76 of 77 people found the following review helpful
on July 6, 2001
Not your typical summer fare, this book is serious and sweeping. It's a staggering chronicle of loss, beginning with the death of Mary's mother when she was a girl, through the deaths of her sons, the murder of her husband, the loss of her place in society, and the virtual loss of her oldest son and her only grandchild. The toll these tragedies took on Mary was mighty, but understandable. And Dr. Baker makes this sad saga imminently readable. I am haunted by a statement about the young Mary -- she did the wrong things well. Her unique strengths and talents were unfashionable for the time, and this cost her dearly.
64 of 67 people found the following review helpful
on March 4, 2000
While Jean H. Baker has done meticulous research and her work is liberally footnoted, reading between the lines one finds a sympathetic account of one woman by another. Mary Todd Lincoln was one of the most misunderstood and reviled women of her day, for behavior that today we might understand as acting out depression, grief, anxiety and fear. I couldn't help but also feel a connection to this woman trying to survive in a repressive, male-centered society. So much has been written that portrays her husband as a saint and her as a shrew, that it's refreshing to read a more balanced view that is probably much closer to the way it really was. Mary Todd Lincoln deserves another look, both as a brave first lady enduring unimaginable tragedy and as a woman who was perhaps better suited to a different time in history.
31 of 33 people found the following review helpful
on January 23, 2004
Jean Baker succeeds in presenting Mary Todd Lincoln as a troubled, but real human being, which is an accomplishment given her reputation. (I mean Mary's reputation, not Ms. Baker's ;))With the loss of her mother and the subsequent losses through out her life, Mary comes across as a person who expected and worst and whose expectations were frequently met. In another time she could have been a CEO or an attorney. It is easy to see what Lincoln was attracted to and how Mary was likely to resond to a man interested in her thoughts and political insights, not just her family background and prospects as a mother. Lincoln, at least, had a caring stepmother which is more than Mary had. She was a complex woman with many strengths and serious emotional problems.
46 of 58 people found the following review helpful
on October 19, 2001
Jean Baker's biography of Mary Todd Lincoln is a well written work on an individual whose life was at once extraordinarily blessed and tragically cursed. Born in
Lexington to an upper middle class family with a long history in Kentucky, Mary was given both the traditional lifestyle of the young southern belle and the unusual
opportunity of an education. During a time when most women of her social class were almost invisible to the public world, Mary was better educated, more
outgoing, more inclined to express a personal opinion, and more ambitious than others of her set. To some extent these are the reasons she reached the White
House. They are also responsible for some of her social problems after leaving Washington. In fact, except for the early loss of her husband and children--a
common tragedy for many women of the time--most of Mary Lincoln's troubles were the outcome of her attitudes toward others and her extraordinary self
absorption. Even the loss of close family members merely presented an opportunity for her to assume the role of heroine in her own tragic drama, and she carried
her mourning to extremes rather than give up center stage. Focus became not the sad death of young men at the very beginning of their lives or of a national loss
of a great leader, but Mary Todd Lincoln's grief. When others refused to make her the center of their attention indefinitely, she apparently felt they were
unreasonable, and her outbursts alienated many who might have helped her far more and more readily than they ultimately did. To say that she was a woman with
great psychological and situation problems is an understatement.
Professor Baker tends to put a feminist spin on the events of Mary Lincoln's life, seeing her as a victim of the misogynistic, paternalistic environment of her times
and, as a woman ahead of her time, a prime target for male backlash. To some extent this may be--probably is--true, but not entirely. Certainly there were as
many, if not probably more, women who disliked her, some of them formerly close friends. In defense of the men and women of the mid nineteenth century, the
behavioral expectations of the day simply were what they were and putting their social mores on trial at this late date is not only unjust, it's pointless. Even in our
own society, which tolerates a far greater variance in behavior and where rapid communication allows us to share what's new more globally, there are still
behaviors that raise eyebrows. Like the society of Mary's day, we don't like to have our sense of what's "right" offended. To see this more personally, one has
merely to cross cultural lines, from say western to middle easter for instance, to feel the high dudgeon that the people of Mary's environment may have felt over her
breeches of expected behavior.
One of the figures in the story, most often vilified as the Bad Son, is Robert Lincoln. I had heard before the story of his consigning his mother to a sanitarium. The
book, while it makes of him just as much a villain, also provides enough details so the more critical reader might decern a less sinister view of these events. In his
defense I don't think that Robert Lincoln was quite the conniving, greedy man he is depicted--although I have to admit I've not read a biography of the man. He
certainly was able to provide a clear accounting of his management of his mother's funds. I suspect that he was merely a product of his age. That he was a very
rigid, conservative individual--as lawyers tend to be in any age--with political ambitions of his own can hardly be held against him. He certainly doesn't seem to
have used his mother's income to further his own agenda. From the author's own description of her, Mary Lincoln was self centered, outspoken, and eccentric.
She was also inclined to see others in black and white rather than in shades of gray, either for or against her, a friend to be clutched to her bosom or an enemy to
be driven away with every means available to her. Furthermore her shopping, which became the focus of her insanity trial, apparently was abnormal for the age. In
fact, even in our own time, excessive spending can be seen as a type of addictive or compulsive behavior and can and occasionally does lead to the bankruptcy
that Robert Lincoln feared would be his mother's fate if left to her own devises. Her 64 trunks--and the old Saratogas were not exactly carry-ons--of
possessions, weighing some 4 tons, would suggest that maybe her behavior really was a little out of hand. In his defense is the fact that he was surrounded by a
society that saw his mother's behavior as embarrassing if not outright insane and by advisors who agreed with his point of view and urged him to pursue the
course he did. That he should suborn perjury in an effort to bring his mother's behavior more in line with public expectations and her spending under better control
is tragic perhaps, but not necessarily evil. It might be pointed out that in growing up in the LIncoln household, there appeared to be only two methods of dealing
with mother, either rebel and fight for your own identity, as Robert Lincoln seems to have done, or allow oneself to be totally absorbed by her personality, as the
other sons seem to have done. Robert was never going to be his mother's favorite son. It might be pointed out, that he is also the only one to have survived her.
