Saturday, October 19, 2019

Correcting the Narrative on Mary Todd Lincoln: An Interview with Historian Kerry Ellard

I've always been a fan of history, and one of my favorite eras of interest is the period from the Mexican War to the Civil War. And one of the central characters of that period would most certainly have been Abraham Lincoln, our 16th president. As an artist I have painted numerous portrait of the man and read many books. Even so, my mental portrait of his wife, Mary Todd Lincoln, has been more a caricature than a true reflection of the woman.

So it was with great interest that I began reading several chapters of Kerry Ellard's book on Medium about this prominent and forgotten first lady.

Kerry Ellard is an independent historian and tutor who lives in Massachusetts. She has held positions in the legal field and in government. Her work has been published in the Abraham
Lincoln Association’s newsletter and The Manuscripts Society’s quarterly journal. After earning degrees in communication and political science from Boston University, she graduated from Boston College Law School in 2014.

EN: Can you briefly summarize what your book about Mary Todd Lincoln is about?

Kerry Ellard: The book is about the last years of Mary Todd Lincoln’s life, 1880-1882, a period which has not been closely studied by previous biographers. After being released from an insane asylum in 1876, she moved abroad for several years and lived in seclusion. She returned in 1880 and became a recluse at her sister’s house in Springfield, Illinois. In 1881, a series of startling events, including her estranged son’s appointment as Secretary of War under President Garfield and the latter's subsequent assassination, drew her back into the world.

This project began with a study of the contemporary press coverage of her battle for a pension increase later that year, recently made feasible by historical newspaper sites, which I blogged about on my Medium page. The pension campaign was successful, but this is usually attributed to a larger movement to compensate Garfield’s widow. Congress was in a generous mood, the story goes, and there was no resistance. I argue that there was strong resistance, and of a disturbing kind.

EN: What prompted you to write this story"

"Blue Lincoln" by Ed Newman
KE: I found some newspaper articles (now widely accessible due to historical newspaper websites that arose out of the genealogy craze) that made some shocking claims, which I had never seen addressed. I dismissed them as gossip or sensationalizing, but they stayed at the back of my mind. Eventually, I tried to dig in a little deeper, because something just seemed off. And I found enough to convince me that there was something going on. I had several research ideas going, but I picked this one since it hadn’t gotten much coverage and allowed me to look at her life from a new angle. That was what I ended up putting on Medium—I just needed to publish something, instead of having it bouncing around in my mind.

Then I moved on to other parts of her life, and began studying the evolution of journalism in the 1800s. I realized what a revealing shift had taken place from the 1860s to the 1880s, in every aspect of American culture, and how that affected the conversation in 1881. It revealed a lot about how people behave generally—how quickly they forget, and how little they pay attention. Also, a shift in values and language generally—by 1881, the economy and big business dominate everything.

We have this huge myth around Mary Lincoln’s reputation and what she was associated with. But the discussion in 1881 seemed to indicate little familiarity with her. The press was at its most colorful while she was First Lady, but at that time, journalism was not in any way intended to be or understood as “objective” or even serious—it was the era of the partisan press and the personal press. The press coverage was therefore exaggerated, but not in the sense we think of. It was calculated, symbolic, playful, etc. and this was obvious to readers.

The shift toward objectivity was in progress by the 1870s, though it didn’t really work that way until World War I. Everyone looking back seemed to take the 1860s coverage literally, which it clearly was not meant to be. So things were way out of proportion. The popular narrative did exist in some form, namely among the elite figures in the press and political circles of the war, many of whom had contrived it. But they were largely gone, and context was lost.

There was an echo chamber going on among the ones who were left, but the press was now really national, and different people were in charge. Their story lost coherency once it escaped the bubble—one of my points is that it is a weird story that is unnatural to anyone not raised with it, but we’re all raised with it. I have to expand on what I mean by this, but mainly it is the idea that “well, unfortunately, Mary Lincoln alienated people and paid the price.”

But in 1881, most young people were like, “Wait, this is Abraham Lincoln’s widow—why are we discussing her personality? Maybe she is as alienating as people say, but I don’t get why this ever came up. We owed it to Abraham Lincoln to do the right thing without ever thinking any further. This whole thing makes me cringe.”

Personally, I suspect that this was the feeling of most Americans back in 1865, but certain press figures insisted otherwise—that she was just so appalling to the public at large that she was unworthy of sympathy. Given all that was going on in the Reconstruction Era, and all the “second chances” being extended, this strong claim strikes me as implausible. Why this happened is a complex issue that I’m still processing, but she was essentially at war with a portion of the Republican Party—there is a lot to say on this issue, and I may need to rewrite some of it for clarity. A lot of the dynamics are relevant to today, because they are just dynamics common to human society, and we should acknowledge them to avoid making the same mistakes.

