Q&A with Jason Emerson – Mary Lincoln for the Ages

  • by

We welcome Jason Emerson, who’s here to introduce us to a figure we may all think we know, but we don’t have as clear a picture of as we should. His book is Mary Lincoln for the Ages. Jason Emerson is a journalist and an independent historian who has been researching and writing about the Lincoln family for more than twenty-five years. His works include The Madness of Mary LincolnGiant in the Shadows: The Life of Robert T. LincolnMary Lincoln’s Insanity Case: A Documentary History; and Lincoln’s Lover: Mary Lincoln in Poetry.

You can find him @JasonEmersonHistorian on Facebook or Jason.Emerson7 on Instagram.

THE HISTORY AUTHOR SHOW: Thanks for being here, Jason. I want to start with the cover of Mary Lincoln for the Ages. I don’t think I’ve ever seen her look quite so alive and vibrant, which is fitting as you bring her to life here for readers. Why chose that portrait attributed to Nicolas H. Shepherd?

Jason Emerson: Thanks for having me here. I love the cover of my book. It’s difficult to create a good cover design when writing about Mary, since there are only a handful of photos of her that are known to exist. If you look, you’ll see most books about her have the same photos in them (or on the cover). To be honest, the cover photo was chosen, and the entire cover designed by, the designer at my publisher, Southern Illinois University Press. But the minute I saw the proof I loved it; I love how the photo was colorized, which really brings Mary to life, as you said. I also love that it is the earliest known photo of Mary, and not a photo from the White House years or after. In this photo Mary is young, vibrant, and confident — not always the way in which people today picture her.

THAS: You chose the title Mary Lincoln for the Ages, invoking the words John Hay quoted Edward M. Stanton saying after Abraham Lincoln breathed his final breath. I reflected on that choice, because when someone of note dies, the figure in the history books can be hardly recognizable after well over a century. What did you hope to invoke by choosing that title?

Jason Emerson: I was having trouble creating the book title, when I looked up at my shelf of Abraham Lincoln books (hanging on the wall above my desk, so right in front of my face) and I saw Ralph G. Newman’s book, Lincoln for the Ages. I immediately thought that this is what I wanted my book to be about: Mary’s reputation, legacy, and bibliography. A book that would define who she was and how and why people today see her in a certain light. So I stole/was inspired by the title…But really it said everything I wanted to say; I wanted to invoke the spirit of Mary as a historical character that will never be forgotten, but also one who is incredible misunderstood and whose story has consistently changed through the generations. She is a person whose legacy will never be settled or agreed upon.

THAS: When I interviewed historian Feather S. Foster about her book, Mary Lincoln’s Flannel Pajamas: And Other Stories from the First Ladies’ Closet, I really enjoyed the anecdotes of presidential wives. They’re memories you might share with a friend about someone famous you met. Do you have a favorite story or account of Mary Lincoln that shows her at her best, not at her worst?

Jason Emerson: There are many positive stories about Mary that I like, but, unfortunately, it is the negative stories about her that are always rewritten and retold. I love the story about a wonderful gesture she made in 1853, when her Springfield neighbor, Harriet Dallman, was too ill to nurse her newborn baby. Mary at this time was nursing her youngest son Tad, and when she heard about Mrs. Dallman’s illness, she immediately offered to nurse the baby. Mrs. Dallman later told the story about how Abraham Lincoln would come to their house early in the morning and quietly take the baby back to his house or nursing, then bring the baby back, all without disturbing the sick mother. (The original citation for that story is in my book.)

THAS: There’s a common glib phrase people use, “Other than that, how did you enjoy the play, Mrs. Lincoln?” I wonder what you think when you hear that phrase, in light of the great trauma the woman suffered seeing her husband gunned down beside her.

Jason Emerson: I used to find that funny, but now it offends me. Mary’s husband was shot in the head while she was leaning against him, holding his hand. Her life was destroyed, and she lost the only person who really, in my opinion, understood her and accepted her for who she was. People often wonder what U.S. history would be like if Lincoln had lived. But how would Mary’s life and reputation and legacy be different if her husband had lived?

THAS: Your book is divided into parts, rather than presenting facts and extensively footnoting them. Outlay what readers will find in each section of Mary Lincoln for the Ages.

Jason Emerson: In Part 1, I introduce the book and its contents, and then offer up a narrative essay titled, “The Common Canon of Mary Lincoln.” The essay examines the common sources consulted about Mary Lincoln’s life and legacy, why they are useful or not, what they tell us about her, and how they have impacted her reputation for the past 150 years. My thesis is that everyone thinks they understand who Mary was, but they don’t, and the main reason is because everyone uses the same handful of sources – outdated, and some unreliable – for their research. I expose this insularity and offer up an explanation of other sources that need to be utilized, why and how, and what this expansion of research will give us. In short, I offer a new way to research and interpret Mary Lincoln.

