Monthly Archives: August 2018

Mary Todd Lincoln without the caricature

We ended up having a little extra wall space in our new exhibit, so we’ve decided to get with our designer to create a new panel on Lincoln’s family life.  I’ve spent the past few days working on the text.

Writing exhibit copy is always hard—much more difficult, in my experience, than any other type of writing.  Your audience is necessarily broad and you don’t have much space.  The pressure to be clear and concise can be downright crushing.  And since museums speak with an authoritative voice, you have to be as even-handed as possible.  Covering the Lincolns’ marriage within these guidelines has been especially difficult, mostly because of Mary Todd Lincoln.

Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division via Wikimedia Commons

She was undeniably volatile.  She shouted.  She screamed.  She chased Lincoln out of the house with a broom, clocked him on the nose with a chunk of firewood, and chewed him out in front of friends and neighbors.  She pestered him over his informal manners and his unfashionable, ill-fitting clothes.  She bullied the maids and haggled unbecomingly with salesmen.

Lincoln’s friends and neighbors described her as “a hellion — a she devil — vexed — & harrowed the soul out of that good man — wouldn’t Cook for him — drove him from home &c — often & Often.”  His law partner William Herndon, one of her more strident detractors, claimed that she made Lincoln’s life “a domestic hell.”

But the stories of Mary’s theatrics (plentiful though they are) don’t tell the whole story of the Lincolns’ marriage.  Her niece remembered, “Mr. Lincoln enjoyed his home and he and Mary idolized their children. So far as I could see there was complete and loving kindness between Mary and her husband, consideration for each other’s wishes and a taste for the same books. They seemed congenial in all things.”  Another neighbor reported, “Mary was a little high strung. She came of blue blood, blue grass Kentucky stock; and her tastes were somewhat different from Abe’s, but, law, they got along well together.”

And it must be said in all fairness that her husband was a difficult man to be married to.  He was gone for weeks or months at a time, traveling the Eighth Judicial Circuit or conducting political business, leaving Mary to raise the children alone.  (In 1850, Lincoln was away from Springfield more days than he was home.)

Even when he was home, some of Lincoln’s eccentricities must have compounded her stress.  He answered the door in his shirtsleeves, sat down to dinner without his coat, and stretched out on the floor to read.  He became so absorbed in thought that he didn’t notice her speaking to him, or failed to see that one of the boys had fallen out of the wagon in which he was pulling them.  When she launched into one of her tirades, one neighbor recalled, he would ignore her—or worse, laugh at her.

If we’re going to give our visitors a sense of what Lincoln’s domestic life was like, Mary’s tantrums have to be a part of the story.  They’re too prominent in the record to dismiss (although I suspect Herndon pressed the issue in his interviews with Lincoln’s acquaintances, given his evident dislike for the woman).

At the same time, though, our handling of the Lincolns’ marriage needs to be well-rounded.  As tempting as it is to devote all our space to colorful anecdotes about Mary’s histrionics, those incidents don’t tell the whole story.  We don’t want to reduce her to a crude caricature.  Some depictions have stooped to this level.  In D.W. Griffith’s 1930 film Abraham Lincoln, Mary is an unbearable shrew, played almost strictly for laughs.

What our exhibit needs, in other words, is detail and nuance.  That’s not easy to pull off in the tightly confined space of a single panel.  A biographer could take an entire chapter to develop a balanced appraisal of Mary.  We have to do it in a few sentences. And those sentences have to be accessible and engaging to everybody from elementary school students to members of our institution’s faculty.

Sometimes people think public history is easier than academic history.  The truth is, public history only looks easy because part of the job is making it look easy.  And that’s usually the hardest part of the gig.

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Edward Ayers will deliver 2018 Jackson Lecture at UTK

One of the big highlights of the academic year for the University of Tennessee’s Department of History is the annual Charles O. Jackson Memorial Lecture.  This year’s talk should be especially notable.  Dr. Edward Ayers, a bona fide academic superstar and a stellar historian, will present “Southern Journey: The Story of the South in Movement.”

Dr. Ayers is Tucker-Boatwright Professor of the Humanities and President Emeritus at the University of Richmond.  He is a recipient of the Bancroft Prize, the National Humanities Medal, and the Lincoln Prize, and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award. He has also been named National Professor of the Year. His books include In the Presence of Mine Enemies: The Civil War in the Heart of America, 1859-1863; The Thin Light of Freedom: The Civil War and Emancipation in the Heart of America; The Promise of the New South: Life After Reconstruction; and Southern Crossing: A History of the American South, 1877-1906. He is a co-host of the history podcast BackStory.

The 2018 Jackson Lecture will be at the East Tennessee Historical Society‘s headquarters in downtown Knoxville at 5:00 p.m. on Thursday, Sept. 20.

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Come and take Lincoln’s journey with us

I couldn’t be happier to announce that the Abraham Lincoln Library and Museum‘s new permanent exhibit Log Walls to Marble Halls is now open in our renovated Kincaid Gallery.  From now on, our visitors will get a more in-depth and engaging look at Lincoln’s life before the presidency than we’ve ever been able to offer before.

The emphasis is on Lincoln’s ascent from his frontier beginnings to the political and professional prominence he achieved by 1860, and how his ambition and lifelong habit of self-improvement reinforced his convictions about the American experiment, politics, and the escalating controversy over slavery.

Some of our most remarkable artifacts are back on display and looking better than ever, including a corner cupboard made by Abraham Lincoln’s father in Kentucky, a tea set used by the Lincoln family in their Springfield home (donated by Abraham Lincoln’s last direct descendant), a family portrait of Mary Todd Lincoln, and a flag and campaign banners from Lincoln’s Senate race against Stephen Douglas.

The exhibit also features other priceless pieces of our collection that haven’t been on public display in years, or are now on exhibit for the first time: scales from the Lincoln-Berry store in New Salem, rare campaign ribbons, sheet music, a first edition of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and more.

I think this is the most exciting thing that’s happened at the ALLM since the place opened back in 1977.  It’s certainly the biggest thing we’ve done since I was an undergrad intern there many years ago, and something a lot of us have dreamed about for a long, long time.  I hope you’ll come and check it out.

And we’re just getting started.  If you’d like to help us finish transforming the way we tell the story of Lincoln and his era, consider a contribution to our capital campaign.

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