EN: What was the real Mary Todd Lincoln like?

KE: This is still a difficult question to answer, and I have spent a few years doing some deep research and really trying to process it. I probably have learned more than I realize, but it is so hard to characterize someone in a way that does justice to them, especially someone who seems outside the norm. Plus, she burned all of her correspondence and did not leave behind a diary, etc. I think I understand her a lot more after having really immersed myself in her times, to the extent that I can through old newspapers and correspondence, and having studied her contemporaries. Particularly her friends and/or allies.

We spend too much time trying to characterize her in a top-down, superficial manner—she was a bold, intense, eccentric person, and so the assumptions about categories don’t hold all that well—the era had a surprising amount of leeway for transgressive types. But she wasn’t really transgressive in the way people think—a woman out of her sphere, or whatever. She stayed in her sphere, despite having many close friends who didn’t play by those rules. She embraced her role as Abraham Lincoln’s wife, which actually was quite an exciting role with many opportunities, especially while he was President. Her personality was very concrete and personal, and she needed to organize her life around others—she had the skills to strike out on her own, and the courage to do so, but that lifestyle wasn’t for her. The problem, of course, was that she lost her husband, and then she lost Tad, and Robert couldn't really serve as a proxy for various reasons. What was she to do now?

Within her sphere, she was exceptional. She was a heavy hitter, an unapologetic eccentric, a brilliant woman with a skill for spotting talent, and who wanted to win above all. I realized something was up with the whole “she was alienating and frivolous” thing when I looked at her friends. While in many ways concrete and materialistic, she instinctively recognized power and talent and sincerity — the real great people, and knew how to win them over. (She was married to Abraham Lincoln!) “Game recognizes game.”

She had a lot of detractors, but they were kind of lame most of the time. They were, in the parlance of the time, “croakers.” They flood the record with their loud opinions, but they don’t hold that much power. When it comes to dealing with a Dan Sickles, for example, people still decry him daily, but he never missed a beat. Dan Sickles is one of her more questionable friends, but both Lincolns saw that you wanted him on your side in a conflict, and won him over from the Democrats. So many others kept insisting that Sickles was “finished” in 1858, that no one associated with him, that he was a pariah. Sure…

More significant would be her friendship with Charles Sumner, who *during Reconstruction* held up Senate proceedings until he won her a pension. Charles Sumner didn’t waste time on people who were not worth it. He was a polarizing guy, but all the denunciation in the world never held him back.

She had tons of friends in high places, and it adds up to quite an endorsement. They were anything but frivolous people—flamboyant, extravagant, extreme, yes, but people who got stuff done. It was an era of big personalities, which is another thing that has made her hard to understand. Within the circles she ran, her eccentric individuality was not that big of a deal. Her skill in dealing with difficult, eccentric people is evident. But that breed died out after the war, so she looks especially out of place. Many of Lincoln’s close associates now look out of place—historians often ask why he chose such bad company. I think a safer assumption is that they were good company, and we’re not using the right criteria to judge them. Related to this is that this was the era of the spoils system—it was not supposed to be an impersonal meritocracy. Mary Lincoln lived and breathed influence politics and coalition building, and she was good at it. As that began to go out of style, and eventually became totally alien to our thought of government, her sense of entitlement on certain things appears shocking. But it made sense at the time, for the most part.

She was an eccentric person (to the point of mental illness, but there was a lot of tolerance of this in some circles—William T. Sherman is generally understood to have been bipolar, and several of the other generals and leaders displayed instability we would now consider obviously disqualifying) with some weird beliefs about money and reciprocation, but the belief that she was entitled to great consideration as Lincoln’s widow was not that hard to understand.

Had things been handled better, we’d have more in her own words. I believe she was an extremely interesting, exceptional person, who had great insight in some areas and great stories to share, and I’m sorry that we don’t know more. I’m especially sorry we don’t have her comments on Lincoln himself.

EN: I’ve always believed that no one should have to bury their children. She suffered much in that regard, seeing three of her sons buried, and on top of that being present when her husband was assassinated. Of what did the rest of her life consist?

KE: That statement--that it is essentially unnatural for a parent to have to bury a child--would have been weird in the 1800s.

EN: Good point.  

KE: Even in 1891, Robert’s son died of an infection—before antibiotics, it was just so easy for it to happen. Of course, everyone would agree with the sentiment that it is a nightmare, but you were almost as likely to bury a child as not. There was a lot of cultural preparation for that possibility, but many parents of course took it just as hard as today.

