The much-maligned wife of president Abraham Lincoln tells her story in California writer Janis Cooke Newman's masterful Mary. Newman read only Mary Todd Lincoln's diaries and letters and other 19th-century documents while writing her book, resulting in a truly authentic tone and style. It is presented as a memoir written during Mary's time in Bellevue Place Sanatarium, a period sensationalized by the press, who delighted in speculating about the circumstance that led Mary's own son Robert to have her committed.

Newman covers Mary's entire life, from her comfortable but lonely childhood in Kentucky, through her courtship and marriage to Abraham Lincoln, to his assassination and beyond. Some of the most intriguing sections detail the relationship between Mr. and Mrs. Lincoln. Mary is depicted as playing an integral part in her husband's political success, teaching him to project his voice and giving him confidence. Though the two had a strong respect and love for one another, Lincoln's fear of insanity and his frequent fits of melancholy (which he felt could be triggered by strong emotion) forced him to keep his wife at arm's length.

Mary Todd Lincoln's emotional ups and downs and enormous spending sprees are well documented, but Newman presents them in a sympathetic light, portraying Mary as a deeply passionate, intelligent woman in a time when these qualities in women were discouraged and feared. Mary spends her life trying to find someone who will reciprocate her passion—or at least accept and appreciate it—and that she continues to fall short is perhaps the greatest tragedy in a life littered with tragic moments.

 

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