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The Lincolns: Portrait of a Marriage Hardcover – May 20, 2008

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Editorial Reviews Review

From the Author: What's New in The Lincolns, Portrait of a Marriage?

During the years I was researching and writing this book I was asked again and again: Have you found anything new, in facts or perspective?

The answer is yes, and yes again. Everything is new in the sense that when one puts aside the stereotypes associated with the Lincolns, a rich and complex married life emerges. The stereotypes are: Mary was crazy, and Abraham was a saint. The most popular myth is that Lincoln married a madwoman, and suffered patiently and heroically through twenty-two miserable years of marriage.

After my research, I reached two conclusions that shaped my portrait of the marriage. First, these two people loved each other deeply, from the time they met in Springfield in 1839, until his assassination in 1865. The second is that Mary was extremely interested in Abraham's career and speeches; whenever they could, the two of them talked about these things. She was a strong political partner for him.

The rest of my work has been a careful gathering of details. Here again, there is a lot that is new. First, this is the only book about the marriage that recounts the Springfield years (16 years out of 22) in as much detail as the White House years. In Springfield the family achieved a delicate balance that was destabilized in wartime Washington. The story that began as a romance turns to tragedy.

The Lincolns' courtship was stormy; he broke off their engagement in 1840, and they were not reconciled until 1842. New evidence indicates that Lincoln believed he had syphilis, and would not resume the courtship until he believed he was cured.

I discovered letters from Mary's brother-in-law that shed light on the courtship, and the abrupt reconciliation and marriage in 1842.

This is the first book to connect Lincoln’s reading of The Niles Register (a news magazine of the time) with his speeches against the Mexican War during his term of congress in 1847-48. In their Washington boarding house in 1848, the Lincolns witnessed the abduction of a black servant who was buying his freedom. Using newspaper accounts of the time I was able to detail this terrifying incident.

Mary's physical abuse of her husband has mostly been a matter of rumor. In 1857 she is supposed to have hit her husband with a stick of firewood, injuring his nose. I was able to find store receipts for a gelatin plaster that Lincoln purchased on the date witnesses saw him wearing the plaster cast, on his nose, in court.

Much has been written about the plot to assassinate Lincoln on his way through Baltimore for the inauguration. This book is the first to describe the danger to which Mary and her sons were exposed en route to Baltimore while Lincoln passed secretly from Harrisburg to Washington. The Presidential train with Mary aboard served as a decoy, and the journey through "mob city" was a nightmare.

One of the most exciting moments of my research was in discovering a poem of Albert Laighton's that the Lincolns read together. It shaped the last lines of Lincolns' first inaugural address. Another was the discovery of a letter from a Washington physician describing Mrs. Lincoln's handling of a medical crisis in the White House (when her children had measles) that disproves the received opinion she was too unstable to handle such emergencies.

There's a lot more that is new, but I don't want to spoil it here. I felt honored to be entrusted with these materials, and to tell the Lincolns' story.

--Daniel Mark Epstein

From Publishers Weekly

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 © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 576 pages
  • Publisher: Ballantine Books; 1 edition (May 20, 2008)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0345477995
  • ISBN-13: 978-0345477996
  • Product Dimensions: 6.6 x 1.6 x 9.6 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 2 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (68 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #604,278 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Daniel Mark Epstein has written more than fifteen books of poetry, biography, and history, including Lincoln and Whitman, which received an Academy Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and The Lincolns: Portrait of a Marriage, named one of the top ten books of 2008 by the Wall Street Journal and Chicago Sun-Times. He lives in Baltimore.

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

37 of 38 people found the following review helpful By Jon Linden VINE VOICE on July 15, 2008
Format: Hardcover
Mr. Epstein writes a very personal portrayal of the marriage of Abraham Lincoln and Mary Todd. His book is easy reading for a historical book, and the author chooses not to burden the reader with voluminous footnotes in the text, but rather lists each quote and source in the appendix by chapter. The book is perhaps the finest and best researched exposition of the character of the Lincoln's marriage.

Epstein does a wonderful job of illustrating how good the Lincoln's marriage really was, as far as their compatibility and closeness. They both loved poetry and they both loved politics. Almost all the strategy and speeches that Lincoln made prior to his run for the Presidency were at the very least, run by Mary before he made his presentation. Mary gave critical and helpful advice on the substance and tone of his speeches. In addition, the Lincoln's were very affectionate toward each other. Mr. Epstein actually points out that it was the practice of the Lincoln's to make love to each other every night. This active love life continued until the birth of Mary's last child, Tad, whose head which was very large at birth, seriously damaged her birth canal and made sex difficult and painful from that point onward.

