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on January 9, 2009
As a resident of Lexington, Kentucky, Mary Todd Lincoln's home town, I have always been fascinated by the life of this misunderstood woman. I believe that I have read every major work that deals with Mary Todd and/or her marriage. I have spent the last several days reading the engaging new book by Catherine Clinton. Put simply, this book is a delight. In several hundred pages she presents the results of her extensive research in manuscript materials that she examined both in the United States and abroad. Her discussion of Mrs. Lincoln's years abroad, especially in southern France, is particularly strong.

As we observe the Lincoln bicentennial, a welter of new books on the sixteenth president is appearing. We can be grateful that Clinton recognized that Mrs. Lincoln merited attention as well. She brings fresh eyes and new perspectives to her challenging subject.
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on January 12, 2009
Once again, Catherine Clinton, the author of a number of fascinating nineteenth-century biographies, has brilliantly retold the history of one of the most neglected figures of the Civil War Era: Mary Todd Lincoln. As in her other writings, Clinton not only provides fresh, compelling, and new evidence about her subject, but she also masterfully manages to tell the broader history of the nineteenth-century. Readers will find Clinton's biography of Mrs. Lincoln as the most comprehensive and best-written book in publication today but they will also learn a great deal about the nineteenth-century. (Clinton is particularly attentive to the racial and gendered contexts in which Mrs. Lincoln lived, and brings new insights and incisive interpretations to many issues that have puzzled previous biographers.). As a historian of the Civil War and Reconstruction, I profited enormously from this book, and as a college professor, I will certainly assign in my courses on the nineteenth century! Jim Downs, PhD. Connecticut College
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In the past two months, I have read many books about Abraham and Mary Lincoln. Many of them are newly published to coincide with the 200th anniversary of Lincoln's birth. If I read Catherine Clinton's "Mrs. Lincoln: A Life" first, I might have been more complimentary of this biography of our former first lady. Unfortunately, this is not the case, and there is nothing much new to be found in Mary Lincoln. In fact, what is evident is not what Clinton included in "Mrs. Lincoln", but what she omits.

Most people know the details of Mary Lincoln's life. This pert, educated and sassy girl was born of privilege to a prominent Lexington family. She was more educated than even most men of this era. She was fluent in French, loved poetry and was especially engaged by national politics. A family friend was Henry Clay. In 1839, she moved to Springfield, Illinois to live with her older sister, Elizabeth Edwards. Here, she met the gangly, humble, poor and self-educated Abraham Lincoln. Theirs was a stormy courtship, but after breaking off their engagement once, they finally married on November 4, 1842. Apparently, she saw the promise in Lincoln when many (including her immediate family) did not.

Mary did have a lot of talents and did many things well. She loved poetry and could recite long passages of her favorites from memory. She was politically astute and acted as an advisor to Lincoln as he navigated state, and then national politics. She was a gracious hostess and her parties and balls were well received. On the domestic scene, she sewed her own clothes and those of her children (until she became first lady). She also did most of the household cooking in Springfield. Clinton paints the Lincoln marriage with soft-brushstrokes, and Mary as a doting, affectionate and loving wife. Unfortunately, this is a total white-wash! Their scenes of domestic discord are downplayed and she totally omits those where Mary was totally out of control (as when she broke Lincoln's nose with a piece of firewood). These episodes of rage and jealousy became even worse when she reached the White House and Mary was "all but excluded from his circle of trusted advisors because of her troubling mood swings." Lincoln never stopped loving his wife, but he was truly troubled and embarrassed by her actions.

It is hard to diagnose someone 150 years after the fact, but it would appear to even the most elementary psychologist that Mary suffered from Bi-Polar disorder. Clinton never even hints that Mary may have suffered from something of this nature. Also, for the insanity trial, Clinton hints that Mary was "bushwacked" by her son, Robert Todd Lincoln. But Clinton tends to downplay everything about Mary including her temper, her mood-swings, her compulsive spending, and especially, the schemes in which she engaged to illicitly raise money to pay off her many White House bills. As for the scheming to raise funds, Clinton maintains that anything rumored to be illegal was untrue. The things I have read claim otherwise.

Almost everyone agrees that Mary Lincoln was a tragic figure. She had more than her fair share of adversity. But Mary was also her own worst enemy and she alienated herself from friends and family by her actions and words. When she most needed help after Lincoln's assassination, "many withheld kindness, and some ignored minimal courtesy. Some doubtless believed they were repaying her own vindictiveness toward them, while others maintained that she had been unworthy of her husband, and now that he was the Martyr President, she was deemed even less deserving." In any case, the debate will continue to rage about Mary Lincoln.
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on June 29, 2012
I admit that I am only 40 pages into the book, but already I am so irritated by the jerky style and obvious lack of an editor that I am ready to give up on it. The author jumps back and forth in time and between Abraham Lincoln's life and Mary Todd's. This can be done, of course, and is not an unusual literary device. But this author handles it so poorly that I just feel jerked around in time and space, often left bewildered as to the time frame, sequence of events, and their relationship to one another.

