Tag Archives: Mary Todd Lincoln

A Notable Addition to Lincoln Lore

  For a couple of years in the ‘90s I worked for a theatre at Lincoln State Park (www.indianasabelincoln.org)  in southwestern Indiana that presented an annual summer musical, Young Abe Lincoln. Lincoln’s boyhood years in Indiana from ages 7 to 21 were full of sorrow – he lost his mother and his sister there; much of his lifelong melancholy has its roots there – but crowds could flock to the park on a summer night to watch that story being told in song and dance.

The show was performed in a beautiful outdoor amphitheatre. On the drive to the theatre, one passed the churchyard where Lincoln’s sister, Sarah, is buried. Lincoln’s mother, Nancy, is buried across from the state park in what is now the Lincoln Boyhood National Memorial (nps.gov/libo). Young Abe Lincoln was sweet and charming and it played fast and loose with the history.

One rejected marketing pitch for Young Abe Lincoln was “Walk in Lincoln’s Shoes by Day, Dance in Them at Night!” It wasn’t used but it made me smile.

The mythology and biography of Abraham Lincoln is in constant revision. In a timely discussion of unpopular U.S. Presidents not long ago, I mentioned that Abraham Lincoln was so disliked in many quarters that there were those who did not think he would live through his first inauguration.

Somebody said, “But everybody loved Lincoln.”

Such is the filter of time on history. Even though Lincoln is almost universally revered and practically deified today, he was widely reviled by many Southerners and Northerners alike when he assumed the presidency in 1861. Of course some were so fearful of his presidency that there was mass secession and civil war.

Even so, as an elementary school student in a still all-white public school in Birmingham during the height of the civil rights movement and the centennial of the American Civil War, my history lessons presented Lincoln as the epitome of goodness – loved and revered by all, the Great Emancipator, the man who brought unity from division. He was the leader of the northern troops during a bloody civil war but my southern teachers, in teaching that war, always painted Lincoln in a beatific light.

My parents were taught that same reverence for Lincoln in southern classrooms two decades before me.

The dichotomy is not lost on me.

Lincoln has been a popular persona of American culture since his death, celebrated by artists from Walt Whitman’s sublime “O Captain! My Captain” to the ridiculous Seth Grahame-Smith novel Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter and its subsequent film adaptation.

Since the advent of film, it seems every generation produces a definitive biographical film about Lincoln. New Lincoln titles are added to book lists annually.

Like most Americans, at least from Baby Boomers back, Lincoln’s life and legacy have been a constant. On my one and only trip to Springfield, Illinois, in the ‘90s, my only objective was to visit Lincoln’s tomb.

On a recent visit to Lexington, Kentucky, I found myself stumbling across places that had relevance to Mary Todd Lincoln’s early life even though I wasn’t necessarily looking for them.

Several birthdays ago, I received Angels and Ages: A Short Book about Darwin, Lincoln, and Modern Life by Adam Gopnik (Alfred A. Knopf, 2009) as a gift to commemorate the bicentennial of Lincoln’s birth. Lincoln and Charles Darwin were born on the exact same day – February 12, 1809. Gopnik explores the profound impact those two distinct 19th century lives had on society and culture in the two centuries since their births.

Now comes an extraordinary novel, Lincoln in the Bardo (Random House, 2017). The title character of Lincoln in the Bardo, the first novel by George Saunders (who is already wildly acclaimed as a short story writer), is Willie Lincoln, not Abraham. Willie, Abraham and Mary Todd Lincoln’s third son, died at age 11 in 1862, barely a year into the War. It is known that, after Willie’s funeral, Lincoln travelled alone to the cemetery at night to be with his son’s body, to mourn and weep over him.

That element of fact provides the impetus for Saunders’s highly entertaining choral meditation on death and grief. He uses the night of Willie’s burial as the material for a brilliantly compelling work of robust, complex, and unique fiction.

Lincoln in the Bardo is hypnotic and hallucinogenic. The virtuosic structure combines real historical accounts with fictional historical accounts and, most intriguingly, a chorus of the voices of spirits whose bodies are laid to rest in the Oak Hill Cemetery in Georgetown where Willie has just been interred in a borrowed crypt.

The “bardo” of the title is a liminal state – a concept in Tibetan Buddhism that refers to the transition from one life to the next. The spirits of Lincoln in the Bardo have, for a variety of reasons, not moved on and are in denial about their own deaths. They refer to their coffins as “sick-boxes” and, despite their supernatural abilities and extreme permutations, await the time when they might return to their normal earthly lives.

I hesitate to divulge too much about Lincoln in the Bardo since it is best to encounter the book with a fresh eye. Suffice it to say that the novel begins with a poignant narrative about an unconsummated marriage and ends with a moment that is thrilling in its abrupt and surprising impact. In between are dozens of distinct voices that narrate the struggle for young Willie Lincoln’s soul, framed by historical documents providing further context for the political and emotional struggles of his father.

Abraham Lincoln’s appearances in the book provide a hush and urgency to the turmoil of the night of Willie’s burial. Saunders captures Lincoln’s insurmountable grief through many eyes and illuminates the undependable nature of personal perception.

In the course of the book, observers call Lincoln “The ugliest man I have ever put my eyes on” and “The homeliest man I ever saw.” A page later someone comments that “He never appeared ugly to me, for his face … had the stamp of intellectual beauty” and another adds that “neighbors told me that I would find Mr. Lincoln was an ugly man, when he is really the handsomest man I ever saw in my life.” Such contradictions abound in the historical testimony of the novel.

