The Mary Todd Lincoln Enigma: Historians on America’s Most Controversial First Lady ed. by Frank J. Williams and Michael Burkhimer (review)
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The Mary Todd Lincoln Enigma: Historians on America’s Most Controversial First Lady. Edited by Frank J. Williams and Michael Burkhimer. (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 2012. Pp. 376. $32.95 cloth; $32.95 e-book)

A controversial and intriguing woman, Mary Todd Lincoln holds [End Page 256] a unique position in both public memory and academic circles. Divergent depictions of Mary Lincoln exist in both arenas with portrayals of her as helpmate or hellcat vying for precedence. The thirteen essays in The Mary Todd Lincoln Enigma give readers a sample of the perspectives on her and the topics through which she may be examined. These include such familiar topics as her relationship with her husband, her role in politics, and her mental health, as well as original topics such as her travels, her image in the graphic arts, and representations of her by novelists.

Several Enigma contributors have published monographs either directly or closely associated to their essay topic. Although interesting, these essays offer snippets of existing works rather than adding greatly to the historiography of Mary Lincoln. One of the more interesting essays in the collected work is “Mary Lincoln Among the Novelists.” The essay is not only well done, but it represents a field of study replete with potential on which very little has been written—examinations of Mary Lincoln in public memory.

The purposes of the authors vary, with some of the essays being primarily descriptive while others build an argument. As an example of the former, Wayne C. Temple’s “I Am So Fond of Sightseeing” offers a fine, detailed narrative of Mary Lincoln’s travels before 1865. In the other category, Douglas L. Wilson’s “William H. Herndon and Mary Todd Lincoln” describes the acrimonious relationship between the two, while also arguing that it did not induce Herndon to maliciously attack her in his works on Abraham Lincoln. Although perhaps counterintuitive, the descriptive essays were some of the more original contributions to Enigma, as they were more likely to address heretofore unexamined topics.

Enigma offers readers the opportunity to compare opposing perspectives on Mary Lincoln, particularly when the essay topics overlapped. For example, Kenneth J. Winkle’s “An Unladylike Profession” promotes her involvement in politics, while Michael Burkhimer’s “The Reports of the Lincolns’ Political Partnership Have Been Greatly Exaggerated” minimizes it. That both authors can offer [End Page 257] strong arguments with opposing conclusions suggests that the book is aptly titled The Mary Todd Lincoln Enigma.

The quality of the essays in this collected work varies. While collections like this benefit from including new perspectives, Enigma is missing some of the standard-bearers in the field whose inclusion would have benefited the work. Unfortunately, some of the contributors are not as familiar with the biography of Mary Lincoln as one would expect, which resulted in factual errors. For example, the author of “Mary Lincoln, Race, and Slavery” suggests that her education at Transylvania University may have contributed to her critical thinking about slavery. Although it was among the first colleges in America to admit women, Transylvania did not do so until 1889—seven years after Mary Lincoln’s death. Such factual errors could have been avoided, the quality of the essays improved, and the value of the collected work strengthened had the editors—and perhaps more of the contributors—been scholars of Mary Lincoln rather than her husband.

The Mary Todd Lincoln Enigma is a bit uneven. Some essays are snippets of already-published monographs, while some examine entirely original topics. Some essays are well researched and detail-oriented, while others have factual errors. Although it could have benefited from stronger editing, on the whole The Mary Todd Lincoln Enigma delivers what it intended; it offers a sample of the varied topics through which Mary Lincoln may be examined as well as varied perspectives—favorable or otherwise—on her.

Gwen Thompson

Gwen Thompson is the director of the Mary Todd Lincoln House in Lexington, Kentucky.

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