The author attributes to the young Mary Todd various thoughts, emotions, experiences and actions that Clinton cannot possibly know, and gives us no references to sources for these attributions. She also contradicts herself within the space of two or three pages, referring to Mary's mounting anxiety about "aging out of the marriage market," yet pronouncing Mary's subsequent move to Springfield Illinois as an attempt to "escape the stifling rut of the premarital merry-go-round." Then two paragraphs later, Clinton (again without attribution) states that "Mary Todd was absorbed with the trials and tribulations of courtship." Although she states that Mary Todd "migrated to expand her horizons, not just to find a husband," and quotes a descendant's recollection that Mary "never at any time showed the least partiality for suitors but accepted their attention without enthusiasm," the very next paragraph refers to Mary as "one of the brightest stars in the constellation of belles who kept Springfield men enthralled."

Another annoying aspect of Clinton's "scholarship" are the obvious mistakes that even a novice editor should have caught. The author refers to the children born to Mary's father and stepmother as stepbrothers or stepsisters (or occasionally as sisters), when they are actually half-siblings. At another point she speaks of Mary's "cousin's sister." Wouldn't that make the young lady Mary's cousin as well? Page 16 includes an incomplete sentence, which the editor failed to correct.

Elizabeth seems to be a common name among Mary Todd's relatives and friends, and the author frequently changes various Elizabeths into Betsy, or Eliza, then back to Elizabeth, which becomes very confusing.

So far in my reading, Clinton makes some outrageous statements without so much as acknowledging that there are other interpretations for the same material. For example, she blithely states that Lincoln referred to Nancy Hanks, his birth mother, as "my angel mother," even though scholars have puzzled for more than a century whether this reference was to his birth mother, who died when Lincoln was nine, or to his stepmother, of whom he spoke with great affection and who did everything she could to encourage his thirst for education.

I will probably soldier on, as I am curious to find out if this author actually does come up with any new insights, especially about Mary Todd Lincoln's son Robert, in light of the fact that this work was published after the the Emerson discovery of a treasure trove of letters saved by Robert Lincoln's attorney. But I am already suspicious that Robert is going to get the same short shrift that he has always gotten, because of an earlier sneering reference to Robert's decision to commit his mother to an institution "ostensibly" for her own safety.

The jacket of this volume pronounces it "authoritative and utterly engrossing." So far, it has been neither.
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on March 11, 2009
This biography by Catharine Clinton is an excellent synthesis of small detail and an objective analysis of Mrs. Lincol'n life. I heartily recommend it to those who want a different approach than how mad the president's wife was during her life. She and he worked hard to achieve his goal of being president. She was not allowed to differ from the "Cult of True Womanhood." She was politicial, intelligent (spoke French fluently), and at times used her tart tongue to state the truth without giving a thought to the effect her words had others. I myself am pleased to see another version of Mrs. Lincoln rather than crazy Mary.
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on February 25, 2009
Just in time for the bicentennial celebration of the birth of Abraham Lincoln comes MRS. LINCOLN, Catherine Clinton's examination of the life and times of the troubled wife of America's venerated president.

The book's introduction begins on that fateful day in April 1865, when Mary Todd Lincoln witnesses the shooting of her husband at Ford's Theater. During the chaos that follows, her prolonged shrieking and hysterical reaction cause those trying to maintain calm to banish her from President Lincoln's deathbed. They also deny Mary the honor of being present for her husband's last breath. This unkind treatment by men with power is a harbinger of what she can expect in her life as a widow.

Clinton's biography tells about Mary's upbringing as a refined, educated and ambitious lady of the South who marries an Illinois lawyer with Northern sympathies. During their marriage, the Lincolns endure hardship and sorrow, including several political setbacks and the loss of their young son, Edward.

Years later, while Abraham Lincoln is president and the country is embroiled in the Civil War, the loss of beloved son Willie plunges both husband and wife into severe states of depression. While the President busies himself with the work of the nation to be distracted from his profound grief, Mary dwells on her sorrow, and her mental condition deteriorates.

During her years in the political spotlight, Mary is the object of vicious gossip and criticized mercilessly by the press, although some of the criticism is brought on by her own behavior.

In MRS. LINCOLN, Mary Todd Lincoln is portrayed as a strong-willed and forceful lady with extravagant tastes, as well as being one who doesn't shun the limelight. She is articulate and better educated than her husband and won't take a back seat to anyone, including the President himself. She comes across as unsympathetic and unpopular --- a tragic and complicated individual; a jealous wife; a paranoid, self-absorbed woman who is morbidly obsessed with grief; and a scheming and greedy widow.

