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Behind the Scenes: or, Thirty Years a Slave, and Four Years in the White House

3.79  ·  Rating Details ·  1,810 Ratings  ·  263 Reviews
Originally published in 1868—when it was attacked as an “indecent book” authored by a “traitorous eavesdropper”—Behind the Scenes is the story of Elizabeth Keckley, who began her life as a slave and became a privileged witness to the presidency of Abraham Lincoln. Keckley bought her freedom at the age of thirty-seven and set up a successful dressmaking business in Washingt ...more
Kindle Edition, 408 pages
Published by Penguin Classics (first published January 1st 1868)
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Sherwood Smith
How I wish a good scholar would flesh out this fascinating memoir written by a former slave who bought her own freedom and ended up as dressmaker to Mary Todd Lincoln. The anecdotes reported in this slim history have the ring of truth, and Lincoln and his family glimmer to life in them.

Keckley gets by her slavery years at a brisk pace, without lingering on the beatings, rape, etc. Far more detail is given to the circumstances of her obtaining her freedom, but the main subject of this memoir is M
This slim book, written by Elizabeth Keckley, onetime modiste of Mary Todd Lincoln during her husband's tenure in the White House, and subsequently her confidante, is a testament to a most remarkable woman. Keckley, who was born a slave in Virginia in 1818, generally speaks very openly about her early life, including the beatings she had suffered at the hands of her master and a friend of her master's family, who sought, in their eyes, to humble her spirit. What I found remarkable is that when b ...more
Apr 01, 2009 Amanda rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
I bought this book when I went to the Lincoln Museum and home in Springfield, IL. I picked it up because - as you might be able to tell - I'm very interested in women's side of history.

This was written by Elizabeth Keckley, a former slave and the dressmaker and confidante of Mary Todd Lincoln. It is part slave narrative, and partly a history of the Lincoln family.

Keckley's stories of her time in slavery are upsetting, and there is a great deal she left out which I'm sure were important in her hi
Linda Robinson
Mar 30, 2013 Linda Robinson rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
That this book was saved from obscurity is a miracle in itself, and Ms. Keckley's life is another. The cover art informs the reader what writing will be revealed inside. Keckley's gaze is clear, fierce and magnificent. Her writing is the same, and I am grateful that the book is alive still. The author bought her freedom and secured her place in history with a steadfast heart and ferocious spirit. Her story survives and inspires.
Sharyn Flanagan
Jan 17, 2017 Sharyn Flanagan rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: book-club-picks
I liked this autobiography WAY more than I expected to. It had an easy pace even while tackling such a historically painful time in our nation. Very personal writing, which I always prefer. The Lincoln White House, Washington and the pre-Civil War era seen from Elizabeth Keckley's (sometimes spelled Keckly) view is so clear and illuminating. This book makes me want to read more about all three of those things, as well as re-watching the movie "Lincoln." A highly recommended read!
I read the Schomburg Library edition which includes a Forward by Louis Henry Gates, a note on behalf of the Schomburg Library, an Introduction by James Olney and an Appendix of letters by Mary Todd Lincoln. Elizabeth Keckley's voice shines through all these more famous and more learned people.

Keckley's writing is brought down by the extra material. One of the introductory essays (by a scholar who writes of the importance of the work) says that her description of the day her father was sent away
Oct 21, 2015 Teddie rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
This book is an American treasure

Published in 1868, it was written by Elizabeth Keckley, a former slave who bought her own freedom and eventually became Mary Todd Lincoln's dressmaker and confidante.

EK briefly but effectively writes about her years as a slave and then as a free black woman who built a successful business making clothes for the prominent people of the time. However, most of the book centers around Mary Todd Lincoln during and after her years in the White House. This firsthand acc
Apr 02, 2009 Kristin rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Thought I was a bit surprised to find that Keckley's main focus is not her thirty years as a slave, but rather her time in the service of Mary Todd Lincoln, I was far more surprised at how very readable this book is. Even 100 years later, the book reads as quickly as a gossip novel should, and I found it quite an enjoyable read, though at times I questioned Keckley's avoidance of personally painful topics. Keckley has a personable voice that sheds light on one of the United States' most provocat ...more
Gina Basham
May 02, 2013 Gina Basham rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
First, to respond to some reviews I've read. This is not historical fiction. It is a first person account of events and experiences written from the author's perspective.

