LINCOLN'S UNKNOWN PRIVATE LIFE by Lloyd Ostendorf

LINCOLN'S UNKNOWN PRIVATE LIFE

An Oral History by his Black Housekeeper Mariah Vance, 1850-1860
Email this review

KIRKUS REVIEW

 An oddly compelling memoir documenting the tumultuous home life of Abraham and Mary Lincoln. Mariah Vance worked in Lincoln's Springfield home during the decade preceding his election to the presidency. The narrative is constructed from her oral history as recorded by Adah Sutton from 1900 to 1904. Vance, then in her 80s, shows here that Lincoln's marriage was far from happy. Mary is addicted to paregoric, jealous, socially ambitious, and prone to rages wherein she threatens her husband with kitchen knives. Lincoln, forebearing but tormented, nevertheless possesses a good-natured mischievousness in addition to his famous melancholy, dotes on his children, and is genuinely concerned for Vance's welfare. He also displays the rough manners that attracted the derisive nickname ``railsplitter.'' At table with the cream of Springfield society, he sits barefoot, collarless, ``[drinking] juice left from the dessert out of the sauce dish'' and wiping his mouth on his sleeve. Some events strain credulity, such as Mary's reported confession, on only Vance's third visit, that her husband doesn't love her. Admiration of ``Mistah Abe'' nudges Vance's memoir toward hagiography, an inclination abetted by the stiff rendition of Lincoln's speech. Thinking it disrespectful to quote Lincoln in Vance's black dialect, Sutton rewrote his lines; this stilted dialogue makes him sound like a self-righteous pedagogue. Anticipating criticism that Vance's recollections amount to a ``prairie Upstairs, Downstairs,'' Ostendorf, a collector of Lincoln memorabilia, and journalist Loesky (who clarified the black English in Sutton's transcript) go to great lengths to shore up this remarkable history's credibility, but including a facsimile of Sutton's entire 259-page handwritten manuscript does little to mitigate the sloppy presentation of textual notes. A fascinating mix of mythmaking and keyhole history likely to sow dissension among keepers of the Lincoln flame. Best read with a more rigorous biographyand a grain of salt.

Pub Date: Oct. 1st, 1995
ISBN: 0-8038-9375-2
Page count: 600pp
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 15th, 1995