Part 2 is an analytical bibliography about Mary Lincoln, in which I list and analyze every single thing ever written about her – over 450 entries in all genres. Anyone who wants to know about Mary Lincoln can now consult my book and see what has been previously written about her. My book also offers separate indexes by author/editor, title, and subject, so readers can search for a specific aspect of Mary or her bibliography and find it. The intention is to make this book an unprecedented resource on Mary Lincoln.

THAS: Mary Lincoln has been portrayed in various forms over the years in everything from novels to films to TV shows to commercials. Which of those portrayals do you find the most accurate and which is the one that you don’t recognize at all?

Jason Emerson: I think Sally Field’s portrayal of Mary in the latest movie, Lincoln, was amazing, and by far the best I have seen. She showed Mary both as a strong-willed and intelligent woman striving to survive as First Lady in the harsh politics of Washington DC, and also as the emotionally fragile, and at times unstable woman who could not handle the difficulties of life without the support of other people. Sally Field’s portrayal to me, after reading everything written by and about Mary, as close to reality as acting can get. The most ridiculous portrayal of Mary I have seen is definitely the one in the classic film, Abraham Lincoln Vampire Hunter.

THAS: Richard W. Etulain, author of Lincoln and Oregon Country Politics in the Civil War Era, writes of Mary Lincoln for the Ages, “This extraordinarily helpful book will quickly become the go-to source for scholars and general writers researching Mary Lincoln. Emerson’s sure guide through the tangled thickets of shifting historiography will help all of us to write more informed works about Mary Lincoln. A superb reference work.” I imagine future writers will praise your name for having provided this resource. But what do you hope Civil War enthusiasts who aren’t thinking of writing their own book will get from your in-depth coverage?

Jason Emerson: My hope is that general enthusiasts will accept my thesis that if you want to learn about Mary Lincoln you need to read beyond the same seven books that everyone uses and branch out in your reading. I want them to use this book as a resource from which to find a variety of sources on Mary’s life they can read, digest all the various information and interpretations, and then come to their own conclusions about who Mary was. People fascinated by Mary want to read everything about her they can, but nobody really knows what all those different titles are; they all just read what they are told are the “best” or “common” titles to read. I want to give them all a huge, wonderful, exciting menu of works they can read and indulge in their love of Mary Lincoln.

THAS: You have a quote at the top of your bio: “Research is endlessly seductive; writing is hard work.” When you’re talking about a subject as sweeping as the Civil War or Abraham Lincoln, an author could literally spend an entire lifetime researching before putting pen to paper. What’s your advice for writers on developing that internal clock that tells them they’ve absorbed enough to accurately address a figure like Mary Lincoln?

Jason Emerson: That’s a great question. I think you just have to keep going until you feel you have accumulated everything you need to start writing, knowing that as you write you will continue to need to research to fill in the gaps you did not realize you had. For my biography on Robert T. Lincoln, I spent years researching before I started writing; then I spent years writing the book, during which I did a lot of additional research whenever I reached a point where I realized I needed more information. Every historian has to realize and remind himself that what you are writing will not be – and cannot be – comprehensive; you just have to achieve and offer up as a thorough a work as you can realize.

THAS: You write in Mary Lincoln for the Ages, “It is fascinating to see how a story of ‘fact’ that everybody may know about Mary Lincoln is repeated by modern writers who copied the story from previous writers. Those writers, in turn, repeated the story from writers before them,” and then you say that often the original source just wasn’t true. Give us some examples of those “truths that aren’t facts,” as I’ll call them, that maybe surprised you at first and irritate you now when you see them pop up in otherwise respectable historic works.

Jason Emerson: The biggest example of “truths that aren’t facts” is the story started by William Herndon that Abraham Lincoln did not show up on his wedding day and left Mary Lincoln standing at the altar. Another example, started by Jean Baker, is that Mary Lincoln’s insanity trial was rigged and that Robert Lincoln bribed the judge and jury to find her guilty. One more example is the statement that Mary Lincoln was “clearly” addicted to drugs, which explains her bizarre behaviors and her commitment to the sanitarium in 1875, and she was therefore not mentally unstable. All of these are so patently false, and their falsities backed up by reams of evidence, that it infuriates me that people still believe these stories to be true. And yet many people do.

