So, Mrs. Lincoln, how was your book?


One of the Lincoln homes. Image courtesy of tpsdave, Pixabay.

Whenever I visit a Stately Home (or anybody else’s), one of the first things that I look at are the bookcases. The books in those bookcases are very revealing about the owner’s personal tastes.

Letters can be equally revealing. I’m currently reading Mary Todd Lincoln: Her Life and Letters by Justin G. Turner and Linda Levitt Turner. The book is heavy-duty reading (717 pages!), but it’s enjoyable because the Turners use it to show new aspects of Mrs. Lincoln’s personality. The letters are accompanied by historical sections that explain what was going on in Mary’s life at the time and the Turners also do an excellent job of explaining the recipients of those letters.

When Mrs. Lincoln is mentioned in many history books, the writer often mentions that she had mental problems. But I’m inclined to cut her a huge amount of slack. She lost some of her dearly loved sons, not to mention the horror of having her husband shot right beside her.

There was a lot more to her. She was intelligent and savvy in Illinois political circles, was one of the first people to see how great Abraham Lincoln would become, and visited sick soldiers in Washington hospitals. To her, Abraham Lincoln was part husband and part father, which made it all the more crushing when he was killed.

She also tried to get jobs for people who needed them and came to be First Lady when the U.S. was disintegrated into civil war. Washington society snubbed her when the Lincolns first came to the White House, which would be hard for anyone to tolerate.

Mrs. Lincoln also had to deal with some vicious journalists and some betrayals by her own people. Thank goodness social media wasn’t around then. Poor lady would have been several memes.

The Turners make it clear that Mary Todd Lincoln wasn’t a perfect person (!) but there are numerous sides to her personality and you can more clearly see why Abraham Lincoln chose to marry her. It’s an interesting self-portrait of a woman and First Lady who was a lot more complex than historians traditionally depict.


Filed under Writing

8 responses to “So, Mrs. Lincoln, how was your book?

  1. Servetus

    than popular historians, perhaps. What you’re describing here is pretty much the standard picture of her in academic histories.

    • Ummm…Serv? I think part of your answer got cut off. It appeared that way.

      • Servetus

        oh, sorry, no, that’s all I wrote. It was just a response to your last line: “than historians traditionally depict.” What you’ll find in a popular history (which has to be written in particular way to appeal to audiences — and one of the elements of a popular history is typically either agreeing with / intensifying a received picture [“Mary Todd Lincoln was insane,” which is more or less what we learn in school] or vehemently disagreeing with it) is often less complex than what’s in an academic history. To some extent popular histories of the Civil War have retained their selling power (as opposed to scholarly histories of the period) precisely because they reassure everyone that their received picture of the Civil War era is correct. I was just saying that Mrs. Lincoln as a complex individual isn’t an unusual or surprising thing to find in academic histories of the period.

        I’m *constantly* telling people to read the original sources. IMO they are pretty much way more interesting and revealing than even popular history. Original sources are what made me want to be a historian, in fact. Correspondence in particular is fascinating.

      • I know, isn’t it? I’ve read some letters that mention the Titanic disaster and it’s very interesting to see it from that perspective.

  2. Servetus

    Incidentally — I have not read them, but someone told me recently that Ulysses S. Grant’s memoirs are both fascinating and well written, so I’ve put them on my reading list for “sometime.”


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