The Lincolns by Daniel Mark Epstein

[1 June 2008]

By Julia Keller

Chicago Tribune (MCT)

A Lincoln book divided against itself cannot stand. Yet so many books about this most revered and mysterious of presidents try to do two things at once and end up making a hash of both. They attempt to make Abraham Lincoln seem unique, unprecedented, a force of nature; then they gather up the clunky, homespun details of his daily life to sell us on the notion that he was, after all, just a human being. Not a god but a husband, a father, a politician. A lot of Lincoln books have that odd push-and-pull quality to them: He was rare. No, he was an ordinary man in extraordinary times. He was special. No, he munched apples and lost his socks, just like regular folks.

The Lincolns: Portrait of a Marriage, a new book by veteran biographer Daniel Mark Epstein, doesn’t fall into the trap of trying to be all things to all Lincoln enthusiasts. Epstein’s focus is narrow but admirably clear: Abraham and Mary Todd Lincoln, as a married couple. The author doesn’t waste time reminding readers of Lincoln’s singular place in American history; Epstein probably assumes we already know about that. Instead, this book is about Lincoln the lover, Lincoln the dad, Lincoln the life partner. And it’s about Mary the debutante, Mary the nervous young wife, Mary the grieving mother, Mary the insecure first lady.

Those familiar with Lincoln’s life story will not find new information here, but they should appreciate Epstein’s ability to weave a fresh story out of familiar, much-handled material. There are lovely passages that make a long-vanished moment flash into the present tense once again:
“Twilight came early on that cloudy Friday,” Epstein writes. “Lincoln bathed and dressed for the wedding in his little bedroom at William Butler’s house, and was about to put on his black silk stock when he heard someone at the door. It was his friend Elizabeth Butler, dressed in her best gown of yellow silk, come to see if the nervous bridegroom was properly dressed and shaved, combed and brushed for the wedding. Behind her were her children, Salome and five-year-old Speed. Lincoln bent down and allowed Mrs. Butler to knot his black tie in a bow.” Suddenly, 1842 is 2008, and you wonder what the wedding cake is going to taste like when you’re served your piece.

The first half of the book, which covers the courtship and early married years of this oddly matched but fascinating couple, is by far the most interesting. Once Lincoln is elected president, everything slows down and becomes predictable; ironic, perhaps, given the fact that the country was roiled by a civil war. But by that time, Lincoln’s domestic life had settled into a gray routine, and he was much like the British husband described by E.M. Forster in Howard’s End: He gave his wife, as Forster put it, “all his love, and half his attention.”

Occasionally, Epstein pulls back from the action and delivers a little sermon about marriage in general; these intrusions serve no purpose and sometimes seem to trivialize the particulars of Abraham’s and Mary’s frustrations with their union. Too often, we get this: “Enduring marriages do not follow a simple trajectory to success or ruin. They proceed in a jagged arc, as husband and wife agree, disagree, compromise, and experience estrangement and reconciliation of their life together.” Thank you, Dr. Phil.

Another source of irritation is Epstein’s habit of damning Mary while pretending to sympathize with her. “So she struck her husband from time to time, and she was horrified by her behavior and very sorry; he sulked and brooded and grieved over it if he could not laugh it off.” Mary’s rages are chalked up exclusively to sadness over her husband’s frequent absences; might there have been other, deeper motivations that had nothing to do with him? Might she have had thwarted plans and blighted ambitions of her own? Epstein rarely pays her the compliment of a private soul, untethered from her status as Abraham’s helpmate.

But on the whole, The Lincolns is a laudable addition to the towering pile of Lincoln lore, an original take on a dynamic relationship, one that changed history. Epstein’s writing style is graceful and lucid. He never strains for effect, never sets off verbal pyrotechnics just for the sake of the razzle-dazzle. This is a calm, measured, responsible book—and if that makes it sound dull, then I’ve misled you. It’s hard to put down. Chapters end, but you want to keep going; you have to find out what will become of this passionate, ambitious couple from Springfield. You already know, of course, but you want to hear it again from Epstein, because he’s such a grand storyteller.

Lincoln’s greatness is a given. What is less well known is how that greatness dovetailed with his private passions and intimate disappointments, with his life not as the nation’s savior but as Mary’s husband. They lived, as do we all, in a clatter of coffee cups and umbrellas, in a jumble of laundry and milliners’ bills. The beauty of Epstein’s book lies in its precise explication of the everyday reality of a curious and fateful marriage. Abraham loved Mary, to be sure, and she loved him. But that’s the easy part. Daily life—in the White House, in any house—is the real challenge, the true proving ground, whether you’re Lincoln or one of the rest of us.

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