Correction to This Article
This review incorrectly described Abraham Lincoln as a senator. Lincoln served as a legislator in the Illinois House of Representatives and as a U.S. congressman, but not as a senator.

The Lincoln Bedroom

Reviewed by Catherine Allgor
Sunday, July 6, 2008


Portrait of a Marriage

By Daniel Mark Epstein

Ballantine. 559 pp. $28

Americans have long been fascinated by the contrasting characters of Abraham and Mary Todd Lincoln: the lanky, lugubrious, long-faced man and the woman who described herself as a "ruddy pine knot with periodic exuberances of flesh." The Lincolns themselves played on their differences; Abraham, lengthened by his famous stovepipe hat, would stand next to his wife, rendered even rounder by ruffles and decorations. He would point to himself and say, "My friends, this is the long of it." Then, his hand on Mary's head, he added, "And this is the short of it." No surprise, then, that the strongest elements of Daniel Epstein's The Lincolns are his portraits of the two as individuals. Epstein succeeds in delineating Abraham Lincoln, studious and thoughtful (sometimes to the point of catatonia), and Mary Todd Lincoln, whose high-energy existence could tip her into either full-blown psychotic rage or the depths of depression.

But Epstein has set himself a harder task than merely chronicling each Lincoln spouse; he wants to study that third character in every marriage -- the marriage itself. Epstein also wants to tell the story of a presidential marriage occupying the charged space of the White House during the charged time of the Civil War. Unfortunately for him, the personal and political do not mesh easily: Politics displaces the Lincoln marriage, which was all but destroyed by the pressure of the war and life in the White House.

The day Mary Todd Lincoln arrived in Washington, sons in tow, she met her husband at the Willard Hotel, where they would stay until the inauguration. Their reunion scene at this triumphal moment might have been the stuff of which Mary's favorite novels were made. But her husband met her in the hotel lobby, surrounded by his political colleagues, and soon left her for a dinner at William Seward's. This set the pattern of their life in the White House, a pattern of separation and (at least from Mary's perspective) isolation. The unrelenting press of the Civil War, and the personal devastation of their son Willie's death in 1862, only increased their estrangement. As Epstein points out, their marriage had been built on "a rhythm of necessary separation following periods of domestic intimacy." Life at the White House changed that rhythm into a "frustration that came of constant proximity in a world where intimacy was almost impossible."

Given the current political climate and the prominence of political power couples in Washington, readers will sympathize with Epstein's attempt to tease out the Lincolns' political partnership. Incorporating women's lives into the traditional historical narrative is a worthy goal but requires more sophisticated understanding of the role of the First Lady, or the importance of the social sphere to politics, than is on display in this work. And, again, the reality of the Lincolns' marriage pushes back against Epstein's attempt to spin a tale of political partnership in the White House. For Mary Todd Lincoln, as for many First Ladies, the most active politicking took place in the years before her husband won the highest seat in the land. While Abraham was a senator, Mary sought patronage posts for him, wrote his letters and used her own correspondence to outline his position on slavery to Southerners. Once in Washington, far from her own networks and bowed with grief, Mary was not the most involved political partner.

Still, Epstein's literary talents shine in this book. He relishes period details (such as how to clean a lamp), and his description of the Lincolns' famous 1862 ball truly brings the scene to life. Epstein is also adept at literary analysis (he wrote a well-received treatment of Lincoln and Walt Whitman and a biography of Edna St. Vincent Millay); some of his most captivating scenes weave readings of contemporary plays or novels into his presentation of the Lincolns' inner lives.

When it comes to the tools of the historian, however, Epstein is less sure-footed. His use of primary sources is uneven. He creatively employs such historical data as shopping lists, using, for example, Abraham's request for "blue mass" pills (a contemporary treatment for syphilis) to speculate about his sexual experience. But why does he paraphrase major figures instead of quoting them directly, while devoting substantial space to quotations from the familiar Book of Common Prayer? Epstein uses quotation marks and italics interchangeably for direct quotations and invented dialogue alike. He takes a letter that Mary wrote about her sister and dissects it in fresh and revealing ways, demonstrating Mary's capacity for denial. But elsewhere he simply transcribes correspondence without analyzing it. A full-blooded history should do more than merely tell a story with a timeline; it should present original arguments and provide historical contexts. Epstein seems a prisoner of his carefully plotted chronology and leaves such exotic topics as dueling, women's legal status and spiritualism without any analytical or historical framing.

In some ways, Epstein's storytelling talents directly clash with historical accuracy, making it hard to classify the book. Though it is full of writerly touches and Epstein indulges in practices such as depicting his subject's thoughts, this is not historical fiction. On the other hand, it is difficult to categorize this work as serious history. History demands a certain level of exactitude, usually found in the source notes. The notes here are sketchy, citing only direct quotations and not all of them at that. Publishers often don't like extensive, expensive endnotes, so it is hard to say who is at fault. Many of Epstein's most provocative claims have no attribution: for instance, about the effect of Mary's physicality on Abraham, Mary's astonishment at the growth of Springfield in the early 1840s, how Mary carried herself, the couple's talent for mimicry, their honeymoon thoughts, their pattern of frequent (daily?) sexual intercourse, whether she wished him luck on his first day in Congress, whether she was proud of his first speech there, her assessment of the Lincoln-Douglas debates. Without documentation, how can we evaluate these claims?

The Lincolns: Portrait of a Marriage may inspire scholars to substantiate Epstein's work. For Lincoln lovers less fastidious about their history, the story and writing will hold their attention. ยท

Catherine Allgor is professor of history at the University of California at Riverside and the author of "A Perfect Union: Dolley Madison and the Creation of the American Nation."

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