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Mary Todd Lincoln: A Biography

3.91  ·  Rating Details  ·  1,079 Ratings  ·  100 Reviews
Mary Todd, daughter of the founders of Lexington, Kentucky, was raised in a world of frontier violence. First abandoned at the age of six when her mother died, Mary later fled a hostile stepmother for Springfield, where she met and, after a stormy romance, married the raw Illinois attorney, Abraham Lincoln. Their marriage lasted for twenty five years until his assassinatio ...more
Paperback, 429 pages
Published April 1st 1989 by W. W. Norton & Company (first published 1987)
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(showing 1-30 of 2,101)
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Susan
Feb 24, 2014 Susan rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
This is a well-written and absorbing biography of one of America's most controversial first ladies. Baker does an excellent job of putting Mary's story in the context of her place and time, and she has a dry sense of humor that made this particularly readable.

The only reason I didn't give this five stars was the author's treatment of two figures: Mary's daughter-in-law, Mary Harlan Lincoln, and Mary's son, Robert Lincoln. Baker suggests that Mary Harlan Lincoln was a closet alcoholic and that th
...more
Nancy
Jul 12, 2013 Nancy rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: biography, history
Historian Jean Baker thinks it's just too easy to turn Mary Todd Lincoln into the First Lady we love to hate. She sets out to provide a social, psychological, and feminist context for understanding Mary's childhood, marriage, motherhood, and widowhood, and it is a very powerful story.

Mary was one of 14 children in what these days would be called a blended family. Her mother died when she was young and so she was raised by a stepmother, who she was constantly at odds with. Her father, often away
...more
Leah
Feb 09, 2009 Leah rated it really liked it
This is the first book I've ever read about Mary Todd. I found the history fascinating and I now realize what a difficult life Mary really had.
Monk
Apr 14, 2011 Monk rated it did not like it  ·  review of another edition
My problems with this book are legion, but I'll highlight just a few.

First, Baker's perspective is limited, as she clearly is writing a "feminist" history of Mary Todd Lincoln, and her diatribes become both tiresome and tortured. Her "logic" goes like this: 19th century society treated women badly because they were women. Mary Todd Lincoln lived in the 19th century. She was treated badly. Therefore, she was treated badly because she was a woman. That thinking is far too simplistic, but it is at
...more
Noelle M
Feb 15, 2012 Noelle M rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
I thought the book was a real tour de force in the biography writing genre. Baker's thesis is that in childhood, the maternally orphaned Mary Lincoln developed a narcissistic personality in response to being rejected by her stepmother who wanted the husband's first family to just go away. Mary needed and didn't get normal attention so she found other means to get what she needed. Admittedly narcissism is a "broken" strategy for solving emotional problems, a childish strategy. The original proble ...more
Karyl
May 23, 2010 Karyl rated it really liked it
Shelves: non-fiction
Mary Todd Lincoln was a complex woman, too often dismissed as "insane" because she was institutionalized by her one surviving son, Robert Todd Lincoln, though she only spent three months at a sanitarium. Her son's reasons for institutionalizing her included her belief in mediums who could contact her dead husband and children, and her incessant buying of needless items. Of course, in modern times, this would not be nearly enough to institutionalize anyone, yet it was a fairly common thing in the ...more
Kelly
Aug 11, 2012 Kelly rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: history
We have all been told that Mary Todd Lincoln was a crazy first lady. Reading 'Mary Todd Lincoln', you see a side of Mary Todd that is rarely told. She had a higher education than most women and some men of her day. She was very interested in politics and in the book many people describe her as lively and intelligent. She was fiercely loyal to her husband and her children. I found reading about how the Lincoln's raised their children to be endearing. They did not have a heavy hand and treasured t ...more
Alan Jacobs
Jun 20, 2011 Alan Jacobs rated it it was amazing
Recommends it for: hisotyr buffs; those interested in the role of women in mid-19th cetury America
One of the finest biographies I've ever read. Totally changed my perception of Mary Todd Lincoln. The author is not an apologist for Mrs. Lincoln: she lays out the details of all her notorious extravagances, and recounts every one of her public outbursts. However, the author always puts Mrs. Lincoln's utterances extravagances in the context of how Mary became an educated woman at a time when most women only had a rudimentary education, and then how she never received the respect, or even the cor ...more
Kelly
Aug 01, 2007 Kelly rated it it was ok
Shelves: biography
The Lincolns are not even in the White House yet and I am annoyed with this author. She tends to belittles Mary Lincoln often. I realize MTL is not a woman loved by history, but I find the author's assertion that MTL's political interests "displayed a quirky feminism located not in principle but in the psychological necessity to be somebody" o be dismissive. MTL was very well educated -- she had 12 years of formal schooling -- maybe her interest in politics was born of a working mind in need of ...more
Sarah Finch
Nov 09, 2014 Sarah Finch rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
A superb and thorough biography of a fundamentally misunderstood woman. Though the movie "Lincoln" did a good deal to humanize Mary Todd Lincoln after generations of traditional history painted her as a hysterical shrew who made her husband miserable, Baker clearly delineates between the poisoned pens of early historiographers and the documentary evidence that shows a woman in full -- imperfect, neurotic, narcissistic, overbearing but also intelligent, beloved by her husband, and a woman whose a ...more
Doug Nagel
Sep 08, 2011 Doug Nagel rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: Anyone who enjoys a good biography and American history
This was an excellent biography. Jean Baker provides a thorough psycho-social profile of Mary Todd Lincoln, highlighting the early family influences and abandonments that shaped her character, ambition and well-documented idiosyncracies. Tracing her life from her Lexington, Kentucky roots, Baker emphasizes her unusual interest in politics, Mary Todd's academic achievements at a time when education for women was denigrated and her desire to marry someone who would elevate her social standing in t ...more
Bob
May 30, 2013 Bob rated it it was amazing
Shelves: biography, history
Everyone who grows up in central Illinois, 100 miles from Springfield, more or less accepts Abe Lincoln as almost a distant relative. Lincoln is EVERYWHERE -- places he stayed, court houses where he tried cases, locations where he gave a speech, and on and on. But Mary Todd? She is always pegged as the hugh strung wife, somebody who could not get along with anybody. Never seems like a proper match for Mr Lincoln.

