Poet, playwright and biographer Epstein presents a history and analysis of the almost operatic marriage of Mary Todd and Abraham Lincoln.
The vivacious daughter of an aristocratic Kentucky family, Mary let it be known early and not entirely in jest that she intended to marry a man who would become president of the United States. Aggressively wooed by many in her adopted town of Springfield, Ill., she singled out the unlikely Lincoln. Despite a rocky courtship, she married the prairie lawyer with whom she shared a love of poetry, plays, politics and a ferocious ambition. Touching only lightly on their lives before marriage-and not at all on Mary's decline after her husband's assassination-Epstein focuses on their turbulent and often unhappy union. Intensely private, secretive and frequently absent, Lincoln was no picnic as a husband; Mary, if anything, was a worse wife. Epstein sensitively charts her descent into what can only be called madness. During the Springfield years her penchant for self-dramatization and self-pity, extreme nervousness, hypersensitivity and bad temper manifested itself in common enough fashion: an unreasoning fear of thunderstorms, grudges held against family and friends, gratuitous insults inflicted and physical assaults on servants and, occasionally, her husband. In the White House her increasingly disordered mind gave way to more serious offenses: lavish, compulsive spending beyond her means, baseless jealousy of other women, tampering with the government payroll and influence peddling. Her inconsolable grief at a second child's death led to delusions and hallucinations. A seemingly permanent mental instability, perhaps the result of a carriage accident, separated her even further from a husband preoccupied with managing a savage war. She never wavered in her love for or her belief in Lincoln, but Mary appears to have deserved the titles bestowed on her by the president's aides: the "hellcat" and "Her Satanic Majesty."
A dynamic picture of a marriage every bit as fractious and as buffeted as the nation the Lincolns served.
- Kirkus Reviews
The first full-length portrait of the marriage of Abraham and Mary Todd Lincoln in more than fifty years, The Lincolns is a fascinating new work of American history by Daniel Mark Epstein, an award-winning biographer and poet known for his passionate understanding of the Civil War period.
Although the private lives of political couples have in our era become front-page news, the true story of this extraordinary and tragic first family has never been fully told. The Lincolns eclipses earlier accounts with riveting new information that makes husband and wife, president and first lady, come alive in all their proud accomplishments and earthy humanity.
Epstein gives a fresh close-up view of the couple's life in Springfield, Illinois (of their twenty-two years of marriage, all but six were spent there). We witness the troubled courtship of an aristocratic and bewitching Southern belle and a struggling young lawyer who concealed his great ambition with self-deprecating humor; the excitement and confusion of the newlyweds as they begin their marriage in a small room above a tavern, and the early signs of Mary's instability and Lincoln's moodiness; their joyful creation of a home on the edge of town as Lincoln builds his law practice and makes his first forays into politics. We discover their consuming ambition as Lincoln achieves celebrity status during his famed debates with Stephen A. Douglas, which lead to Lincoln's election to the presidency.
The Lincolns' ascent to the White House brought both dazzling power and the slow, secret unraveling of the couple's unique bond. The Lincolns dramatizes certain well-known events with stunning new immediacy: Mary's shopping sprees, her defrauding of the public treasury to increase her budget, and her jealousy, which made enemies for her and problems for the president. Yet she was also a brilliant hostess who transformed the shabby White House into a social center crucial to the Union's success. After the death of their little boy, not a year after Lincoln took office, Mary turned for solace to spirit mediums, but her grief drove her to the edge of madness. In the end, there was little left of the Lincolns' relationship save their enduring devotion to each other and to their surviving children.
Written with enormous sweep and striking imagery, The Lincolns is an unforgettable epic set at the center of a crucial American administration. It is also a heartbreaking story of how time and adversity can change people, and of how power corrupts not only morals but affections. Daniel Mark Epstein's The Lincolns makes two immortal American figures seem as real and human as the rest of us.
Poet and biographer Epstein (Lincoln and Whitman: Parallel Lives in Civil War Washington) never explains the rationale for this reliable but familiar account of the Lincolns' frequently tempestuous marriage. If he had access to previously untapped sources, he does nothing to highlight them, and there's little reason why this book should supersede either Jean H. Baker's magisterial Mary Todd Lincoln: A Biography or even Ruth Painter Randall's respected Mary Lincoln: Biography of a Marriage. What Epstein brings is a novelistic, almost lyrical touch, as in this passage, from Mary's perspective, as her husband lay dying: "Slowly the room grows larger with the light. The April days are long. Hold back the light. Let the day never dawn that looks upon his death." Well born, Mary was also highly strung, insecure, jealous and, like Abraham, prone to fits of depression. He suffered her rages silently, tolerated her profligate spending even when it became a political embarrassment and twice consoled her in the midst of his own grief upon the successive losses of two of their four sons. Sadly, in the end, their marriage seems to have been largely a pageant of tragedies: a black lily Epstein need not have attempted to gild. (May) Copyright 2008 Reed Business Information.