THAS: Regular listeners know that I always praise authors who go back to primary sources. You not only do that in Mary Lincoln for the Ages, but you list those sources at length in the background material. Give us some insight into what a source had to do to earn a spot in your background material, and how some of them didn’t make it into the book.

Jason Emerson: For nonfiction books and articles, they had to specifically about Mary Lincoln, or, if focused on another individual, so important to understanding Mary’s life as to necessitate inclusion (Like William Herndon’s biography of Abraham Lincoln). Some works that are ridiculously ignorant, biased, or just plain terribly researched and written I also included, some because their prominence necessitated it and some just to warn interested readers away from their corruptive influences. In general, I feel conscientious scholars must read the bad with the good in order to completely understand the bibliography.

I chose not to incorporate general survey books about first ladies and unpublished academic theses about Mary Lincoln. The former because all such first lady collections say the same things about Mary, all based on other secondary sources, and the latter because they are so difficult to find and read without either traveling vast distances or spending too much money on photocopies that their inclusion seemed unnecessary.

The only nonfiction articles I left out purposefully were general magazine articles (mainly from online magazines) from recent years that are such vanilla offerings by general writers, regurgitating decades of other writings, that they offer nothing new in fact or interpretation, or are simply not worth reading.

The newspaper articles were chosen based on their uniqueness, apparent reliability, importance to the historiography, and contents, usually primary sources found nowhere else. This came down to who the sources (writers and interviewees) were, what the article subject was, and when the article was written. Articles based on primary sources, such as reminiscences and interviews with Mary Lincoln herself or her family members or friends, were included, as were original reports on major events in Mary’s life,

The fiction, juvenile, poetry, and drama titles had to be specifically about Mary Lincoln. Because these were creative works rather than historical nonfiction, I chose not to add works focused on Abraham Lincoln even if Mary appeared as a prominent character, such as in Gore Vidal’s Lincoln or Robert E. Sherwood’s Abe Lincoln in Illinois. Quite simply, if I added one such work, then I would have to add them all.

THAS: You’ve studied Abraham Lincoln’s life for two decades. How do you go about spending time on the wife of someone like him and give her a fair shake, because I imagine authors are often pulled to talk to the Great Man, not the woman standing out of the frame on stage.

Jason Emerson: I have always preferred researching and writing about people and events that have not been written about countless times. So while Abraham Lincoln was my entry into the field of the study of his life and times, after a few years I eventually became fascinated by Mary (and oldest son Robert) because they have been somewhat overlooked as historical characters. It’s interesting because once I knew the details of Abraham’s life, I started considering those same events from the perspective of his wife and son.

Looking at Lincoln as president gained an entirely new perspective when I started considering his presidency from the perspective of Mary as first lady, for example. But it is difficult at first to keep the focus on Mary. When writing my first book, The Madness of Mary Lincoln, I kept writing about events that involved Abraham Lincoln with the focus on Abraham, rather than on Mary. I would then have to go back and rewrite to keep the focus on Mary. It was never intentional, but when the Great Man is secondary rather than primary, it can be difficult to keep that focus in mind.

THAS: You write that the narrow view of Mary Lincoln should concern us. The tough part has to be just how complicated a figure she is. We can’t hammer her neatly into the First Lady mold, say, that I discussed with Betty Boyd Caroli when we discussed her book, Lady Bird & Lyndon: The Hidden Story of a Marriage that Made a President. In fact, she’s probably more up and down like LBJ than like his wife. How do you suggest people pause and let themselves see a historical figure who is full of contradictions?

Jason Emerson: People need to read multiple works from multiple historians to get varied points of view. They also need to read books with theses with which they may disagree. For example, historian Michael Burlingame has shown unequivocally that Mary Lincoln performed many immoral and illegal activities when she was first lady, but many people refuse to read his work just because they don’t like him or his theses. But ignoring the facts does not make the facts disappear.

Also, I constantly remind people to look at Mary (or any historical figure) within the context of the time in which she lived – not from a 21st century viewpoint. Mary Lincoln was not Hillary Clinton 150 years too soon – and she would never recognize or characterize herself that way could we talk to her today. She was a product of her time, as was her husband, and we must remember and appreciate that.

THAS: Candice Shy Hooper joined the History Author Show in 2016 to discuss her book, Lincoln’s Generals’ Wives: Four Women Who Influenced the Civil War — for Better and for Worse. A woman in this era could play a big part in advancing her husband’s career, and none had a higher profile than First Lady. How did Mary Lincoln fill that role with those other wives, and how did some of them who didn’t like her, maybe add to the false narratives?