After reading this biography, which felt to be very well researched and factual, it
...more
Brenda
Nov 29, 2012 Brenda rated it really liked it
Shelves: non-fiction
I was inspired to learn more about Mary Todd Lincoln after watching the new Spielberg movie "Lincoln" (I also want to learn more about Thaddeus Stevens).

This biography is extremely readable (more readable imho than the acclaimed book the movie was based on). I LOVE non-fiction that reads like fiction and this almost qualifies.

Baker provides a balanced portrait of Mary. She's neither heroine nor villain. She is portrayed as intelligent, emotional, ambitious and insecure. Baker believes that Mar
...more
Kathy
Jan 26, 2009 Kathy rated it liked it
This is an interesting examination of a very misunderstood former first lady. Jean Baker provides a sympathetic look at Mary Todd Lincoln as a bright, educated upper-class young woman from Lexington, Kentucky who struggles with much loss over the years and finally must defend her sanity and deal with the strained relationship with her only surviving son. Politics were a significant part of the Lincoln marriage and Mary Todd Lincoln's challenges with her role as first lady is a particularly fasci ...more
Beverly
May 03, 2016 Beverly rated it really liked it
Mary Todd Lincoln is definitely a tragic figure in history. Well educated for a female of her time, there is ample evidence to suggest she had a great influence on Lincoln becoming president. At the same time she demonstrated increasingly bizarre behavior during her life. Most probably she was mentally ill, albeit not insane. Jean Baker paints her as a narcissist, but we will never really know what the trouble with Mary was.

Jean Baker does a good job of telling Mary's story although I occasional
...more
Linda
Jul 08, 2010 Linda rated it liked it
Mary Todd Lincoln has always been an enigma to me. I've vacillate between thinking that she was down right crazy (as her son Robert apparently thought) and that she was simply a woman with a major personality disorder - manifested throughout her life by her bizarre and eratic behavior. Whichever the case, she was most definitely a tragic figure - one who also played a key role in the life of one of our most admired presidents. If you have an interest in her, it's definitely worth the read.
Caroline
Aug 23, 2015 Caroline rated it really liked it
History has not been kind to Mary Todd Lincoln. Whilst her husband is known to posterity as the Great Emancipator, the man who freed the slaves and steered the Union safely through four years of civil war, consistently rated as one of, if not the greatest of all American presidents, Mary Lincoln is remembered as a bad-tempered, irrational, shrewish 'hellcat', in the words of her husband's secretaries. Her own reputation seems to hang in inverse proportion to her husband's - as his rises so corre ...more
Jean
Dec 19, 2015 Jean rated it liked it
Robert Lincoln is definitely the bad guy in this version of MTL's later life. At this distance of time it's awfully difficult to sort out where the truth lies in he-said/she-said arguments. Certainly mother and son did not understand each other, intellectually or emotionally.

