Buffalo & Erie County Public Library Staff Review by Anne Conable:
No doubt the current 150th anniversaries connected to the American Civil War have encouraged a new infusion of books, plays and movies, even postage stamps, about the War and the key figures involved in it. Abraham Lincoln is enjoying a surge of popularity and renewed analysis of his life and leadership qualities. Steven Spielberg and his new film "Lincoln" have added to the discussion.
Elizabeth Keckley (1818-1907), known mostly in history and myth as "Mrs. Lincoln's seamstress," is gaining new interest as well as a minor but pivotal character in the Spielberg film. Her memoir, published originally in 1868 under the title Behind the Scenes Or, Thirty Years a Slave and Four Years in the White House, seemed a good place to start as a first-person account of her life and particularly of her relationships with the Lincolns. Cast in her own words, Keckley's life before the White House is one of brutality and heartbreak in the throes of the slave system, which she determines to rise above through her spirit and talents as a seamstress.
Years of hard work and support by benefactors allows her to eventually buy her freedom and that of her son. In Richmond, she gains fame as dressmaker to Mrs. Jefferson Davis and Mrs. Robert E. Lee. With the war imminent, she believes she will do better in the North and through customer referrals, sets herself up in business in Washington. She first meets Mrs. Lincoln on the day of Lincoln's Inauguration. "Lizzie" becomes Mrs. Lincoln's dresser and trusted confidente and thereby becomes witness to many of the great moments of the Lincoln Presidency.
What a unique perspective this survivor brings to the Lincoln story! Her memoir offers an intimate portrait of the family during the triumphs and tragedies of its White House years, and especially Keckley's generous and sympathetic view of Mary Todd Lincoln. At best characterized as "high strung," Mary's expensive tastes and erratic behavior both in the White House and after the assassination were a source of gossip and controversy, as was the memoir which many perceived at the time as an invasion of the family's privacy. Keckley intended that that her memoir would shed some kind understanding on Mrs. Lincoln, who was left without support and with significant debt at the President's death. At the memoir's publication, personal letters from Mary to Keckley were appended by the publisher without the author's approval; these letters chronicle Mary's helpless efforts, and reliance on Keckley, to raise money to live on by selling her gowns and personal possessions, and her despair at being reduced to living, post White House, in dreary hotels and rooming houses. The letters are very unflattering to Mrs. Lincoln (though very enlightening to the reader today), who as we know, lived out her days in grief, mental illness and poverty.
The portrait of Elizabeth Keckley that emerges from this fascinating piece is one of a strong, articulate, unusually self-reliant woman who utilized her talents well at a time when women, let alone Black women, had virtually no options. As a seamstress, friend to the First Lady, survivor, businesswoman, and writer, she is a singular individual and compelling raconteur of a most interesting time and place in America's history. This memoir is an excellent companion piece to the many, many available Lincoln biographies and should be required reading for anyone interested in the Civil War and Women's History.
Writer-historian Peggy Brooks-Bertram will speak at the downtown Library on Elizabeth Keckley and Lincoln connections to Buffalo on Thursday, February 14, 12 noon-1 p.m. Free. www.buffalolib.org
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