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Mrs. Lincoln: A Life Hardcover – January 6, 2009


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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 432 pages
  • Publisher: Harper; First Edition edition (January 6, 2009)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0060760400
  • ISBN-13: 978-0060760403
  • Product Dimensions: 9.3 x 6 x 1.3 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.2 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (38 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #401,264 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Book Description

Abraham Lincoln is the most revered president in American history, but the woman at the center of his life, his wife, Mary, has remained a historical enigma. In this definitive, magisterial biography, Catherine Clinton draws on important new research to illuminate the remarkable life of Mary Lincoln, and at a time when the nation was being tested as never before.

Mary Lincoln's story is inextricably tied with the story of America and with her husband's presidency, yet her life is an extraordinary chronicle on its own. Born into an aristocratic Kentucky family, she was an educated, well-connected Southern daughter, and when she married a Springfield lawyer she became a Northern wife—an experience mirrored by thousands of her countrywomen. The Lincolns endured many personal setbacks—including the death of a child and defeats in two U.S. Senate races—along the road to the White House. Mrs. Lincoln herself suffered scorching press attacks, but remained faithful to the Union and her wartime husband. She was also the first presidential wife known as the "First Lady," and it was in this role that she gained her lasting fame. The assassination of her husband haunted her for the rest of her life. Her disintegrating downward spiral resulted in a brief but traumatizing involuntary incarceration in an asylum and exile in Europe during her later years. One of the most tragic and mysterious of nineteenth-century figures, Mary Lincoln and her story symbolize the pain and loss of Civil War America.

Authoritative and utterly engrossing, Mrs. Lincoln is the long-awaited portrait of the woman who so richly contributed to Lincoln's life and legacy.

Questions for Catherine Clinton

Q: Why did you decide to write about Mrs. Lincoln in this book?
A: Of course, it was a daunting task to take on this project in the wake of so much new information on Lincoln and his world, and with the Lincoln Bicentennial looming on the horizon. But I knew that Mary Lincoln was being lost in the shuffle of the new Lincoln literature. With an outpouring of new work on Abraham Lincoln every year it's been over twenty years since the last biography of Mary. When it was written, we did not have the cache of new letters (uncovered by Jason Emerson) which showed Mary’s state of mind during her incarceration. We also did not have the past quarter century of Civil War scholarship which has contextualized and expanded our appreciation of what it truly meant when families were divided by war.

Q: Was Lincoln’s wife a southern sympathizer?
A: No, and this is one of the misconceptions I hope to counter in my study, although I do portray her as a daughter of the Bluegrass, and brought up to be a proper southern lady. However, she had always been unconventional--temperamental, articulate, not only better read than her husband (and conversing with diplomats on state occasions in French) but she had more than ten years of formal education. She also became a partisan abolitionist when he befriended Charles Sumner, and was opposed to anyone who advocated disunion. At the same time, when Elmer Ellsworth, the war’s first casualty--shot while tearing down a rebel flag in Virginia in May 1861--was killed, his murderer was shot dead--a brother of a Dr. Jackson from her hometown of Lexington. So in this first armed encounter when Virginia seceded, the Lincolns mourned Ellsworth’s passing, but Mrs. Lincoln could appreciate as well the sorrow of the Jacksons in Kentucky at losing a brother, a son, and the fratricidal nature of the conflict.

Q: So were the Lincolns racist as some modern critics have suggested?
A: I think both Abraham and Mary reflected the prejudices of their era, but not only the wealth of new work on race and gender over the past few decades has informed my approach in Mrs. Lincoln, but some of the real, human aspects of life in the White House were new to me.

Q: How so?
A: Mary Lincoln’s relationship with the black women who were a part of the White House staff, as well as her crucial relationship with Elizabeth Keckly (whose biography appeared in 2003) needed a fresh approach. I used memoirs and interview material drawn from the lives of those who knew the Lincolns in the White House. I was especially impressed to discover that Abraham Lincoln, who doted on his sons, had taken his son Tad to the Slade house on Massachusetts Ave. N.W., where he might play with the African American children of his father’s trusted aide, William Slade. So it was really these kind of details that I hope will bring both the Lincolns to life.

Q: A lot of people want to know if Mrs. Lincoln was crazy?
A: My degrees from Harvard and Princeton are not in medicine--so I cannot diagnose. I can say that I felt she did deteriorate mentally during her time in the White House and my study attempts to place into context some of her challenges and failings. But I also wanted to show her relationship with the press, her relationship with her children, and especially the many trials she faced as a widow...which is why I begin the book with Lincoln’s assassination as the defining moment of her life.

Q: Do you think Mary Lincoln could give any advice to Michelle Obama?
A: Many of Lincoln’s critics went after his wife to get at him--using the folk wisdom, if you want to destroy a house, set fire to the thatch. The wife of our 44th President has shown wit and humor and intellect that mirrors perhaps many attributes Mary Lincoln brought to the White House, but Michelle Obama has advantages that Mrs. Lincoln did not have. But the one thing I think the campaign has already taught our newest occupant of the White House is to not let those who hang on her every word and focus on fashion define her.

From Publishers Weekly

Any biographer of Mary Lincoln has a tough act to follow in Jean H. Baker's groundbreaking and definitive Mary Todd Lincoln: A Biography, published two decades ago and reissued in paperback in 2008. Queens University (Belfast) history professor Clinton (Harriet Tubman: The Road to Freedom) fails to rise to the occasion. For starters, the book seems to have no raison d'être: Clinton offers no revisionist interpretation and has uncovered no new sources. Add to this Clinton's annoying style, such as a penchant for ESP, narrating Mary Lincoln's thoughts through various key moments in her life, such as this upon the day in April, 1865, when her husband triumphantly visited the Confederate capital of Richmond: "Mary found a sense of serenity that was distinctly new and uncharacteristic ... she imagined that she might be reconciled with those alienated...." The author also too frequently paraphrases the contents of diaries and letters, without quoting them directly. Although Clinton's book provides an adequate summary of an important life, readers can find a far more than adequate rendition elsewhere. B&w illus.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

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Customer Reviews

Put simply, this book is a delight.
Kentucky Bibliophile
Mrs. Lincoln: A Life is an interesting book that sheds light on the unknown life of Mary Todd Lincoln.
Eileen M. Carlson
I found this book to be a very good and informative read.
Bryan A. Shores, Sr.

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

31 of 34 people found the following review helpful By Kentucky Bibliophile on January 9, 2009
Format: Hardcover
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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41 of 47 people found the following review helpful By Cynthia K. Robertson TOP 500 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on April 3, 2009
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
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.
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18 of 19 people found the following review helpful By James Downs on January 12, 2009
Format: Hardcover
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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13 of 14 people found the following review helpful By claire8800 on June 29, 2012
Format: Paperback
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.
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