Stacy Pratt McDermott on Mary Lincoln

"I set out to write a biography that illustrates the richly human qualities of historical experience through the eyes of a woman who, like all of us, was flawed."

Stacy Pratt McDermott, author of Mary Lincoln: Southern Girl, Northern Woman, on why she chose to tell Mary Lincoln's story from her own perspective.

When I began working at the Abraham Lincoln Papers in 1996, the venom that Lincoln scholars spewed at Mary Lincoln bothered me. As a new scholar in Lincoln studies at the time, I was reading everything I could get my hands on, and the Mary haters were just impossible to escape. They tended to present on the one hand, the kind, honest, and likeable Mr. Lincoln, and on the other hand, his hateful, deceitful, unlikable wife. Not only was this stark dichotomy historically inaccurate, but it did absolutely nothing to better our understanding of Abraham Lincoln, his marriage, or his life. I was always frustrated that Mary Lincoln had such a bad reputation because of this ridiculous dichotomy. As the years passed, I frequently grumbled against what I considered unfair treatment of Mary Lincoln. I would complain about it with colleagues. On a few occasions I even defended Mary Lincoln in the face of a hater or two by trying to offer them a more nuanced explanation of her behavior, her life, or her historical legacy. Yet I will admit that it never occurred to me to write a biography that might counter all of that negativity. I know now, however, that a Mary Lincoln biography was churning around inside of me for a very long time.

When my Ph.D. advisor Vernon Burton convinced me to tackle this biography of Mary Lincoln—our most controversial first lady—I was a little apprehensive. Yet after reading all of her more than 600 extant letters, I found a path for the project that made me comfortable. When I read Mary’s letters, I saw an intelligent, sensitive woman with a whole lot of what we would today call baggage; and she was navigating fairly well through a life that was both a blessing and a curse. I saw a woman who had a great deal of strength, but was so very fragile at the same time. I saw a woman who had great capacity to love and to learn and to give, but who struggled every day to keep the past and the demons at bay. After reading her letters, I decided to tell Mary Lincoln’s story from her perspective and with as much of her intellect, her heart, and her soul as I could glean from the words she has left us. Too long have the historians appropriated, and misappropriated, her life and her history to their own ends.

Mary Lincoln was not a cartoon character. She was a living, breathing person, who had real experiences. I set out to write a biography that illustrates the richly human qualities of historical experience through the eyes of a woman who, like all of us, was flawed. I find Mary Lincoln’s life compelling because she was a complicated woman. She was smart, intellectually curious, and social. Yet she was insecure, petty, and reclusive. Mary Lincoln was the wife of Abraham Lincoln and that was an extraordinarily important personal and historical fact of her life. But Mary was also a daughter, a student, a sister, a mother, a friend, and a widow. She was a nineteenth-century woman doing the best she could. Sometimes her efforts exceeded even her own expectations, sometimes they were just good enough, and sometimes they were devastatingly insufficient. Her story is a human story, and I hope my biography adequately captures Mary Lincoln’s humanity. Mostly, though, I hope that I have written a life that she herself would recognize.

Stacy Pratt McDermott is Assistant Director and Associate Editor, Papers of Abraham Lincoln.

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