by Stacy Pratt McDermott
New York: Routledge, 2015. Pp. xii, 200.
Append., notes, biblio., index. $34.95 paper. ISBN: 1138786810
A Life of Lincoln’s First Lady
McDermott, the author of The Jury in Lincoln’s America, and the Assistant Director and Assistant Editor of the Papers of Abraham Lincoln, has written a very readable, quite detailed, and surprisingly nuanced biography of Mary Todd Lincoln, perhaps the most maligned First Lady in history, called “crazy” and “a traitor” by her contemporaries and often portrayed in historiography, literature, and theatre as a lunatic.
McDermott gives us far more information about Mary Lincoln’s early life, and particularly her education, than most accounts. She makes a very good case that Mary Lincoln was a more complex person than she is usually portrayed as, being quite intelligent and adaptable. Reared in a prosperous slave-holding Kentucky family, as a young women she was both vivacious and talented, courted not only by Abraham Lincoln, and also even by Abe later’ rival for the Senate and Presidency Stephen A. Douglas.
McDermott argues that the more popular image of Mrs. Lincoln as neurotic, perhaps insane person, derives from the many telling blows that she received over her life, a matter that is often overlooked; three of her four sons dead from disease, her husband murdered at her side, and the stress of Civil War, in which several of her brothers died fighting for the South, were immensely stressful experiences that plunged her into depression.
In telling the story of Mary Lincoln, McDermott also gives us glimpses of many other people, most notably Mr. Lincoln, and uses Mrs. Lincoln's life and experiences to help throw light on the complex social, political, and gender issues of the age. This makes her book a useful read for those with an interest in American society in the era of the Civil War.
Note: Mary Lincoln, a volume in the Routledge “Historical Americans” series, is also available in hardback, $140.00, ISBN 978-1-1387-8680-6.