Sunday, August 12, 2018

Book Review: Mrs. Lincoln by Catherine Clinton


By Catherine Clinton
  (c) 2009
Harper

Before reading this book, one I have wanted to read for quite a while, I expected to feel much pity for Mary Lincoln after reading it, like I did after watching the movie Lincoln, and while I do feel some of the sentiment, I am in a quandary, as I also feel a different, unsympathetic feeling, perhaps as harsh as derision, or at least frustration, towards her.  This book describes a complicated, confusing, sad, tragic, ambitious, successful woman and life. She was strong, yet weak, intelligent, yet na├»ve, independent, yet self-identified with her husband and his career.  I realize that some of those descriptions are redundant or contrasting, but I find that an appropriate way to describe the subject of this book.  She was simply human, but not a simple hunan, and this book does a terrific job of exploring the many competing facets of her life.

These various aspects of Mary Lincoln form a main topic of this book, which serves as a biography of both the former Mary Todd and of her marriage. Though her life certainly takes priority, telling the story of Mary Lincoln simply requires a discussion of her husband and marriage. It is inescapable, even after the assassination, as Clinton notes: Her identity was wholly bound up with remaining Mrs. Lincoln (page 287).

That line is an accurate summary of Mary’s post-1865 life, but this book starts much earlier, thoroughly discussing her early life, including the tragic loss of her mother, the coming of her step-mother and the ever increasing size of her nuclear family, with so many siblings and half-siblings.

I must admit that when I think of the tragedies in Mary’s life, the loss of her mother often escapes my mind, but this book illustrates how great a loss this was for her, as well as the difficulty of having a step-mother and so many half-siblings. The tension in this large family is evident in this book and the author shows that this situation hurt Mary, the first major loss of her life, but certainly not the last. 

Mary grew up in a well-to-do Southern household, a lifestyle that influenced her expectations of life going forward. To paraphrase a popular saying, you can take the girl out of the South, but you can’t take the South out of the girl. This was largely true of Mary, who constantly expected the same type of life and socializing she witnessed in her youth. She did, to her credit, grow to disapprove of slavery, an institution with which she grew up, but otherwise saw herself as a Southern belle, with the expectations of being treated as such. Clinton describes this dominant part of Mary’s personality throughout the book. 

One word used more than once in this work was “entitled,” a fair description of Mary’s attitude. She liked being the center of attention and expected to receive attention, respect, and even admiration due to her position of First Lady and, later, in a term she coined, “First Widow.”  She did make some attempts to help herself, one time resulting in the embarrassing “Old Clothes” scandal, but also expected gratitude from the government and from people who she believed benefited greatly from her husband’s Presidency. This is another theme explored throughout the book, but especially in the discussion of the post-1865 years.

Page 329 offered up another memorable line describing Mary’s attitude, this time in reference to the assassination of James Garfield: when she discovered there was a movement afoot to offer government funds to provide for Gardield’s widow and five fatherless children, Mary, not uncharacteristically, thought of herself (my emphasis added.). She had adored her husband and children and spent much time and energy visiting wounded troops in the hospitals, but  could often be much less unselfish.

Clinton discusses many aspects and incidents of Mary’s life including her love of youngest son Tad and the devastation his death caused her. Of course, her commitment to an insane asylum by eldest son Robert receives much attention, including discussion of the unfairness of the trial and the grudge Mary understandably held against Robert for years. Her behavior during these years, especially concerning issues of money is examined and the author points out possible legitimate mental health issues Mary may have suffered, while also giving examples of times when Mary’s faculties were working very well. The complexity of the questions of her mental health apply to the complexity of her whole life as well. 

This is a riveting book about a complex woman who led a fascinating, sad, complicated life. To keep this review to a reasonable length, I will not attempt to mention all the specific incidents it covers, but the author does an outstanding job of presenting evidence and then analyzing it. An especially noteworthy example of this is the description of Mary’s temper, jealousy, and behavior towards Julia Grant and other women during a late war trip to Virginia. 

At the end of the work, Clinton adds a few paragraphs about Mary’s reputation both in her time and in the modern era, including how scholars and writers have treated her. This was a wonderfully unexpected and interesting section and I wish it had been expanded to include more details, such as some found in the end notes. 

Biographies frequently develop into near hagiographical works for their subjects, as authors who spend so much time and effort studying people can start to like them and let this positive feeling seep into their work.  That did not happen in this book - Clinton certainly offers praise for Mary at times and defends her behavior more than once, but also provides frequent criticism and points out bad decisions Mary made and flaws she possessed. It is a balanced examination of Mary Lincoln, and the author deserves much credit for that fairness, perhaps the strength of this book. 

The book does include helpful end notes and a few photographs as well. I wish the pictures had been of higher quality (maybe that’s a function of the type of paper used in the book)  but that is picking nits. The text is well-written and makes for an easy, quick read. This is a fine book, a virtual must-have for any Lincoln scholar or those interested in women’s history, and a “should-have” for general Civil War libraries. I am happy to recommend it strongly.

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