that would make Mary look good.

The details about Elizabeth Keckly's early life and her relationship with the Burwell family were intriguing, too. She was a slave, but was allowed to learn to read and write. As a young woman, she was sent to North Carolina with one of the Burwell daughters after that daughter married sons and his new wife. While living there, she wrote letters back to Virginia to one of the daughters still living at home. The behavior was more like that of a sister (which she in fact was; she shared a father with the Burwell girls) than that of a slave and a household servant. After the Civil War, Elizabeth returned to Virginia to visit the Burwells several times and was a guest in their home; when one of the Burwell daughters visited Washington, D.C., she stayed with Elizabeth. It was apparently fairly common after the war for former slaves to visit their old masters, but usually it was a one shot deal. It didn't turn into a continuing relationship complete with friendly letters back and forth. It does highlight that the personal dynamics in any Southern household were a lot more complex than we can imagine today.

As for the usual question, would I recommend this book? Yes, with the caveat that a reader not take Fleischner's simplistic portrait of Mary Lincoln as the last word on the subject. I don't think either of the subjects of this particular book led lives that were quite as neatly defined as the author would have us believe.  

Update: Corrected to reflect the fact I made a mistake. The first time Elizabeth Keckly leaves Virginia it's with one of the Burwell sons and his wife, not with one of the daughters. 


  1. Hi,
    I am currently on page 104 of Team of Rivals and enjoying it tremendously.

  2. Good review. Thanks for the warning.

  3. I don't think they (history) has ever given her a good shake..I'd like to think she was a little of both bad and good.

  4. A great review. In almost any biography the author can not help but slant his or her own prejudice in the writing: Only the best biographers can remain neutral.

    This is an interesting time in history.
    the Ol'Buzzard


My space, my rules: play nice and keep it on topic.