Monday, August 13, 2007

A New Book

I had just presented a paper at the Illinois History Conference in Springfield and decided to settle into the audience to listen to the next group of presentations. An independent historian named Jason Emerson began to speak about Mary Todd Lincoln. I was floored by what I heard.

Nonchalantly…like it was no big deal…he mentioned he had recently found several undiscovered Mary Todd Lincoln letters.

“Where did you find them?” I asked.

“Up in an attack in a trunk,” he replied.

I was skeptical. Long-lost letters in a trunk in an attack? The story sounded too good to be true.

It turns out Emerson was telling me the truth.

Southern Illinois University Press is publishing his book on September 10, 2007. Here is the write up from the publishers:

In 2005, historian Jason Emerson discovered a steamer trunk formerly owned by Robert Todd Lincoln's lawyer and stowed in an attic for forty years. The trunk contained a rare find: twenty-five letters pertaining to Mary Todd Lincoln's life and insanity case, letters assumed long destroyed by the Lincoln family. Mary wrote twenty of the letters herself, more than half from the insane asylum to which her son Robert had her committed, and many in the months and years after.

The Madness of Mary Lincoln is the first examination of Mary Lincoln’s mental illness based on the lost letters, and the first new interpretation of the insanity case in twenty years. This compelling story of the purported insanity of one of America’s most tragic first ladies provides new and previously unpublished materials, including the psychiatric diagnosis of Mary’s mental illness and her lost will.

Emerson charts Mary Lincoln’s mental illness throughout her life and describes how a predisposition to psychiatric illness and a life of mental and emotional trauma led to her commitment to the asylum. The first to state unequivocally that Mary Lincoln suffered from bipolar disorder, Emerson offers a psychiatric perspective on the insanity case based on consultations with psychiatrist experts.

This book reveals Abraham Lincoln’s understanding of his wife’s mental illness and the degree to which he helped keep her stable. It also traces Mary’s life after her husband’s assassination, including her severe depression and physical ailments, the harsh public criticism she endured, the Old Clothes Scandal, and the death of her son Tad.

The Madness of Mary Lincoln is the story not only of Mary, but also of Robert. It details how he dealt with his mother’s increasing irrationality and why it embarrassed his Victorian sensibilities; it explains the reasons he had his mother committed, his response to her suicide attempt, and her plot to murder him. It also shows why and how he ultimately agreed to her release from the asylum eight months early, and what their relationship was like until Mary’s death.

This historical page-turner provides readers for the first time with the lost letters that historians had been in search of for eighty years.

I am extremely excited to read this book. Several Lincoln scholars have read advance copies and they are unanimous in their praise:

“Jason Emerson has written the definitive work on Mary Todd Lincoln’s mental health in general and her insanity problems in particular. Written with verve and complete understanding of the subject, The Madness of Mary Lincoln is a masterpiece.”
Wayne C. Temple, author of Abraham Lincoln: From Skeptic to Prophet

“The Madness of Mary Lincoln is precise, documented, and detailed. . . . Every word counts and every word adds up to a riveting and until-now neglected chronicle begging to be told.”
Carl Sferrazza Anthony, author of First Ladies

“A judicious, convincing analysis. . . . Emerson's new evidence demonstrates that Mary Todd Lincoln deserves to be pitied more than censured, but also that she behaved very badly indeed.”
Michael Burlingame, author of The Inner World of Abraham Lincoln

“Jason Emerson's heroic efforts to uncover new material on Robert Lincoln have paid off handsomely with this engaging interpretation of Mary Lincoln’s later years.”
Catherine Clinton, author of Fanny Kemble’s Civil Wars

“Jason Emerson is a very, very good writer and a superior historical detective. This is a most original book, taking new evidence to new heights of sophisticated analysis.”
Harold Holzer, author of The Lincoln Family Album

When I get more information, I will gladly pass it along. I suspect I’ll work up a book review as well, just as soon as I can get my hands on a copy of the book!

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