On Her Own

Reviewed by Elaine Showalter
Sunday, February 8, 2009


A Life

By Catherine Clinton

Harper. 415 pp. $26.99

Mrs. Lincoln -- the very title of historian Catherine Clinton's biography signals a portrait of a woman noteworthy only as the wife of a great man. Moreover, as Clinton notes, "while Abraham Lincoln became immortal in the American imagination, Mary Lincoln would become infamous." As First Lady, she was suspected of being a Confederate spy, ridiculed for attending séances and criticized for extravagant shopping, decorating and entertaining. As First Widow, she was viewed as mentally disturbed and was committed to a private mental asylum by her son. Generations of biographers, historians and "Lincolnistas" (as Clinton calls the great man's fans) have portrayed her as everything from shrewish First Virago to persecuted First Victim.

Clinton's meticulous study is meant to restore Mary Todd Lincoln to the historical record with fairness and compassion. Sadly, it also shows how much her significance depended on her husband's glory. Well educated and well dressed but neither an intellectual nor a belle, Kentucky-born Mary Todd was ready to settle down when she met Abraham Lincoln. Marriage brought out her resilience, especially in the difficult early years when she lived in boardinghouses, nursed her sons and gave her husband encouragement and support. When Lincoln was elected president in 1861, she became an energetic Washingtonian who set out to renovate the White House, open it to both grand and popular entertainment, and reign as a woman of fashion and culture.

Pursued by the press -- "if she but drives down Pennsylvania Avenue, the electric wire trills the news to every hamlet in the Union," one journalist wrote -- Mrs. Lincoln soon found herself the target of malicious gossip. There was sniping when she turned to clairvoyants for consolation after the death of her son Willie. She was mocked for her addiction to shopping and her taste for low-cut, unflattering gowns. Some Unionists suspected her of sympathizing with slaveholders, although her closest friends were Elizabeth Keckly, a statuesque black dressmaker, and Charles Sumner, the abolitionist senator from Massachusetts.

On April 14, 1865, distraught and sobbing by her husband's deathbed, Mary fell apart so swiftly that Edwin Stanton, the secretary of war who took charge of the crisis following the president's assassination, ordered his men to "take that woman out and do not let her in again." Stanton's command was a succinct prediction of Mrs. Lincoln's post-assassination status. She outlived her husband by 17 years, but she was excluded from the national spotlight and the Washington society she had briefly conquered. Adopting the dramatic style of mourning of the widowed Queen Victoria, whom she admired and physically resembled, Mary shut herself up in the White House for a month (to the annoyance of President Andrew Johnson), finally moving to Chicago with 50 trunks.

For the next decade, she traveled restlessly from place to place, visiting health spas from Florida to Nice, but nothing assuaged her loneliness, grief and anxieties about money. Despite an adequate income, she was unable to control her binge-purge spending (Clinton calls it "financial bulimia"), in which she alternated between wild extravagance and panicky hoarding. She wrote shameless letters to friends and politicians, complaining of her mistreatment by the government and pleading for a larger pension.

In the spring of 1874, living in a Chicago hotel, stockpiling dozens of gloves and heaps of handkerchiefs and bonnets, and suffering from migraines, back pain, insomnia, frequent urination and fears of being pursued or robbed, Mary reached a crisis. Her surviving son, Robert, arranged a court hearing that found her mentally unbalanced, and he committed her to the Bellevue Place sanatorium in Batavia, Ill. It was a luxurious establishment, but she felt deeply humiliated and betrayed. After three months, friends arranged for her release, and she spent the last years of her life as an exile in Pau, a resort town in France.

We have to pity Mary Lincoln, but was she also misrepresented and mistreated? Clinton weighs the arguments on both sides but cautiously refrains from judgment. Aiming for scholarly impartiality, she is understandably reluctant to say whether Mary was merely eccentric or clinically insane. In either case, being declared a lunatic in open court and treated with a genteel Victorian rest cure surely cannot have helped Mary's psychological problems.

While describing Mary as a "woman of intense intellect and passion," Clinton does not provide much evidence that she had the intelligence, ideals or insight that would have made her a memorable individual as well as the iconic "Mrs. Lincoln." Sadly, even in our age of Prozac, Dr. Phil and a lucrative market for First Lady memoirs, it seems unlikely that Mary Todd Lincoln would have earned a biography on her own. ·

Elaine Showalter is professor emerita of English at Princeton University. "A Jury of Her Peers," her history of American women writers, will be published this month.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company