Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Book Review: Abraham and Mary Lincoln

Abraham and Mary Lincoln by Kenneth J. Winkle (Carbondale, IL: Southern University Press, 2011).
            Abraham and Mary Lincoln remain one of the most enigmatic historical couples in American history.  Since their marriage in 1842, the couple has perplexed both contempories and historians alike.  It is little wonder that a marriage that caused such consternation upon its commencement still fuels debate today.  Kenneth J. Winkle aptly summarizes the public perception of the Lincoln marriage stating, “for a century and a half, the prevailing image of the marriage of Abraham and Mary Lincoln, among both historians and the American public in general, has included disagreement and discord between the two as its central motif” (Winkle, 1).  This perception has continued due to the fact that on the surface the marriage of Abraham Lincoln and Mary Todd appeared to have united two individuals who were total opposites in personality, appearance, and social standing.  Historians have not aided the public’s understanding of the couple by creating two divergent interpretations. 
More cynical historians, including Michael Burlingame and Daniel Berry, have suggested that the Lincoln marriage was based solely on the political ambitions of Abraham and Mary.  This thesis hardly brings honor to either party.  First it portrays Mary Todd as the nineteenth-century incarnation of Lady Macbeth, the scheming and manipulative wife of Shakespeare’s tragic villain.  Secondly, it portrays Abraham Lincoln as an equally scheming politician who willingly engaged in a loveless marriage in order to advance his political career by uniting himself with the wealthy and influential Todd family.  This interpretation is countered by more sympathetic historians, including Ruth Painter Randall, Jean Baker, and Catherine Clinton, see the Lincoln marriage as a genuine love match.  True, they argue, politics did play a role, not as the center of which the marriage was built upon but as a uniting factor that brought the couple together.  In fact, it was politics that brought the couple back together in 1842 when Mary Todd with the aid of a female friend teamed up with her former fiancĂ©, Abraham Lincoln, to write a series of scathing anonymous letters against their political rival James Shields.  With such divergent interpretations, it takes a brave historian who is willing to dip into such muddy waters.  Fortunately for Lincoln scholars, Kenneth J. Winkle was not deterred and has produced the wonderfully readable and thought provoking Abraham and Mary Lincoln as part of the Concise Lincoln Library published by Southern Illinois University Press.
            At only a hundred and forty-seven pages Abraham and Mary Lincoln is intended to be an introduction to the Lincoln marriage.  As part of the Concise Lincoln Library the intention of Kenneth J. Winkle’s book is to give “readers the opportunity to quickly achieve basic knowledge of a Lincoln-related topic,” according to the series message statement.  What could have been a brief and didactic biography became under the skillful hand of Winkle a fascinating examination of the Lincoln marriage within the context of the Victorian era in which they lived.  During the period in which the Lincolns married and raised their family the middle-class in which Abraham and Mary precariously resided in was going through a complex series of changes.  This naturally brought challenges into the Lincoln marriage as both Abraham and Mary struggled as they tried to fulfill the duties society prescribed for their roles, as Winkle writes, “both Lincolns strove to lead a respectable middle-class marriage, which was, after all, the ideal for Americans of their age.  Yet Abraham Lincoln continually reverted to the traditional patterns of family life in which he had been raised, while Mary Lincoln continually attempted to reproduce the upper-class lifestyle that she found so familiar” (Winkle, 61).  Despite the challenges brought into the Lincoln marriage from society and their own disparate background the couple flourished and thrived.  For Abraham Lincoln his marriage brought him the comfort and stability of a home with all of its benefits.  Lincoln’s contemporaries even remarked on the positive effects Mary had on her husband, one acquaintance remembered, “Mrs. Lincoln, by her attention, had much to do with preserving her husband’s health.  She was careful to see that he ate his meals regularly, and that he was well groomed” (Winkle, 61-62).  The marriage also brought benefits for Mary, a fact that historians have surprisingly neglected to note.  Her marriage not only gave her children to raise and love and gave her the freedom to indulge in her passion for politics by living vicariously through her husband’s political career.  No marriage is perfect, as Winkle illustrates in his study, but the Lincoln marriage should be admired for their ability to stay united in their love and devotion for each other despite the challenges they faced.