Such moments of human and otherworldly cacophony make Lincoln in the Bardo a triumphant read despite its grim and often disturbing subject matter.

I am not an aficionado of audiobooks but I am curious about this one. Each character is voiced by a different performer – 166 in all, including Don Cheadle, Julianne Moore, Susan Sarandon, David Sedaris, Ben Stiller, and George Saunders. I may have to listen to it. In fact, while reading the book, I kept envisioning it as a play or a staged reading event. Its theatricality is undeniable.

Lincoln in the Bardo is certainly not typical summer reading fare and it’s definitely not going to be to everybody’s taste, but for an adventurous reader willing to tackle it, it’s easy to be quickly drawn into this original, magnificent, and challenging book.

Discovering Lexington and The Village Idiot

  LEXINGTON, KENTUCKY. I am an erstwhile horse racing fan, meaning that I follow the Triple Crown and check in on news about Bob Baffert, my favorite trainer, a few times a year. So I was intrigued to pass Man o’ War Boulevard and Keeneland Race Track as I drove into Lexington, Kentucky, for the first time.

Since 1983 I have regularly attended the annual Southeastern Theatre Conference (SETC) convention in early March. Several thousand students, academics, professionals, amateurs, beleaguered supportive parents, and a little bit of everything else one can find in the theatre and media converge on a conference center and spend five days jamming elevators, food courts, and hotel bars and restaurants as they audition, exhibit, network, perform, and choose from hundreds of panels and workshops.

SETC is the largest theatre conference in the United States. I was pretty fresh and young when I started attending, first as a stage manager for a community theatre production in competition, then as a job hunter, and later as a director and casting associate at the three days of actor “cattle call” auditions. Now, I go as an educator and a member of the Southern Theatre magazine editorial board.

It’s inspiring and invigorating in the first hours but by the time I attended a Friday afternoon editorial meeting there was a delayed response in the room and the sense of overload was palpable on most of the participants. SETC sessions start early in the morning and go until after midnight so it is perhaps a younger person’s game more that it’s mine. Still, I press on, up and down the escalators, past the horse-inspired fountain.

Most of my Kentucky sojourns focus on Louisville so it’s good to check out a new part of the state. The conference begins to wind down by Saturday afternoon so I usually set aside some Saturday time for unwinding and exploration of my own. I arrived in Lexington after a cold front passed through on Wednesday and my Saturday morning post-breakfast walk was a chilly and brisk one. By Saturday afternoon things had warmed up nicely, though.

Among the Victorian buildings comprising an area called “The Square” across from the conference center is the visitors center proclaiming Lexington the “Horse Capital of the World.” And, of course, University of Kentucky blue is everywhere. I can see two houses with connections to Mary Todd Lincoln and her family from my hotel room – one of them is next door to Rupp Arena. And I have caught myself humming “My Old Kentucky Home” more than once.

From my hotel window, I spotted a pedestal with a statue atop it. I ventured down Main Street to find that the mystery man on the 120-foot pedestal is “The Great Compromiser” and 19th Century statesman Henry Clay. He and his wife, Lucretia Hart, lie beneath the imposing monument in the dignified old Lexington Cemetery.

Because of the demands of the conference, many meals are grabbed on the run. A few years ago, however, my friends Janet and Russell and I started meeting for a relaxing dinner on Saturday night of the conference. I have known them since I lived in Jackson, Mississippi, and we always have a lot of catching up to do. More recently, my friends Kitty and Patty – both of whom go back to my graduate school years in Tuscaloosa – joined the crew.

Since I don’t know Lexington I decided to do a web search of dining near the hotels. I kept coming back to a place called The Village Idiot, which sounded ideal, with a varied and interesting menu to please a variety of tastes. I made a reservation and was a little nervous since it was my first time to book a restaurant for this group before checking it out in advance.

Not to worry. The Village Idiot is a new-ish gastropub in a circa 1825 former post office building. It is a three and a half story structure divided into several cozy bars and dining rooms. The menu is locally sourced and adventuresome and our party was pleased with every bite – starting with a shared artisan cheese plate.

I launched my main meal with a most generous dried fig and country ham “side salad.” Most of us had the New York strip but there was a very tempting pulled pork mac and cheese entrée. I thought seriously about ordering duck and waffles, The Village Idiot’s response to the chicken and waffle entrée that is ubiquitous on Lexington menus.  We finished feasting with a huge bourbon-sauced bread pudding with five spoons so we could share.

“The Purge,” a house drink combining Buffalo Trace, Ancho Reyes chili liqueur, ginger, and lemon was another popular hit at our table.

Head Chef Jason Richey and Chef de Cuisine Eric Angelo have their fingers on a fine balance of taste, variety, freshness, and style. Jeff, our waiter, was knowledgeable, charming, attentive, and eager to share with us “theatre folk” his theatre experiences back in high school.

I was relieved by the end of the dinner when our group declared The Village Idiot a great choice. After an exhausting conference, The Village Idiot was both invigorating and relaxing. We made it an early night since we all had long drives the next morning.

SETC is in Mobile next year. Before the group went our separate ways, we agreed that next year’s Saturday evening dining will be at one of my favorites – The Wash House, across Mobile Bay in Point Clear.

I guess I have a few more conferences left in me before I’m put out to pasture..