Feature

Book of the week: The Lincolns: Portrait of a Marriage by Daniel Mark Epstein

Daniel Mark Epstein&rsquo;s marital portrait of Abraham and Mary Todd Lincoln ranks as &ldquo;maybe the best Lincoln book in a generation&rdquo; said Andrew Ferguson in <em>The Wall Street Journal.</em>

The Lincolns: Portrait of a Marriageby Daniel Mark Epstein (Ballantine, $28)

Mary Todd Lincoln was not much loved by White House staff or by her husband’s early biographers. The president’s secretaries nicknamed her “Hellcat” and “Her Satanic Majesty.” Stories circulating in Washington claimed that the diminutive first lady beat her lanky spouse with firewood and that she once threw hot coffee in his face. But Abraham Lincoln knew a different Mary. Some 20 years earlier, she had been a witty and well-read Springfield, Ill., socialite who might have wed Stephen Douglas or any number of other prominent suitors had the unlikely Abe not caught her eye. Young Abe and Mary liked to read poetry together and talk politics. One morning in 1842, he proclaimed to his pastor, “I want to get hitched tonight.”

Poet and historian Daniel Mark Epstein took a big chance in trying to wring a 500-page book from the Lincolns’ 22-year marriage, said Andrew Ferguson in The Wall Street Journal. A reader picks up this fat volume “ready to cringe” at unseemly speculation about the intimate relations of a couple who left behind scant correspondence. But Epstein’s marital portrait ranks as “maybe the best Lincoln book in a generation.” Carefully researched and “not at all meddlesome,” it represents “a masterly literary and historical performance.” That the book is a “responsible” effort doesn’t mean it’s dull, said Julia Keller in the Chicago Tribune. Epstein is too quick to attribute Mary’s stormy moments to her husband’s frequent absences rather than look for more complex private turmoil. But he makes you care about what happens to this couple, and their story becomes “hard to put down.”

“It is impossible not to sympathize with Mary,” said Mary Wisniewski in the Chicago Sun-Times. An outsider in both Springfield and Washington, she was dependent on her husband and four sons for companionship. But three of her boys died young, and Abe, “though loving,” was often absent in their early years together and later preoccupied by presidential affairs. Though Epstein can’t re-create everything that transpired between the couple, he captures the spirit of their relationship: “He makes it seem inevitable that they should get together, and inevitable that they would sometimes drive each other crazy.”

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