Book Review: Behind the Scenes by Elizabeth Keckley (Four Stars)


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Book Review: Behind the Scenes: Or Thirty Years a Slave and Four Years in the White House by Elizabeth Keckley

(Four Stars)

“Mrs. Lincoln may have been imprudent, but since here intentions were good, she should be judged more kindly than she has been.”

An extraordinary primary source of the 1860s. Elizabeth Keckley, born into slavery in Virginia, managed to buy her freedom by her skill as a seamstress and the help of friends white and black. She set up business in Washington, D. C., and eventually become modiste and confidante of Mary Todd Lincoln.

“Mrs. Lincoln’s foresight in regard to the future was only confined to cast-off clothing, as she owed, at the time of the President’s death, different store bills amounting to seventy thousand dollars.”

“The Republican politicians must pay my debts. Hundreds of them are immensely rich off the patronage of my husband, and it is but fair that they should help me out of my embarrassment.” Mary Todd Lincoln

That Mary Todd Lincoln was the source and embodiment of her own troubles is not denied. Rather Keckley draws attention to those who tried to help the trouble woman, and those who did not.

“I believe that I could then have forgiven everything for the sake of one kind word. But the kind word was not proffered.”

A mirror of an age. Some of her revelations are unexpected. Notice the apparent contradiction between the previous and following quotations.

“You do not know the Southern people as well as I do—how warm is the attachment between master and slave.”

Keckley visited her former owners after the war, in apparent harmony.

“Even I, who was once a slave, who have been punished with the cruel lash, who have experienced the heart and soul tortures of a slave’s life, can say to Mr. Jefferson Davis, “Peace! You have suffered! Go in peace.”

Sadly, after this was published in 1868, Mrs. Lincoln suffered more tragedy, with the death of her youngest son, Tad, in 1871. She never recovered.

“What a sublime picture was this! A ruler of a mighty nation going to the pages of the Bible with simple Christian earnestness for comfort and courage, and finding both in the darkest hours of a nation’s calamity.”

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