Sunday, January 17, 2010

The Lincolns: Portrait of a Marriage

The Book: The Lincolns: Portrait of a Marriage

The Author: Daniel Mark Epstein

The Dealio: Actually, the title pretty much says it all. I have been intrigued since I was 10 years old by 'the long and the short of it', as A. Lincoln frequently described Mary and himself. Less than ideally suited from the earliest glimmerings of interest in each other, this odd couple went on- through unimaginable tragedies- to shape our perceptions of what a First Family is. Long before we were introduced to Miz Lillian and John-John, the American public had come to expect certain things from the families in the White House. Rightly or wrongly, this placed themthe- and continues to place them now- in a peculiar position: constantly in public view, constantly being judged , not only by people in their inner circle, but by everyone who gets news from one outlet or another. Constantly found to be wanting in some way. Add to that the unbelievable setting of the American Civil War, and here are the makings of drama on a par with Shakespeare.

The Grading Session: 4.24 pengies out of 5. (Note: this was a book on CD, read by Adam Grupper). In hopes of providing 'exhaustively detailed' 411, Mr. Epstein, in places at least, wound up being merely exhaustive, and exhausting. This is what one of my coworkers, and fellow book-lover, would label 'dense history'. And I agree. While it can be interesting to find out that Mary was quite a shopaholic, it is not even vaguely interesting to catalogue every knick-knack and kick-shaw she bought. Nor to read an inventory of everything in the various rooms in their home in Springfield. One other thing that was rather distracting for me-and this is no reflection on the author, understand- is the mispronunciation of various words by the reader. For example, the military order 'pree-SENT arms!' was pronounced 'present' (as in 'I hope I get a nice present for my arms'). The rank 'adjutant' was, moreover, pronounced 'aa-JUT-ant'. Not major, but so distracting, and, I simply must say, has this dude never seen Combat! or Gardens of Stone? Inglourious Basterds? No? Nothing?

Lessons Learned: Wow! So many! Here're a few:
1) The recipe for Blue Mass (one of the very few sovereign remedies of the time). It includes items such as crushed rose petals, powdered sugar...oh, yeah, and mercury. Kiddies, do not attempt to duplicate this one at home.
2) The aforementioned Blue Mass was widely used for treating syphilis.
3) That Lincoln- Susan, stop reading NOW- thought that he had contracted syphilis during a visit to a, um, place in the country. With that in mind, he began self-dosing with 3-4 pills per day and called off his 'serious interest and understanding' with MTL.
4) The incredibly cavalier attitude MTL had toward bestowing patronage and calling in monetary favors throughout her life as AL's partner. The incredibly cavalier attitude AL had toward personal safety and survival during and immediately following the Civil War.
5) The huge credence both Lincolns placed in omens.
6) How very close to falling to the rebels Washington, DC actually came. This particular passage was among the most dramatic and well-painted in the entire book. I was impressed and riveted.
7) How inspirational such a rococo tale can be: I told Prendie that I really, really want to write a story about this couple and this time in history, with a 'what if' slant to it. No, not 'What if George Pickett had a B-52?' That would just be...fanciful.

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