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Abraham and Mary Lincoln:
A House Divided
Taking its place among the growing number of documentaries dealing with Abraham Lincoln and the American Civil War, PBS's Abraham and Mary Lincoln: A House Divided (a part of its popular American Experience series) appears to have two related goals. First, the film wants to further the effort to humanize [End Page 76] Abraham Lincoln, noting that "the man Mary Lincoln knew and loved and mourned has faded into myth." The film's second goal is to then argue that while the Lincolns "reached the White House as partners," personal tragedy and the onset of the Civil War divided the couple (hence the subtitle of the film). The first goal works much better than the second.
While playing off of Lincoln's 1858 "A House Divided" speech, made in reference to a nation being torn apart by slavery, the divisions claimed about the Lincolns' relationship are overblown. The key moment for this interpretation comes in February 1862 when the Lincolns' beloved little boy Willie died of typhoid. Mary Lincoln remained inconsolable for weeks, haunted by the little boy's toys and even his favorite flowers. The ubiquitous David McCullough then narrates, "As the war went on, Mary would retreat more and more into herself, while Lincoln would somehow find the strength to merge his own grief with the grief of his countrymen." But there is also plenty of evidence in the film to support a counterargument: that throughout all the heartbreak of the war years, the Lincolns clung to one another as best they could. If the Lincolns were divided after Willie's death, it is hard to account for Mary's rallying from her grief to support her husband and the war effort by spending long hours at soldiers' hospitals tending to the wounded. She also donated time and money to charity efforts for fugitive slaves at a time when emancipation was still a very thorny political issue for Abraham Lincoln. When an old friend from Springfield paid a visit after Willie's death, the discussion turned to Mary's Confederate brothers, half-brothers, and cousins. The minister was shocked to hear Mary say she hoped they would all be killed. But Mary then very sensibly explained of her Confederate kin, "they would kill my husband if they could." And she was right. Another component of the divided marriage theme rests on the fact that Mary Lincoln spent several weeks and months between 1861 and 1865 away from her husband and away from Washington, D. C. It was, however, not at all unusual for women of means in the 19th century to spend long periods of time away from their husbands and the documentary notes that Abraham and Mary wrote one another frequently. Moreover, Washington, D. C. in the early 1860s was an unhealthy, unpleasant place. Most men could not wait to leave the nation's capital either. Finally, the poignant last few days of Abraham Lincoln's life, right up to the couple holding hands and whispering affectionately early in that awful night in Ford's Theater, also testify that the Lincolns' relationship had in fact persevered through four hideously long years.
The documentary adds little new to the life of Abraham Lincoln, but it performs a much needed service by telling Mary Lincoln's story more completely. Too often Mary Lincoln gets caricatured in the Abraham Lincoln literature as being crazy, annoying, or some combination of the two. There is no question that Mary Lincoln, like her husband, suffered from depression. Her depression was exacerbated by Willie's death in 1862 and of course by Abraham Lincoln's murder in 1865. After 1865, grief and delusion took over until she finally died a sad and lonely death in 1882. But by taking the viewer carefully through Mary Todd's early years as the daughter of a wealthy Kentucky slave-owner, and then as the young wife of Abraham Lincoln, she emerges as a much more sympathetic and engaging figure. Mary Todd possessed a sharp, quick intellect and was well-versed in contemporary American politics. She could be extraordinarily charming, even during the war years when she suffered so much personal tragedy.
Abraham and Mary Lincoln: A House Divided was produced by David Grubin who also co-wrote the script with Geoffrey Ward. The structure of the documentary features alternating sections on the lives of Abraham and Mary Todd Lincoln. Much of the Ken Burns formula for historical documentaries is employed: talking head historians offer insight and further the narrative; serial close-ups of primary sources such as letters, newspapers, cartoons, old photographs, and drawings add touches of material culture; modern day footage of important locations such as rural Kentucky, the Lincoln house in Springfield, Illinois, and Washington, D.C. connect the present and past; and the steady sound of Americana music helps complete the mood of hopefulness and then tragedy. The historians selected are appropriate: they include David Herbert Donald, Jean Harvey Baker, Douglas L. Wilson, John Hope Franklin, James McPherson, Mark Neely, Margaret Washington, Charles B. Strozier, Linda Levitt Turner, Donald Miller and David Long. Presidential historian Doris Kearns Goodwin also makes an appearance among the Lincoln historians. Among the actors who read as the historical figures, Holly Hunter is perfect as the voice of Mary Todd Lincoln.
Charles J. Holden
St. Mary's College of Maryland