Jason Emerson: Mary tried extremely hard to fill the role of first lady properly – and yet she was determined to fill that role in the way she wanted, and not how others wanted or expected her to do it. So she made many enemies of politicians’ and generals’ wives simply because she refused to genuflect to them, ask their advice, or otherwise kowtow to them. Often, if Mary ignored their advice, they would talk about how ignorant she was of D.C. social customs, how unequipped she was (as a Western hick rube) to live up to her status as first lady, etc.

Mary helped her husband’s career in the ways she could as a woman and wife of her time. She did not advise him on policy, as some people assert today. Instead, she was an excellent judge of character as far as whom her husband should trust or not trust (whereas he always saw the good in everybody and often ignored warning signs of selfish people), and would share her opinions with him. She of course was his confidant in certain ways (as all spouses are), but her main contribution was as White House hostess, which was her main role as first lady – and back then especially it was an important role.

THAS: Mary Lincoln’s mental health and Robert Lincoln having her committed are what most people remember about the First Lady. How were you able to bring the often confusing and inaccurate diagnosis of a person so many years ago into focus?

Jason Emerson: Through a lot of research into primary sources, and through consultation with psychiatric experts, is the short answer. I looked at all of the original newspaper reporting of the trial, the days after the trial, and any mentions of the trial in later years (of which there were many, including interviews of the participants); I looked through all the existing historical evidence from the trial in papers, documents, correspondence, and reminiscences; I found three articles written by medical experts who analyzed Mary’s mental health and the trial itself based on their primary research.

And I asked psychiatric experts for their opinions on all the evidence I found and on my particular interpretations. In many cases, the experts pointed out important facts that I did not notice. For example, the daily reports from Bellevue Place sanitarium where Mary was committed do not have one single mention of any kinds of medication in regard to Mary Lincoln – which shows she never asked for, received, nor suffered withdrawal from addictive medications of any kind. This rebuts the theory was Mary was a drug addict and therefore not insane. I missed that, but one of my experts noticed it immediately because he was surprised that it was the case.

THAS: You start Mary Lincoln for the Ages with two seemingly contradictory quotes. First, by William Herndon in 1888: “Mrs. Lincoln was a better woman than the world gives her credit for.” Second, by Oswald Garrison Villard in 1927: “She was a dreadful woman in many ways, and I have always thought [she] had more to do with the lines in Lincoln’s face than all the cares of state.” By the late 1920s, the Lost Cause myth has taken full hold. Did that play a role in how historians misrepresented Mary Lincoln, much as it did for U.S. Grant?

Jason Emerson: I don’t think so. I think what played a role in Mary’s varied interpretations through the decades was the changing social mores of the times. At first, Mary was the practically anonymous side character of “Abraham Lincoln’s wife,” the loving little woman by his side, described by her physical appearance and her wardrobe, and the fact that she bore his children and kept the clean and loving home within which a great man dwelled as he rose to prominence.

A few decades later, she began having a greater historical identity as “Mrs. Abraham Lincoln,” the president’s companion and partner who also had her own life. By the 1980s, with the rise of women’s studies and feminist revisionism, biographical work on Mary Lincoln went in a new direction, and with it, Mary as “Mrs. Abraham Lincoln” gave way to her being identified and recognized as “Mary TODD Lincoln”—her own woman, a woman ahead of her times, a woman apart from her husband with her own ideas and strengths who was battling against a patriarchal society.

With turn of the millennium, and, I think, the rise of women in politics (especially former First Lady Hillary Clinton becoming the presidential nominee of a major political party) Mary suddenly became the indispensable and politically brilliant partner to her husband who should have been president herself. As I say in my book, every generation requires a new interpretation of history, and those generations ted to view historical figures through the eyes of the era in which they live.

THAS: I like to ask authors to make their pitch when I wrap up interviews, so have at it. Why should readers pick up Mary Lincoln for the Ages to get a full and accurate picture of the Civil War first lady?

Jason Emerson: I appreciate that question! I think everyone with an interest in understanding Mary Lincoln’s life and legacy will be shocked by the amount of new and previously unknown material in my book. I not only offer the first and only complete analytical bibliography of Mary as a historical subject, but I also explain the strengths of failures of the common resources and understandings about Mary’s life, and offer a completely new path on which to walk if you want to learn more about Mary. I’d like to think my book offers a revolutionary guide on how to consider Mary Lincoln and see and understand her in a way never before accomplished.

THAS: Thank you so much for taking the time to answer my questions about Mary Lincoln for the Ages, and to provide us with a clear picture of our first martyred president’s wife. I appreciate this “warts and all” view, to borrow her husband’s phrase, and wish you the best of luck with your high calling of fighting fiction with fact.

Jason Emerson: Thank you so much!