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Framing of the shrew

  • Oct 22, 2008
Epstein's biography of President and Mrs. Lincoln's marriage is relentlessly depressing. Is it an accurate reflection of their living relationship? Perhaps, but it is hard to see in this account the genius who belonged to the ages.

In Epstein's view, Lincoln's fault was an occasional distance that removed him spiritually and psychologically from a scene even when he was bodily there; Mary Lincoln's faults, were, well, everything else. No doubt she is a tragic figure in history, but painting her as relentlessly jealous, grasping, domineering, bitter, shrewish, over-ambitious, corrupt, and violent has the perhaps-intended effect of adding new arguments in favor of Lincoln's qualifications for sainthood. I was left feeling pity for her, and wonderment that he maintained his calm in the face of such a harridan. . . .

. . . And I was also left feeling that Epstein has stacked his argument. Surely no man, saintly as we know Lincoln was, would have voluntarily persevered so nobly of his wife really was as Epstein paints her. A marriage requires an attraction of eye, mind, and soul between two people that Epstein is never able to find.

Part of the problem with this book, is hinted at in Ken Burn's back-cover praise for the book: "Will we ever tire of trying to understand this man?" The primary sources, and prime facts, have already been mined and memorized so thoroughly that there is nothing new left by which we can get a handle on Lincoln, so Epstein's effort is bound to appear strained. And because there is little primary documentation that sheds light on the Lincolns' marriage, Epstein has to speculate and extrapolate too often. Epstein is finally left to argue at times that paucity of documentation is proof of distance, which may be true, especially during the White House years when some of Mary's absences and silences seem oddly timed--but may also be the result of historical accident (lost documentation) or intentional forgetfulness (selective destruction of documentation to maintain privacy).

Epstein's account does provide the valuable service of reminding us that Lincoln, so often portrayed as the larger-than-life lone hero, was in fact husband first, then father, then President, before attaining historical canonization. These reminders are most necessary and most interesting at times of the greatest danger in Lincoln's brief Presidential career--the 1861 train ride into Washington under threat of assassination, and the 1864 stand on the Washington, DC ramparts under threat of gunfire, for example.

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About the reviewer
Todd Stockslager ()
I love reading and writing about what I have read, making the connections and marking the comparisons and contrasts. God has given man the amazing power to invent language and the means to record it which … more
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From the Author: What's New inThe Lincolns, Portrait of a Marriage?

During the years I was researching and writing this book I was asked again and again: Have you found anything new, in facts or perspective?

The answer is yes, and yes again. Everything is new in the sense that when one puts aside the stereotypes associated with the Lincolns, a rich and complex married life emerges. The stereotypes are: Mary was crazy, and Abraham was a saint. The most popular myth is that Lincoln married a madwoman, and suffered patiently and heroically through twenty-two miserable years of marriage.

After my research, I reached two conclusions that shaped my portrait of the marriage. First, these two people loved each other deeply, from the time they met in Springfield in 1839, until his assassination in 1865. The second is that Mary was extremely interested in Abraham's career and speeches; whenever they could, the two of them talked about these things. She was a strong political partner for him.

The rest of my work has been a careful gathering of details. Here again, there is a lot that is new. First, this is the only book about the marriage that recounts the Springfield years (16 years out of 22) in as much detail as the White House years. In Springfield the family achieved a delicate balance that was destabilized in wartime Washington. The story that began as a romance turns to tragedy.

The Lincolns' courtship was stormy; he broke off their engagement in 1840, and they were not reconciled ...

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ISBN-10: 0345477995
ISBN-13: 978-0345477996
Author: Daniel Mark Epstein
Genre: History
Publisher: Ballantine Books
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