Still, the Lincolns seemed unusually blindsided. They didn’t have many kids, and this seems to have been planned---preferring to invest a lot in each child, with a high quality of life, which seems very risky at that time but which was gaining popularity. Things were definitely improving on the child mortality front, and life was becoming more recognizable to modern people—the Lincolns were a middle class family. Avoiding the problems associated with constant pregnancy and childbirth probably played a role.

One of their kids died at aged 4, which was common, but the other two died beyond the diseases of infancy stage, so I think that made it surprising to them. But they were both completely crushed. It was so tragic by any standard, but Mary Lincoln really could not exist in a resigned, transcendent state—her religious beliefs were never solid. She was really just done for after Tad died—it was unrecoverable. Had he lived, I think much could have been different, and probably also had Willie lived but Tad died. But she kept going, mentally unraveling and reclusive, out of society, but constantly sightseeing, which was a lifelong passion.

She wandered, and she was not well, but she did not give up, and she had plenty of friends. She just generally kept herself secluded, which was very bad for her mental state. The timing of events in her life is what makes it most stunning to me—like the events are bad, but the cruelty lay in the timing. She finally begins to be triumphant in Washington, and Willie gets sick right when they hold the ball, and while some in the press are savaging them for it (this has been misinterpreted as a universal view), and Congress is going after them, but the Union finally gets a victory, Willie sickens and dies.

It darkened every remaining hour in the White House. Then, just as the war ends and Lincoln is finally relaxing, finally about to take vacation, he gets assassinated and her life is turned upside down. Then, just as she finally gets her pension and returns to America from Europe sounding so much better, with Tad having reached adulthood and a new granddaughter waiting for her, Tad out of nowhere sickens and dies. I think he died the day she received her first pension payment! It was like every time she got up, she took another blow.

She herself said Tad’s death was the final blow more than once, but there is a narrative pushed that she was really dead starting at the point Lincoln was shot—that she was never herself after that, totally nonfunctional. I mean, she was very affected by it, for sure, but I think it is disrespectful to say she spent the next seventeen years of her life essentially dead, with no agency, like it didn’t count. That’s a long time.

She struggled to engage for six more years, until Tad’s death, and still struggled to keep some sense of identity after that. Her spark came back after her institutionalization for a bit, and she made herself felt until the last year of her life. She was in bad shape, but she was “there.” She could take care of herself in the literal sense, but needed someone to support her and redirect her, and that was not an easy job. There was no one who could have done it—it was simply terrible luck that she had no one to lean on. And remarriage was not something she considered. Then you had the fact that Abraham Lincoln was unavoidable—he was mentioned 24/7, so there was no moving on even if she could. And the disastrous political situation of the time, which must have had its effect on her. It’s just really overwhelming to contemplate how things would have differed had Lincoln lived. I’m not sure he would have magically smoothed out Reconstruction, but his family would have been better off for sure. And it would have been harder to get away with doing nonsense in his name. He had a real skill for keeping people’s eyes on the ball, at least. What a senseless loss.

My book is about what the rest of her life consisted of, and there was variety in it. But it is hard to sum it up, other than she refused to be written off or degraded by a group of loud critics who were only posturing, not commenting in good faith, and I admire that. A life boldly lived is a good example in itself.

EN: I saw your tweet on the book Lincoln in the Bardo. What is it about George Saunders’ book that spoke to you or moved you?

KE: He perfectly depicts the contradictions inherent in the life of Lincoln and the Civil War generally, and the various lessons those contradictions hint at. He lets these competing voices speak for themselves, and they are representative of universal human personalities—the book takes place in 1862, but you can instantly recognize them in people you know today. Their failings, observations, admirable qualities, etc. are recognizable patterns in human nature. It shows how messy things are, but manages to do it in a way that is somehow still amusing and hopeful, or at least constructive. He really hits all the key contrasts and dilemmas, and does it so naturally and quickly. I rarely meet anyone who liked the book, unfortunately. Part of that is the style, but I would argue that the style is connected to the content—it is supposed to be jarring, the opposite of neat and easy to follow. People don’t like that, which is unsurprising. But that’s what reality is like. Juxtaposition and mixing up styles can convey a lot. As I’ve gotten older and read more widely, I’ve become more comfortable with that sort of style—it no longer seems unnatural. I particularly like the impressionistic, collage style that Saunders used. In a line or two, he tells the whole character’s significance, like Billy Joel does in "Piano Man" or Everlast does in "What It's Like." It’s a powerful effect.

* * * *

Thank you, Kerry, for all these new insights.

For more Mary Todd Lincoln stories, follow Kerry Ellard on Medium:

1 comment:

Unknown said...

Excellent, Ed.

Thank you both.