Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Mrs. Lincoln and Mrs. Keckly

Mrs. Lincoln and Mrs. Keckly - Jennifer Fleischner (faculty profile)

ISBN 0767902599

In the eyes of some historians and ACW buffs, Mary Lincoln has the image of a shopaholic so unstable that her son Robert had to commit her to an insane asylum.  Her modiste and confidant Elizabeth Keckly is known dimly as the author of the controversial memoir Behind the Scenes, which gives us a fascinating look into the Lincoln White House.

Jennifer Fleischner (Department of English, Adelphi University) writes a sympathetic if unsparing portrait of Mary Lincoln.  Mary did have an excitable and immoderate temperament. Plus, she was loosely educated, like many Southern women of the day, to play the piano and ride in carriages. Her compulsive shopping – she bought hundreds of pairs of gloves in one shopping trip - had roots in her sorrow and feelings of emptiness.

Her southern family cut off ties with her after the ACW began. She had two of her beloved children die. Lincoln did not love her and when he wasn’t aloof and distant, he acted with bemused and weary tolerance at her vagaries. Her husband was shot in the head with her right next to him. She later lost a third son when he was just a teenager. Her own health was fragile: she suffered migraines and anxiety and she may have been suffering from untreated diabetes (she died of a stroke). This lonely and anguished woman had plenty of trials that would dog anybody, even those better educated and more philosophically equipped than she was.

Mrs. Keckly, on the other hand, Fleischner portrays as a strong figure. Born in slavery, she was raped for four years by a white man. She was impregnated by him and bore his son.  She lost this son, who passed as white to join the US Army, when he was killed in his first battle of the ACW. Determined and talented with her needle, she worked as a seamstress (custom dressmaking was required before mass production of clothes). She was able to buy her and her son’s freedom.  She built her professional reputation to the point where extremely influential women, such as Varina Davis wife of Jefferson, recommended her to others. That was how Mary Lincoln came to hire her and dominate virtually all her time.

Theirs was a complicated relationship that Fleischner describes clearly and plausibly. Mary Lincoln grew up assuming people would do things for her and make things right when the going got rough. Keckly took on that role, out of true liking, pity, and gratitude because Mary’s husband was the Moses of her people. When Lincoln was assassinated, Mary sent for Mrs. Keckly, though that terrible night Mrs. Keckly was unable to get past the jumpy guards.

Mrs. Keckly was a remarkable woman. She learned to read, write and figure. She owned her own dressmaking business and employed seamstresses.  She founded the Contraband Relief Association in August 1862. Mrs. Keckly said that the CRA was formed “for the purpose, not only of relieving he wants of those destitute people, but also to sympathize with, and advise them.”  After the ACW, she maintained her relationship with Mary Lincoln and tried to help her with her money problems.  Mrs. Keckly wrote Behind the Scenes to defend Mary Lincoln, but due to criticism rooted in racism, sexism, and classism, the book was controversial and disappeared soon after it was published. The book is well worth reading before this one.

Fleischner, mercifully, writes for the general lay reader and avoids the grating jargon of Theory. Her writing style is pleasant to read. I highly recommend this book.

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