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Bookmarks Issue: 
36-Sept-Oct-2008
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A-The LincolnsThe ever-fertile lives of Lincoln and his wife Mary Todd Lincoln yield an imaginative history from Daniel Mark Epstein, the author of biographies of Abraham Lincoln and Walt Whitman, among others.

The Topic: Every aspect of Abraham Lincoln’s life—his childhood, his writing, his politics—has been the subject of endless analysis. Of course, Lincoln’s life includes his marriage to the well-to-do Southerner, Mary Todd. Epstein offers neither fascinating new documents nor a shocking, ridiculous thesis. Instead, he writes of the troubled courtship, the broken engagement, the marriage, the sex, the loneliness, and Lincoln’s death with the style and emotional grip of a novelist, always doing his best to consider how the marriage evolved and affected each partner. Given Lincoln’s near-morbid depression and Mary’s own mental challenges (some believe she was bipolar), their marriage was never tranquil for very long.
Ballantine. 559 pages. $28. ISBN 0345477995

Wall Street Journal 4 of 5 Stars
"Mr. Epstein has re-created a picture of the Lincolns that is vivid, carefully researched and not at all cheeky or meddlesome. … He has written what may be the best Lincoln book in a generation." Andrew Ferguson

Chicago Sun-Times 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Through a mix of inspired speculation, abundant detail and a deep sympathy with his subjects, Epstein creates a touching, intimate portrait of one of history’s most famous couples. It doesn’t always work. … But the book achieves a kind of miracle, in that while it can’t really bring the reader inside the marriage, it comes so close that you can smell the lamp oil in the Lincolns’ Springfield parlor, and count off yards of ribbon on one of Mary’s shopping sprees." Mary Wisniewski

New York Times 3.5 of 5 Stars
"[Epstein’s] decision to zero in on the Lincolns’ life together proves a quirkily rewarding one. This book is written with insight fresh enough to penetrate some of the absurd solemnity that constitutes Lincoln lore." Janet Maslin

Cleveland Plain Dealer 3 of 5 Stars
"The first half of the book, which covers the courtship and early married years, is by far the most interesting. Once Lincoln is elected president, everything slows down and becomes predictable." Julia Keller

Washington Post 2.5 of 5 Stars
"In some ways, Epstein’s storytelling talents directly clash with historical accuracy, making it hard to classify the book. Though it is full of writerly touches and Epstein indulges in practices such as depicting his subject’s thoughts, this is not historical fiction. On the other hand, it is difficult to categorize this work as serious history." Catherine Allgor

Providence Journal 2 of 5 Stars
"This chronicle of the Lincoln pairing likewise gets off to a rocky start, with Lincoln heading to a tryst with Mary that takes several chapters to occur, while spotty background accounts of the two unfold. … Too often we are told what the Lincolns would have done rather than what they did." Mark Dunkelman

Critical Summary

This book may not be the final word on the Lincolns’ marriage, but it is hardly doomed for the discount bin. Overall, critics were divided. The historically minded disliked Epstein’s endless hypothesizing, particularly in his speculative narration of the goings-on in the Lincolns’ bedroom. But then Epstein is not the typical Lincoln scholar; his other publications include several books of poetry and a biography of Nat King Cole. The less-fastidious critics enjoyed Epstein’s eccentric tale of an eccentric marriage. He reveals that Mary was a shopaholic, spending $1,000 for a single shawl, and that Lincoln’s favorite beverage was cold water (which, as one critic notes, was technically a delicacy in those days). These details are fascinating, but they are bright spots in what is—like the marriage itself—a rather mixed affair.

Cited by the Critics

A-Mary Todd LincolnMary Todd Lincoln A Biography | Jean H. Baker (1987): This sympathetic (and definitive) biography portrays Mary Todd Lincoln as a lonely, spiritual, and suffering woman trapped by her era’s conventions.