Fascinating. There were so many things I learned about Mary Todd Lincoln that I never knew. I had heard, or read, about her being a little less than stable but to read evidence of it was gripping. I was not surprised by the devotion of Lincoln to his wife. That has been documented by many. The extravagant lifestyle of the women
Dara Salley
It’s beyond doubt that Elizabeth Keckley led an incredible life. Keckley’s writing skills, on the other hand, are very doubtful. She casts a veneer of politeness over her tale that is incredibly grating. I don’t blame her for it. As an African American women writing about the private lives of Abraham Lincoln and Jefferson Davis I’m sure she felt a lot of pressure not to step on any toes. However, her consideration for her subjects removes her book from the shelf titled “Historical Masterpieces” ...more
Feb 10, 2013 Rita rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
As I read this autobiography written by a former slave, Elizabeth Keckley--later a free black and business woman and dressmaker to Mary Todd Lincoln--I wondered how she was able to get her book published in 1868. Then I noticed on the verso page that the original was published due to "an act of Congress, in the year 1868" and realized that her writing was considered important enough as a primary source that Congress felt it worthy of publication. And indeed it is. Truly it is mesmerizing! Her re ...more
Lisa Rogers
Jul 23, 2013 Lisa Rogers rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Elizabeth Keckley made dresses for Mary Todd Lincoln when she was in the White House. Keckley was a former slave. She wrote this memoir largely to shed light on the character of Mrs. Lincoln who, at the time, was embroiled in a scandal involving misappropriation of gov't money to buy personal items. Keckley's writing is very elegant and formal; I haven't researched the book as yet to know if she had help in writing it, as she was uneducated and the language is surprising, given her background. N ...more
Won’t be rating this, but a few thoughts: this was an incredibly engrossing and insightful read. Like many have, I do question how much of Keckley’s words have been censored but even with those changes, I’d say this is a book worth a few hours. Not only is it interesting to learn about Keckley’s life, but Mary Todd Lincoln’s life after her husband’s assassination as well. It wasn’t a period I’ve ever examined before but would like to after having read this.
May 13, 2013 Judie rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Elizabeth Keckley wrote BEHIND THE SCENES OR, THIRTY YEARS A SLAVE, AND FOUR YEARS IN THE WHITE HOUSE in 1868. While the book received a great deal of attention when it was published, both she and the book were largely forgotten until the recent publication of MRS. LINCOLN’S DRESSMAKER by Jennifer Chiaverini in which she both bases and quotes much of her book.
In short, this book is about Mrs. Keckley’s life from her birth as a slave through her years as a seamstress and entrepreneur to her rel
Feb 16, 2017 Elaine rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
I liked reading the original source for Jennifer Chiaverini's novel, Mrs. Lincoln's Dressmaker.
If this was 1868, I'd be appalled by this book. It shares all kinds of Mary Todd Lincoln's private conversations and correspondence. It's been 148 years since this was published. Mary Todd no longer cares, I assume, and still I felt highly uncomfortable reading this. I mean, her husband was assassinated three years before this was published, and Keckley is telling the whole world how she mourned. She shares the way Mary Todd spoke with Lincoln: her remarks on Steward and other Cabinet members. T ...more
I picked up Elizabeth Keckley's book, "Behind the Scenes" at the Lincoln Presidential Museum in Springfield, Illinois about a week ago. I love shopping for books when I travel, and this book was mentioned in Jennifer Chiaverini's "Mrs. Lincoln's Dressmaker" which I recently read. In fact, after reading "Behind the Scenes", I see where Ms Chiaverini got a lot of her material for her work of historical fictions!

This is the "original" book about Mrs. Lincoln's dressmaker, Elizabeth Keckley. It was
 Gigi Ann
Feb 24, 2013 Gigi Ann rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
I started reading the novel "Mrs. Lincoln's Dressmaker" by Jennifer Chiaverini, and began wondering what parts of the book were facts, and what parts were fiction. Therefore, I decided to lay that book aside for now, and read this book, "Behind The Scenes" an autobiography memoir by Elizabeth Hobbs Keckley, the dressmaker of Mrs. Lincoln.

I always enjoy reading autobiographies, and I thoroughly enjoyed reading Mrs. Keckley's account of her life as a slave and dressmaker. I didn't enjoy how she w
Becky Loader
Hmmm. After reading "Mrs. Lincoln's Dressmaker," I had to read Mrs. Keckley's actual book. I have to admit I am skeptical.