            Structured like a tradition biography, Abraham and Mary Lincoln opens with a lengthy examination of the family origins of the Lincoln and Todd families followed by an interwoven account of Abraham and Mary’s childhood focusing on the different social worlds the children resided in.  Winkle then delves into the reasons that brought Abraham and Mary to Springfield, Illinois in the 1840s.  Through their childhood and early adulthood Abraham and Mary mirrored the complex transformation in Antebellum America.  Both the Lincolns and the Todds moved repeatable West seeking economic and political advancement.  In fact, it was for economic reasons that both Abraham and Mary arrived in Springfield around the same time.  Winkle then moves his narrative forward by uniting the central characters of his book together.  In the second chapter Winkle delves into the heart of his argument that despite their differences and the challenges that the marriage faced Abraham and Mary remained committed to their union.  This challenges the prevailing view of the Lincolns marriage of one of unending torture for both participants.  True, they struggled in their society proscribed roles and often argued about their roles within the marriage, but they (unlike the Antebellum Union) were able to forage a compromise that benefited both resulting in a remarkable resilient union. 
This union would be tested as never before following Abraham Lincoln’s election and the resulting Civil War which is covered in the third chapter.  Winkle highlights that the challenges that Abraham and Mary experienced during their marriage life was only heightened during the Civil War.  Both struggled in their ability to confine to the standards of middle-class behavior.  While Abraham Lincoln’s homespun appearance became a cherished facet of American life, Mary Lincoln’s strict adherence to Victorian gentility brought her condemnation and charges of “fiddling away while Rome was burning.”  Instead, Winkle argues, Mary Lincoln was attempting to preserve the status of the White House and the Union through her costly redecoration and elaborate entertainments.  The Civil War placed a heavy burden on the Lincolns both personally and politically.  Devastated by the death of their son Willie in 1862 the Lincolns began to drift emotionally apart, though their devotion to each other never waned.  In the end it would take an assassin’s bullet to permanently separate the couple.  Winkle concludes his study with the tragic ending of Mary Lincoln who followed Queen Victoria’s example and embraced a rigid system of mourning that would make her a virtual shut-in for the remainder of her life.
Though brief, Kenneth J. Winkle’s Abraham and Mary Lincoln is an insightful examination of a complex couple who resided in an increasingly complex and divided America.  This short introduction into the Lincoln marriage introduces a number of insightful interpretations which place Abraham and Mary within the context of their era.  Abraham and Mary Lincoln simultaneously accepted and rejected their roles within American society.  Naturally, this duality brought tension into their married life, yet it was their ability to work through their work through their differences that made the Lincoln marriage a success.  Winkle’s prose is lively and engaging which makes Abraham and Mary Lincoln assessable for both the general reader and the professional historian.  While not perfect, the lack of source notes make it difficult to examine some of the questionable statements, such as that the Lincoln’s had Rose bushes in front of their Springfield home (this claim is not supported by the photographs taken of the house in 1860).  For personal reasons I respectfully disagree with Winkle’s interpretation of Spiritualism.  Based on my research there is no evidence to support the statement that the President, “after his wife offered him political and military advice on the basis of her contact with the other side, Lincoln used his presidential power to curb the visits and warn off the spiritualists” (Winkle, 101).  Compared on the whole, these little complaints do not diminish the value of Winkle’s study.  For those who are interested in the Lincolns and the Civil War, Abraham and Mary Lincoln earns a place on their bookshelf.
To Purchase:
Amazon: http://www.amazon.com/Abraham-Mary-Lincoln-Comcise-Library/dp/0809330490/ref=sr_1_2?ie=UTF8&qid=1343160707&sr=8-2&keywords=abraham+and+mary+lincoln
Barnes and Noble: http://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/abraham-and-mary-lincoln-kenneth-j-winkle/1101041379?ean=9780809330492
Southern Illinois University Press: http://www.siupress.com/catalog/CategoryInfo.aspx?cid=152

The Concise Lincoln Library: http://www.conciselincolnlibrary.com/