Clinton lifts the widow's veil for a personal look at the woman behind one of the most revered figures in the history of the United States. Like its subject, MRS. LINCOLN is both fascinating and frustrating. The text, while appealing and easy to follow, repeats the same facts in slightly different words in different parts of the book. Despite that minor annoyance, I found this biography both interesting and informative.

--- Reviewed by Donna Volkenannt
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on May 11, 2009
I am definitely in favor of a more sympathetic treatment of Mary Todd, who got a raw deal from the media as well as in life. But this book is marred by repetition and lack of organization. It's as though the author typed up her notecards out of sequence--or had not read what she herself had just written. I had to keep looking back to figure out if I was getting new information or just a rehash of an event that had already been mentioned. Reading this book was an annoying experience that made me wish I had not paid good money for it.
Poor Mary again gets a raw deal--apparently she doesn't even rate an editor.
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on March 5, 2009
Mary Lincoln was as ambitious for her husband as any politician's
wife is today. Hard for me at least to think of them as politicians,
but they were. And successful ones. Once he won the presidency, she was
his champion and his support. Proud to be Mrs. Lincoln, but also a
woman with her own convictions. She once said that she was the abolitionist, not her husband. But he came around to it gradually.

I've never been able to understand--and it's not made clear here,
why people thought she was ''nutty.'' This woman had multiple tragedies
that I don't think many people could have handled: she survived all but
one of her four children; saw her husband assassinated just as they had
begun to plan for a peaceful, well-deserved retirement, and if all that
wasn't enough, I think two brothers and a brother-in-law were killed in
the war. And of course she was reviled by this country as a Rebel traitor (after 200 years the meaness here hasn't changed much). I think she was
entitled to a few eccentricities!!

I did sympathize with her surviving son Robert, who was pulled in many different directions with a family of his own and conflicting emotions
towards his parents. He did love them though and always tried to do the
right thing for his grieving mother. Also, he was a caring and compassionate brother to Tad, the youngest son.

All in all, I enjoyed the book very much and would recommend it to anyone who thinks that nothing more can be written about this family. The large print too was enjoyable and prevented the inevitable squinting over small print--even with glasses.
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I liked this biography of Mary Lincoln, one of the most, if not the most maligned First Ladies in history. Even after years of Lincoln study, I knew too little about Mary so I was glad to learn more. The book seems fair to her, not shying away from her mental illness and the sad end to her life.

Mental illness apparently ran in the Todd family, but Mary was educated (thanks to her father) and had a good head for politics. She and her husband were good partners in his career, until the White House when the war and too many advisors shunted her aside. Also contributing to her mental problems were the loss of three of her four sons, the wedge between her family created by the war, and her husband's bouts of depression. Then of course his assassination destroyed her world and once again she was shunted aside by powerful men.

Her widowhood was torture for her as she sought financial and emotional stability. Most people know her surviving son Robert committed her to a mental institution, and later she ended her days as a recluse in her sister's home in Springfield, IL. This book gives a lot more information about what led to these events in a way not biased toward Mary or Robert. I recommend this book.
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VINE VOICEon October 10, 2009
Had I read this book years ago I'd have been more satisfied. The 200th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln's birth has spawned a raft of new publications which raise the bar for any historian. This book covers the same turf as the other Mary Todd Lincoln biographies that I've read, but the prose reads well and it kept my attention.

Earlier this year I read two of the new books: House of Abraham: Lincoln and the Todds, A Family Divided by War and The Last Lincolns: The Rise & Fall of a Great American Family, each provided me with new information and insight. I was hoping to find some of this type of new scholarship or thought in this volume, particularly something to add to the Steven Berry book on the Todds.

In "House", author Steven Berry shows Mary's birth family to be an emotional cauldron which had to shape a lot of her world view. Catherine Clinton only briefly mentions a few of the quarrelsome and pushy ways of the Todds. She writes of Mary's brother's legal challenge to their father's estate and a few of the favors beseeched of and bestowed by their powerful in-law. I would have liked to have seen something here on Mary's standing or role in them or tie them to their influence on Mary or the family dynamics.

While it is not the focus of "The Last", author Charles Lachman gives more insight into the relationships within Abraham and Mary's nuclear family than Clinton. Lachman poses (among other ideas) that death of the second son may have led to more permissiveness for the third and fourth sons. Robert, the first son, was shipped off to school did not benefit from the new atmosphere. Lachman in "Last" has less description of the times (Clinton has pages devoted to topics such as the occult and the Washington social scene) and devotes more space to the individual Lincoln family members. While it's beyond the scope of Clinton's book, the last of the Lincoln progeny show signs of mental illness that are equal to or greater than Mary's symptoms. Clinton does mention (but does not define) 4 of Mary's relatives who died in asylums but doesn't tie what we know today of mental illness to her subject's behavior.

I recommend this for readers who have not read a Lincoln family biography. Those who know the story may want to try the two aforementioned books.
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