First, Mrs. Keckley was born a slave, and in her early life, she experienced all the horrors that came with that terrible status. She did not have a formal education, and she earned the money to purchase her (and her son's) freedom. Her sewing skills were superlative, and her skill at making dresses made her a very popular seamstress for many upper-class women.

Her associati
Apr 11, 2013 Ruth rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
After reading the new book, Mrs. Lincoln's Dressmaker, I was interested in what resources the author had used since the book was historical fiction. It turns out that in 1868, the dressmaker herself had published her memoirs. It was interesting to see how the memoirs became a part of the new book.

It was interesting to have a glimpse of Mrs. Lincoln since it is usually her famous husband that one reads about. In looking up this book to see if our library system had it, I also discovered that they
Mar 30, 2013 Denise rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
I got this to read after reading Jennifer Chiaverini's newest book, Mrs. Lincoln's Dressmaker because Jennifer's book was a fictionalized version of Elizabeth Keckley's life (the author of this book). As it turned out, it was almost like reading Jennifer Chiaverini's book all over again only slightly less detailed. I was hoping to get more details about Keckley's life and that didn't happen. What I can say is that Jennifer Chiaverini's book was very accurate in its historical facts.
This memoir is less about Mrs. Keckley's life in bondage than her relationship with Mary Todd Lincoln for whom she seems to have had deep affection. Her first hand recollections of Mrs. Lincoln' s destitution after the assassination is well worth the read. Surprisingly well written, it details the raw deal the widow Lincoln received from a war torn, divided nation. Interestingly, this book was censored when it was first published. No doubt because it exposed the humiliation the martyred presiden ...more
April Lashbrook
I read this because I couldn't get through Mrs. Lincoln's Dressmaker, which was a book group selection one month, and others had read this one as well, and told me that this book was the source for much of the other. It was fascinating--and I'm sure very noteworthy that she wrote it when she did, given what she wrote about--her physical and sexual abuse as a slave and the embarrassments of Mrs. Lincoln. I was left unsure if Lizzie realized how much ML had taken advantage of her, but maybe that's ...more
A.L. Sayge
Jul 09, 2014 A.L. Sayge rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Outstanding book, I'd recommend it to anyone interested in unmanipulated historical facts. Keckley is a woman of standards and morals - there's no sensationalism or exploitation of her unique position in Lincoln's White House. It's very interesting to read a bit about the relationship between Mary Todd Lincoln and her husband (it's not the focus, but we do get some peeks) and about Mrs. Lincoln's circumstances and mindset (through her own letters) after leaving the White House. I can see why thi ...more
Jul 14, 2013 Becky rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
If you are interested in US History or fashion before, during and after the US Civil War you will likely find the book of interest. However, while it is the memoirs of Elizabeth Keckley, she really just wrote about snippets from her life. Oh how I wish she had written her full memoirs. I think her full memoirs would have read more like a story and would have been more enjoyable. Regardless, the woman was remarkable and admirable. She had an interesting life and the snippets she shares of her lif ...more
Nancy Hirsch
Oct 03, 2015 Nancy Hirsch rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Very good reading

I liked the style , good narrative , could actually feel the events and characters personalities! It flowed very well and brought in the times and things I did not realize about Mrs. lincoln I enjoyed the book and would recommend it.
Beth Hill
Mar 01, 2015 Beth Hill rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Excellent book from the view of a prior slave.
A book to be read!
Mar 06, 2013 Lynne rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
Very difficult to read because of the language of the time and because of the poor transition to ebook.
Oct 26, 2016 Victoria rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
I wanted to like this book more, but it just wasn't that well written. The title makes it seem to be more about Keckley's 30 years as a slave and then 4 years at the White House, but it really had very little about her years as a slave, they were skimmed over in a short time and then the book focuses in on her time in the White House, and mostly on Mrs. Lincoln. I feel like I know more about Mrs. Lincoln now than I do about Elizabeth Keckley. I just never really could connect this story to a sla ...more
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Elizabeth Hobbs Keckley (February 1818 –May 1907) was a former slave turned successful seamstress who is most notably known as being Mary Todd Lincoln's personal modiste and confidante, and the author of her autobiography, Behind the Scenes Or, Thirty Years a Slave and Four Years in the White House. Mrs. Keckley utilized her intelligence, keen business acumen, and sewing and design skills to arran ...more
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“None of us are perfect, for which reason we should heed the voice of charity when it whispers in our ears, "Do not magnify the imperfections of others.” 2 likes
“An act may be wrong, but unless the ruling power recognizes the wrong, it is useless to hope for a correction of it.” 2 likes
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