For those who are more inclined to understand the period itself, one of the more interesting aspects of Professor Baker's work is the clearer picture of the man
Lincoln that arises when he becomes a collateral, almost an incidental, character in the story. The events that lead to his death and ultimate cultural "deification"
are more evident, and his personality becomes more human. Factors in his personal life which may have effected his presidency are certainly much clearer.
Although I don't necessarily agree with some of Professor Baker's assessments, I think the book was very well written. It certainly kept my attention from beginning
to end. It is also very thoroughly researched. I think the chronicle of women's contributions to our world is far too under represented, and I welcome the addition of
this biography in partial remedy of that omission.
12 of 13 people found the following review helpful
on November 5, 2007
This is the seminal biography for Mary Todd Lincoln and one of the best biographies you will ever read. After reading dozens of books about Mrs. Lincoln to write my novel about her insanity trial (A Warrant For Mrs. Lincoln), I always came back to Jean Baker's book for information and insight into the Lincoln family. If you have an endless fascination for the Lincoln family, this book is a must.
8 of 8 people found the following review helpful
on September 9, 2007
Couldn't put this book down.....Jean Baker wrote a truly remarkable narrative non-fiction. I had previously read another fictional "Mary" book and was surprised to see that both books were similar in historical data surrounding her (Mary's) life. One can only imagine losing so many children and then one's husband, and NOT being driven to doing odd things. The psyche is a strange science marked by extraordinary and mysterious sensivities to outside pressures.
19 of 23 people found the following review helpful
on January 19, 2001
Mary Todd Lincoln is commonly dismissed as the "crazy" First Lady, un unpleasant burden on an outstanding president already burdened by a country at war with itself. I admit that I held this conception before reading Baker's biography of Mary Todd Lincoln. Baker, however, successfully convinced me that Mary was simply misunderstood, victimized by the press of the day, and manipulated mercilessly by her oldest son, Robert, following Lincoln's assassination. Though Baker has little to work with concerning details of Mary's early life in Kentucky and then Springfield, she makes up for it with fascinating accounts of what life was like for women of Mary's station in the early- to mid-1800s. Baker also offers a fascinating portrait of the much-maligned Mary who fled later in life to Europe and a quieter life. We see Mary's faults, but we also see the abuse she suffered in public as a result of those faults being exaggerated by her enemies. Ultimately, Baker offers an account of the perils of being a confident, outspoken woman in the 19th century.
36 of 46 people found the following review helpful
on February 21, 2000
Dr Baker is a fine researcher and historian, and she does a beautiful job of looking at the time in which Mary Todd Lincoln lived, and why she did and did not fit within the context of the times.
Mary was, from the beginning, a woman who knew what she wanted from life. Her marriage to Abraham Lincoln was a leap of faith; she defied the wishes of her extended family on the personal certainty that he would one day rise to national prominence. While the personalities of both made the union a sometimes rocky one, it was also a deeply loving one.
The trouble for Mary really began when they moved to the White House. After years of acting as his closest advisor, like so many First Ladies, she found herself shoved into a secondary role. After years of near-poverty, she was offered her choice of goods by merchants wanting to trade on the Lincoln name, leading to as staggering, hidden accumuluation of debt. And then came the crushing personal losses: the death of her beloved young son Willie in 1862 and, of course, the assassination of her husband in 1865. Baker unfortunately fails to present a balanced picture of the dark months leading up to Mrs. Lincoln's insanity trial in the 1870s.
In Baker's thesis, Mary was perfectly sane, railroaded into the looney bin by her vindictive son, Robert. But no matter how you spin it, her behavior at that time was abberent, and with the limited knowledge of the treatment of mental disorders available at that time, Robert had few choices to deal with his mother's obvious emotional difficulties. His move to have her committed was not an act of vindictivness on his part, but an extention of his long-held sense of duty to care for her.
It was an act that cost them both dearly, for the breech in their relationship never really healed, and these two lonely survivors of a once-happy family had to carry on alone.
15 of 18 people found the following review helpful
on January 7, 2009
I read this in preparation for reading The Madness of Mary Lincoln. I wanted to get a more rounded grounding of her whole life before I focused on the end of her life and her difficulties with son, Robert. The book did that but I was soon tired of the repetition of the lack of affection she suffered as a child and her feelings of desertion. I got it, already!I didn't much care for WHY she was who she was as much as WHO she was. The book certainly filled in any gaps and, in addition, gave a good description of the relationship she had with Abraham and the boys. She was certainly a woman of her times in regard to her reactions to the loss of their lives and yet in other ways, surprisingly modern. It isn't scintillating stuff but it moves along and is not parchingly dry.
8 of 9 people found the following review helpful
on May 5, 2008
Mary Todd Lincoln had a rough life. From the early death of her mother to the treatment she recieved from her stepmother, to her husband's assissination and was committed to an asylum by her own son. Reading the biography it was hard not to feel sorry for her. I knew naturally (as everyone) about her husband's assissination but I was surprised about how hard the rest of her life was. Her son Robert committed and she had to fight to get out of the asylum. Her early years Mary spent having to put up with a stepmother who wanted her husband's first set of children completely forgotten. Poor girl.