In addition, the author does an excellent job of illustrating the serious `mood disorder' that seems to have afflicted Mary throughout her life, and which increased in severity as she grew older. There are numerous stories all through their life together of this erratic behavior which are mentioned in the literature of historians and well presented in this book. By the time Lincoln won the Whitehouse, Mary's moods were so erratic, that it led John Hay, one of two main secretary/assistants that Lincoln had as President, to refer to Mary as "The Hellcat.
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36 of 37 people found the following review helpful By Sallie T. on May 29, 2008
Format: Hardcover
Vivid, fresh and compelling, The Lincolns offers an insightful and revelatory look at what bonded together these two iconic historical figures. The reader comes away with a clear sense of the symbiosis of profound psychological needs and shared experiences that united the Lincolns in ambition and devotion. Meticulous research is put to good use in creating the most richly textured evocation to date of the Lincolns' world, from the folksy streetscapes of Springfield to the glittering parlors of official Washington; from the relentless mobs (both cheering and hostile) to the horrific battlefields of Virginia. By focusing on the dynamics of the marriage, Epstein remains remarkably sympathetic to both partners. The reader senses Lincoln's maddening opacity as a husband, exacerbated by the grim responsibilities of the office of the Presidency, as a force that both empowered and frustrated Mary Lincoln's increasingly desperate need for individual recognition and respect. Epstein's ability to discern the telling detail, and to create unforgettably vivid images remains uniquely powerful among biographers, and grants a captivating immediacy to his storytelling. Nuanced and insightful, The Lincolns is a once-in-a-generation contribution to our understanding of the complex landscape of Lincoln's private world.
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26 of 27 people found the following review helpful By J. C Marrero on June 26, 2008
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Reading this book will be as close to getting to know the Lincolns as it is possible. Mr. Epstein has written a book that never embroiders the facts, but that is filled with penetrating insights into the characters of these two remarkable people. At times, one feels that Mary behaved no better than a common embezzler, at other times one's heart breaks for this poor, brave woman. As for Lincoln, he was a saint and a great president, but was he the right husband for this needy, difficult woman? Was he prescient, during their courtship, in suspecting that he could not make her happy? Possibly, no one could. What I found most startling is the suggestion in the last chapters that Mary, although mad or nearly so, saw the physical dangers to her husband more clearly than he did and that his insouciance exacerbated her erratic behavior. The Lincolns loved Shakespeare, but their evolutions suggest Cervantes' Quixote: there was a core of sanity in her madness that made her see the world as it was and this deepened her mental woes; his acceptance of fate blinded him to the need to prevent, rather than almost court, assassination. Did he somehow want to leave her in the only honorable way he could? Was his barely suppressed depression too much to bear as he mounted the steps to the theater box on that Good Friday? I never thought so until I read this great book.
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20 of 23 people found the following review helpful By Cynthia K. Robertson TOP 1000 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on March 3, 2009
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
One of the biggest mysteries of all about Abraham Lincoln involves his marriage to Mary Todd Lincoln. Was it a love match? Was she really crazy? Did they have anything in common? What did they see in each other? How much did Mary Todd Lincoln help or hurt Lincoln's presidency? Daniel Mark Epstein attempts to answer these questions in his ambitious book, The Lincolns: Portrait of a Marriage. I believe that The Lincolns gets off to a shaky start, more resembling historic fiction (and romantic fiction at that).
It isn't until the second half of the book that we get a more detailed and well-researched story about Lincoln and his wife.

Most readers know the basics about Abraham Lincoln and Mary Todd Lincoln. The short, perky, plump and pretty Mary Todd came from a prominent, slave-holding family from Lexington, Kentucky. Tall, gangly, and self-educated, Abraham came from more humble beginnings and grew up in a log cabin. Many would say that this was a marriage of opposites. Yet, both had a love of poetry, politics and the theatre. Mary was also politically ambitious for her husband. But Mary also had a dark side. Today, she would probably be diagnosed as being Bipolar--maybe even flirting with schizophrenia toward the end of the White House years. Once married, Lincoln "began to see the depths of her emotions, how the intensity of her love was matched by a savage hatred or anger." At times, she even turned her anger against her husband, breaking his nose one time, throwing hot coffee at him another.

In the first half of The Lincolns, there is much about Abraham and Mary that is fabricated. Early in their marriage, "The weekend before the convention, the Lincolns, holding each other for warmth, watched a comet on the western horizon.
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