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Book Reviews

The Lincoln’s – Portrait of a Marriage

July 3, 2021

The Lincoln’s: Portrait of a Marriage.
Daniel Mark Epstein (Random House/Ballantine Books, New York, 2008, 576p.) $28.

Daniel Mark Epstein is a biographer, poet and dramatist whose work has been widely published and performed. He has written biographies of Aimee Semple McPherson, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Nat King Cole, Abraham Lincoln and Walt Whitman (Lincoln and Whitman: Parallel Lives in Civil War Washington) and given talks on Lincoln at various venues.

According to the press release, this is the first full-length book to cover the Lincoln marriage since 1953, when scholars lacked today’s resources. ” … Epstein has produced an incisive and balanced portrait of the Lincoln’s, from their mysterious and troubled courtship in 1840 until his assassination in Ford’s Theatre in 1865 … this is the first book about the Lincoln marriage that recounts the Springfield years (16 years out of 22 total) and in as much detail as the White House years.” The promotional blurb provides a summary of new material contained in the work. These include: the theory that Lincoln, prior to his marriage and for years afterward, thought he had contacted syphilis and was taking the prescribed pill for that affliction; the two-year sojourn of 18-year-old Harriet Hanks in the Lincoln household, working as a domestic; Lincoln’s visit to Lexington, KY en route to Congress in 1847 and his attendance of a Henry Clay anti-war speech at that location; the witnessing by the Lincoln’s of an abduction of a black servant in their Washington, DC boarding house; the assault of Lincoln by his wife with a stick of firewood in 1857, with supporting evidence; the harrowing experience of Mary Lincoln as she passed through Baltimore, an innocent decoy, on the way to Washington in February 1861; the influence of a poem by Albert Leighton, owned by Lincoln, in composing the “mystic chords of memory” imagery of his first Inaugural Address; a letter from a Washington doctor concerning Mrs. Lincoln’s handling of a medical crisis in the White House that disproves anecdotal evidence that she was useless in such emergencies; a precise chronicling of Mrs. Lincoln’s extravagances and fraudulent dealings as First Lady and the involvement of the House Judiciary Committee; and a detailed account of the Lincolns’ visit to Fort Stevens while under enemy attack with a measured analysis of the actual dangers involved (unlike Hillary Clinton at Kosovo, the Lincoln’s were ACTUALLY subject to sniper fire!)

All-in-all, this is a very fine book which holds ones interest over the span of five hundred pages. Obviously, documentation for the early years of the Lincoln courtship and marriage is sparse, subject to many “blank” stretches of time. The book starts out reading like a fictional work, with much emphasis on establishing a mood, going into details, imagining the thoughts and words of the young protagonists. As the time frame advances, the “novelistic” style shifts to something more appropriate to an historical biography, utilizing actual words extracted from reminiscences, newspaper accounts, letters and diaries. Epstein is a talented writer, as seen in this excerpt: “Mary Lincoln was indeed surrounded by much that renders life desirable, including the Presbyterian church at Third and Washington where she offered prayers of thanksgiving on Sunday. They purchased a pew in the seventh row for fifty dollars. She had all of these things. Yet she was so lonely that her fondest wish for her friend was that Hannah might never be as lonely as she was. She was lonely because she did not have him, Abraham Lincoln, her husband. Perhaps she had never possessed him as she wished; perhaps no one, and nothing, could take him in. He was beginning to seem – to many people – larger than life. He had certainly outshone every politician in the West with the possible exception of Stephen Douglas, whose star was waning … It would have been a pleasure for them to forget their differences in the warmth of the marriage bed, steeped in the solvent of erotic love; but time and the wounds of childbirth had diminished that reliable solution. They were left with the prosaic truth of each other; a middle-aged woman and man in two chairs, bound by their children, their home and possessions, their memories, social conventions, and their burning ambition. They were still drawn together by the mysterious lure of the future.”

The book seems well-founded on solid research, although some errors have insidiously crept in. These include: a statement that the Wide Awakes was one of the “many Republican marching and support clubs founded during the 1856 campaign”, that Robert Todd Lincoln was given the nickname “Prince of Rails” during the pre-inaugural visit to Indianapolis in February 1861 (Abraham Lincoln was proclaimed the “Prince of Rails” during the campaign of 1860, inspired by the visit that year of the Prince of Wales), and that Robert Anderson of Fort Sumter fame was a colonel, rather than a major in the army. Minor stuff, we must admit. There are also some descriptions of political ephemera that we find totally intriguing. These include: a printed invitation to an 1839 Springfield cotillion with an American eagle and a list of managers that encompasses Lincoln, Ninian Edwards, Jr., James Shields, Joshua Speed and Stephen Douglas, PLUS a similar piece for a February 22, 1849 George Washington “Birth Night Ball” in the nation’s capital with Lincoln and Douglas listed as Illinois managers in the event organized to raise funds for the Washington monument. Do these things actually still exist, or have they been “extrapolated” by the author based on period accounts? Something else to look for … the collecting passion burns!!

We find fault with the work in two areas only. There is a tendency to constantly describe the clothing and hairstyles of Mary Lincoln, as no doubt reported by eyewitnesses. Anyone not familiar with couture and hair styling terminology may find it hard to visualize. The repetition becomes irritating. Secondly, the author, in the final chapter of the book dealing with the night of the assassination, abandons his earlier writing style and instead switches to the present tense and a “rapid fire” staccato of brief, unadorned sentences. The shift is jarring and one gets the impression that the final chapter was rushed through to completion. On the whole, though, we can heartily endorse this newest entrant in the panoply of Lincoln tomes.