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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Filed under Abraham Lincoln, History and Memory, Museums and Historic Sites

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