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May 19, 2008
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Excerpt from The Lincolns by Daniel Mark Epstein
The Tryst: Springfield, 1842
Walking east on Jefferson Street with the setting sun behind him, Abraham Lincoln followed his shadow toward the house on Sixth Street where he had arranged to meet his love in secret.
The tall man cast a long shadow in the November light. The October rains and wind had nearly stripped the trees of their leaves--the maple, the walnut, the oak of the prairie. He liked the trees without their foliage "as their anatomy could then be studied." The outline of a silver maple against the sky was delicate but firm; the network of shades the branches cast upon the ground seemed to him a virtual "profile" of the tree.
"Perhaps a man's character is like a tree, and his reputation like its shadow; the shadow is what we think of it; the tree is the real thing." This idea, which would attend the young man on an eventful journey into middle age, might now provide small comfort. For he had gone and made a fool of himself, during the previous two years of his life, a very public sort of fool at the age of thirty-three.
Now, strolling the wooden planks of a makeshift sidewalk laid along the mud ruts of Jefferson Street, past the new state capitol building with its stately columns and dome upon the square, Lincoln followed his shadow and his reputation toward the home of his friend Simeon Francis, where he could pursue his folly behind closed doors. If a man's character is like the tree and one's reputation like the shadow, he had begun, by trial and error, to understand his character, his virtues and weaknesses; but he still had little sense of what the world might make of his reputation.
He was a secretive man, who kept his own counsel. He was an ambitious man of humble origins, with colossal designs on the future. And it would always be advantageous not to be closely known, never to be transparent. Passing a farmer on a dray, he would tip his hat and grin. Everybody knew him. Nobody knew him. He would play the fool, the clown, the melancholy poet dying for love, the bumpkin. He would take the world by stealth and not by storm. He would disarm enemies by his apparent na�vet�, by seeming pleasantly harmless. He would go to such lengths in making fun of his own appearance that others felt obliged to defend it.
On this November afternoon in 1842 it would hardly seem necessary to argue that he was appealing to women, this lanky, clean-shaven fellow, seeing as how one of the most attractive, nubile ladies of Springfield had singled him out, pursued him, and was now waiting for him in the parlor of that house on the northeast corner of Jefferson and Sixth streets.
The friend who owned the house, Simeon Francis, editor of the Sangamo Journal, and his wife, Eliza, were childless. They made their large home available for Lincoln and his beloved as a trysting place, where they had been meeting since the summer. The inhibitions that attend lovers when they first are alone, speechless, had gradually given way until they found themselves in a situation where marriage was, if not obligatory, inevitable.
Lincoln knew he had made a spectacle of himself on a grand scale recently, in the newspapers, caught up in a scandalous duel--there were rumors the cause of it was Miss Mary Todd. And now walking on his way to what might be greater imprudence, he could reflect that only a few years earlier he had resolved never again to get into such a scrape.
In 1838, on April Fool's Day, he had written a letter to Eliza Browning, wife of his lawyer friend Orville Hickman Browning, in which he had reached the following conclusion: "Others have been made fools of by the girls; but this can never be with truth said of me. I most emphatically, in this instance, made a fool of myself. I have now come to the conclusion never again to think of marrying; and for this reason; I can never be satisfied with any one who would be block-head enough to have me." Perhaps he was only joking. He had more masks and poses than Hamlet. This letter explaining his failed courtship of the tall, matronly Miss Owens is scathing comedy, in which he gives vent to feelings of distaste he could not quite conceal in sardonic billets-doux he wrote to the lady herself.
"Although I had seen her before, she did not look as my immagination [sic] had pictured her. I knew she was oversize, but she now appeared a fair match for Falstaff; I knew she was called an 'old maid,' and I felt the truth of at least half of that appellation; but now when I beheld her, I could not for the life avoid thinking of my mother; and this, not from withered features, for her skin was too full of fat, to permit its contracting into wrinkles." When he had first glimpsed Miss Owens, she had been twenty-four and pretty, but if Lincoln is to be trusted, the years had not been kind. "