The primary take-away for me from this book was the similarity between MTL and Queen Victoria. I'd noted earlier the parallels in their mourning styles, but they also had similarly contentious marriages--the Lincoln's perha
...more
Ashley
Aug 22, 2011 Ashley rated it really liked it
A great look into a complicated life of a woman who had very delicate emotions. A lady who had so much loss in her life and who tried to bear with it as best as she knew how, while trying to convince people she was not insane but just very emotional. There is nothing so sad as to see her own son dislike his own parents and want to hide his mother away for fear of embarassment to himself.
Touching story of love, loss and redemption of oneself.
Jean Schuh
Jun 09, 2015 Jean Schuh rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
I really enjoyed learning about Mary Todd Lincoln's life. This book begins with her ancestors who founded Lexington Kentucky and how the Todd family became aristocrats in early American history. She was well educated even more so than most men at the time. Mary Todd Lincoln was a fascinating character who fought for herself during the age when women had no legal rights. She loved her family and lost every one of them except her first born son, Robert, who she eventually disinherited. After Linco ...more
Dana
Jan 18, 2015 Dana rated it really liked it
I was very interested in this book after reading the fictionalized version "Mary" that cited this book. I wasn't disappointed and learned a great deal about an important historical figure. It took a long time to get through it and at times felt the subject matter got into the weeds too much then hurried through other matters like her time at the asylum. I felt sad for her losses (I can't imagine living through the deaths of three children and husband in addition to losing ones mother as a you be ...more
Anna
Feb 20, 2013 Anna rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
Ik probeer biografieën te lezen van Amerikaanse presidentsvrouwen. Ik zocht naar aanleiding van de recente films rond Lincoln naar een goede biografie. Dit was het beste dat ik kon vinden en eigenlijk niet de moeite van het lezen waard. Wel goed gedocumenteerd maar zeer matig geschreven. Geen aanrader.
☯Emily
Aug 02, 2011 ☯Emily rated it it was amazing
Shelves: biography
This is a very readable book about Abe Lincoln's wife and her tortured life. Today we have drugs that would help her with her fears and depression, but in the 1800's, there was no sympathy for her and the many issues she faced. This book was written with sympathy and understanding.
Cornmaven
Jul 26, 2009 Cornmaven rated it it was amazing
Shelves: adult, non-fiction
Pair this with the novel, Mary, by Janice Newman, for a really thought-provoking study of Mrs. Lincoln, as well as what society was like in the 19th century.

I found it heart-breaking that her son never accepted her. Mary Lincoln's story is a tragic one, and fascinating.
Karen
Apr 03, 2008 Karen rated it really liked it
An honest look at a woman who is often portrayed unsymphathetically but we learn there are 2 sides to every story.
Peg
Apr 04, 2014 Peg rated it really liked it
I've read several books on the Lincoln's and one on Mary Todd Lincoln's dressmaker. This was as good as others I've read. I knew of her eccentricities and of the death of three of four of her sons. However, I did not know of her son Robert's successful campaign to have her declared a lunatic and have her institutionalized.
That was a very sad and disloyal action on Robert's part. She was not considered a risk to herself or others just an embarrassment. Eventually Mrs Lincoln was discharged and r
...more
Kela
Jul 28, 2013 Kela rated it liked it
I wanted to read a book on Mary Todd Lincoln after visiting the Lincoln home and presidential museum this summer. This book is considered the definitive biography on the former first lady, but I found it a bit dry at times. The first few chapters were hard to get through. I get it that she came from a very prominent family that played a major role in the founding of Lexington. I don't need several chapters completely bogged down in details to get that point across. Adding to the confusion was th ...more
Rachel
Aug 03, 2011 Rachel rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
I have not heard much of anything about Mary Todd Lincoln and the very little that I have heard about her crazy spending habits and that she was insane didn't appeal to me to read about her. After reading this book, I am amazed at the strength she did have in spite of all the tragedies she had in her life, long before Lincoln was killed. She was a strong and outspoken woman, which turned off a lot of the men in her husband's political circles. Not one of them helped her after he died with the fi ...more
Carmaleeta Newchurch
Informative

Supposedly, she was considered the crazy Mrs. Lincoln. But there was nothing crazy about her; instead she was ahead of her time. She was well educated in politics, resourceful, and a great speaker. That however caused her big problems because in her day women weren't suppose to be well versed and men objected profoundly. Her punishment was to be marked as insane. I am glad I read this book because I have a huge respect for Mrs A. Lincoln.
Becky Loader
Nov 03, 2012 Becky Loader rated it really liked it
I read a lot about Mary Lincoln, and I believe that Baker and Clinton have written the best, popular biographies of this very complex woman.

Baker's prose style is attractive and readable, so that the reader will not get bogged down by a too-academic approach. Baker uses lots of verified stories from Mrs. Lincoln's letters, so I feel she has spent time trying to get details that will keep the reader interested.

As with most authors, Baker can't quite keep from inserting her own personal views in
...more
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Jean H. Baker is a professor of history at Goucher College. A graduate of Goucher College, she earned her doctorate at Johns Hopkins University.
More about Jean H. Baker...

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