by Jean H. Baker; W. W. Norton; 448 pages; $19.95.
Many Americans who are uncertain about what Abraham Lincoln’s wartime policies were, and who certainly couldn’t name his cabinet officers, have very firm opinions about his wife: she was detestable. Jean Baker’s revisionist biography of Mary Todd Lincoln explains this dislike as a classic instance of “male-ordered history” that is simply no longer acceptable.
Mary Lincoln was undeniably eccentric by the standards of her day. She was intensely interested in politics at a time when a woman who cared about public matters was considered a “meddling deviant.” She insisted on accompanying her husband in 1847 when he came to Washington as a freshman congressman; most of the wives stayed home, particularly those who had babies. Her taste in clothes was not only extravagant but ran to bright colors, considered more suitable for younger women, but her husband loved and praised her appearance. And even her grief was considered excessive, though during her lifetime three of her four children died and her husband was assassinated. Nor could it have eased her pain that her fourth son considered her insane and had her committed to an asylum.
Robert Lincoln’s persecution of his mother—as shown by sources Jean Baker has tapped for the first time— seems extraordinary, cruel, and self-serving, and the last chapters are therefore the most absorbing of this excellent biography. Mary Lincoln was indeed narcissistic, an unpleasant but hardly a psychotic condition. But the doctors who testified at her trial that she was insane did so without ever examining her. When she managed after a few months to smuggle out appeals for help, she was released as, even by the era’s vague definition of insanity, it was not possible to convince another judge that she was a certifiable lunatic. She never forgave Robert, and though she never formally disinherited him, for the rest of her life she considered herself childless.