Portrait of a Marriage
By Daniel Mark Epstein
(Ballantine Books, Hardcover, 9780345477996, 576pp.)
Publication Date: May 20, 2008
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The first full-length portrait of the marriage of Abraham and Mary Todd Lincoln in more than fifty years, The Lincolns is a fascinating new work of American history by Daniel Mark Epstein, an award-winning biographer and poet known for his passionate understanding of the Civil War period.
Although the private lives of political couples have in our era become front-page news, the true story of this extraordinary and tragic first family has never been fully told. The Lincolns eclipses earlier accounts with riveting new information that makes husband and wife, president and first lady, come alive in all their proud accomplishments and earthy humanity.
Epstein gives a fresh close-up view of the couple’s life in Springfield, Illinois (of their twenty-two years of marriage, all but six were spent there). We witness the troubled courtship of an aristocratic and bewitching Southern belle and a struggling young lawyer who concealed his great ambition with self-deprecating humor; the excitement and confusion of the newlyweds as they begin their marriage in a small room above a tavern, and the early signs of Mary’s instability and Lincoln’s moodiness; their joyful creation of a home on the edge of town as Lincoln builds his law practice and makes his first forays into politics. We discover their consuming ambition as Lincoln achieves celebrity status during his famed debates with Stephen A. Douglas, which lead to Lincoln’s election to the presidency.
The Lincolns’ ascent to the White House brought both dazzling power and the slow, secret unraveling of the couple’s unique bond. The Lincolns dramatizes certain well-known events with stunning new immediacy: Mary’s shopping sprees, her defrauding of the public treasury to increase her budget, and her jealousy, which made enemies for her and problems for the president. Yet she was also a brilliant hostess who transformed the shabby White House into a social center crucial to the Union’s success. After the death of their little boy, not a year after Lincoln took office, Mary turned for solace to spirit mediums, but her grief drove her to the edge of madness. In the end, there was little left of the Lincolns’ relationship save their enduring devotion to each other and to their surviving children.
Written with enormous sweep and striking imagery, The Lincolns is an unforgettable epic set at the center of a crucial American administration. It is also a heartbreaking story of how time and adversity can change people, and of how power corrupts not only morals but affections. Daniel Mark Epstein’s The Lincolns makes two immortal American figures seem as real and human as the rest of us.
Daniel Mark Epstein is the author of biographies of Abraham Lincoln and Walt Whitman, Aimee Semple McPherson, Nat King Cole, and Edna St. Vincent Millay, as well as seven volumes of poetry. His verse has appeared in The Atlantic, The New Yorker, and The Paris Review, among other publications. The American Academy of Arts and Letters awarded Epstein the Rome Prize in 1977 and an Academy Award in 2006. Daniel Mark Epstein lives in Baltimore.
“With a novelist’s feel for detail and drama, Daniel Mark Epstein portrays the Lincoln marriage with sensitivity and insight, painting an intimate portrait of a complex and consequential marriage. This work is a splendid addition to the Lincoln literature.”
- Doris Kearns Goodwin
“Daniel Mark Epstein’s brilliantly conceived The Lincolns: Portrait of a Marriage is marked by meticulous scholarship and a balanced evaluation of the union that, until now, has confounded biographers and readers alike. The author, also a poet, has given us an insightful and lyrical narrative of the relationship between Mary Todd and Abraham Lincoln that helped make him President.”
- Frank J. Williams, founding Chair of The Lincoln Forum and a member of the U.S. Abraham Lincoln Bicentennial Commission
“Will we ever tire of trying to understand this Man? I doubt it, and in this impressive work, Daniel Mark Epstein approaches Lincoln through his complicated and revealing union with Mary Todd.”
- Ken Burns
“Daniel Epstein in 2004 gave us the best book yet written on Abraham Lincoln and Walt Whitman. Now he has given us the best book yet written on the marriage of Abraham and Mary Lincoln--a comprehensive, sensitive, elegantly wrought masterpiece that puts us up close and personal with one of the most interesting pairings in American history.”
- John C. Waugh, author of One Man Great Enough: Abraham Lincoln's Road to Civil War
“The Lincolns' marriage has always been shrouded in mystery and sadness. But in this fascinating biography by the peerless Epstein, the ties that bound them together are rendered with tender clarity. Beautifully written, impeccably researched, The Lincolns is destined to join the pantheon of indispensable books on the Civil War. “
- Amanda Foreman, author of Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire
"Poet, playwright and biographer Epstein presents a history and analysis of the almost operatic marriage of Mary Todd and Abraham Lincoln. The vivacious daughter of an aristocratic Kentucky family, Mary let it be known early and not entirely in jest that she intended to marry a man who would become president of the United States. Aggressively wooed by many in her adopted town of Springfield, Ill., she singled out the unlikely Lincoln. Despite a rocky courtship, she married the prairie lawyer with whom she shared a love of poetry, plays, politics and a ferocious ambition. Touching only lightly on their lives before marriage–and not at all on Mary’s decline after her husband’s assassination–Epstein focuses on their turbulent and often unhappy union. Intensely private, secretive and frequently absent, Lincoln was no picnic as a husband; Mary, if anything, was a worse wife. Epstein sensitively charts her descent into what can only be called madness. During the Springfield years her penchant for self-dramatization and self-pity, extreme nervousness, hypersensitivity and bad temper manifested itself in common enough fashion: an unreasoning fear of thunderstorms, grudges held against family and friends, gratuitous insults inflicted and physical assaults on servants and, occasionally, her husband. In the White House her increasingly disordered mind gave way to more serious offenses: lavish, compulsive spending beyond her means, baseless jealousy of other women, tampering with the government payroll and influence peddling. Her inconsolable grief at a second child’s death led to delusions and hallucinations. A seemingly permanent mental instability, perhaps the result of a carriage accident, separated her even further from a husband preoccupied with managing a savage war. She never wavered in her love for or her belief in Lincoln, but Mary appears to have deserved the titles bestowed on her by the president’s aides: the “hellcat” and “Her Satanic Majesty.”
A dynamic picture of a marriage every bit as fractious and as buffeted as the nation the Lincolns served."
– Kirkus Reviews
"[Epstein] is a poet by trade who moonlights in biography, having published lives of Nat King Cole and Aimee Semple McPherson. His account of the Lincolns' marriage combines a poet's sensitivity and imagination with a good historian's rigor and fairness. He has in particular an eye for the shifting tides of status and the tensions they can create: He knows that the wooing of the well-born Mary by the rustic young lawyer Lincoln, no matter how impressive his prospects, entailed a decline in status for her and an advance for him — and a difficult burden for a young marriage to carry.
Mr. Epstein's gift for atmospheric detail cuts deep, too. Death was a constant presence in 19th-century American life, as it seldom is today, and it hovers in the book as it did in the Lincoln's marriage, with the early death of two of their four sons and the slaughter of the Civil War. Yet death could be a link between them. Mr. Epstein describes them visiting a military hospital, moving from cot to cot, "bonded in their compassion, knowing that wounded and dying soldiers lay in hospital beds and on hillsides from here to the horizon, and they could comfort only these few, and for only a little while."… Readers will be grateful for his modesty and for much else. He has written what may be the best Lincoln book in a generation."
-The Wall Street Journal