Goodreads: Behind the Scenes
Age Category: Adult
Elizabeth Keckley recounts her years as an enslaved person, how she bought freedom for herself and her son, and how she became a dressmaker in Washington, D.C. and modiste for Mary Todd Lincoln.
I picked up Elizabeth Keckley’s memoir Behind the Scenes because I wanted to learn more about a woman who was born in slavery, bought her freedom and that of her son, and then worked her way into the inner circles of society in Washington, D.C. during the years of the American Civil War. The strength, resilience, and cleverness she must have had would have to be phenomenal. I was, then, a bit surprised to discover that only the first three chapters of her book describe her years being enslaved and the rest is dedicated to providing an intimate look at the Lincoln household. The longest, most detailed chapter recounts Keckley’s service to Mrs. Lincoln after the war, when Mary wanted to sell her clothes for monetary relief, and Keckley traveled to New York to aid her. Behind the Scenes is certainly a valuable look at the private lives of public figures–one written with a keen eye for detail as well as much sympathy for Mrs. Lincoln. I really wanted to know more about Keckley, however, and had to satisfy myself with some more research after finishing her book.
Behind the Scenes is really a striking book in many ways. It does not fit the general mold of the slave narrative–accounts written largely to enlist public sympathy for the cause of abolition. Keckley almost seems to gloss over the account of her own life, particularly the years when she was enslaved, instead choosing to draw a veil of silence over the more uncomfortable and horrific aspects. For instance, she notes that she stayed with her husband for eight years, but left him as he was a delinquent; no more is to be said of him. She also veils the identity of the white man who raped her when she was young, and passes over the abuse she endured at his hands, instead giving readers the poignantly simple statement that she became a mother. Who can blame her? It is not something a person would want to relive, even in memory. She passes over this quickly so she can get to the meat of her story–her observations of the Lincoln’s household and her defense of her friend Mrs. Lincoln.
The book also feels a bit scandalous for a memoir of the 1860s, as it reveals private details of the lives of public figures. I was truly startled to find an appendix full of personal, private letters that Mrs. Lincoln sent to Keckley, all of them about her efforts to sell her clothing for money after the war. Keckley preempts the reader’s criticism by saying she does this in defense of her friend, who was being torn apart by the newspapers for the clothing sale. I felt for Keckley. I even believed her. But one suspects that the public was not quite ready to have a Black, female dressmaker reveal conversations that the late president had with his wife, or letters from the former First Lady. Scandalous indeed! My research later revealed that the book did cause a sensation upon its release, but then quickly disappeared. Some believe Robert Lincoln suppressed it, and that seems like a distinct possibility to me.
What I really wanted from this book was some historical context and literary criticism. I read the 1988 OUP copy from the library, and most of the introductory material covers the reasoning for the series of which the title was a part. It does not dwell with great insight on the content of Behind the Scenes. I really wanted to know things like why Keckley would choose to write about Willie Lincoln’s death in detail, down to reprinting articles written about the boy, but gloss over the death of her own son (a Union soldier in his first battle) in one paragraph. Or why she was so particular about expressing love for her former enslavers, even narrating her visit to the family after the war and how kind they were to receive her. One suspects that some sort of politics were at play here. Maybe the editor thought the Lincoln material would sell better than Keckley’s own personal grief? Was there some sort of push to placate the South and not raise uncomfortable memories about the practice of slavery? That kind of critique from scholars would be really helpful to put Keckley’s memoirs in context.
Keckley’s account does showcase her incredible talent, kindness, and force of will, even when she tries to direct the spotlight at someone else. She singlehandedly financially supported the entire family of her enslavers with her needle (when they could not earn money themselves), earned the respect of enough prominent women to get a loan to buy her freedom and that her of son, made her way to D.C. where she was successful enough to become the dressmaker for the First Lady, spearheaded efforts to support new freedmen after emancipation, and sacrificed a lot of her own time and even money to support Mary Todd Lincoln after the war, when Mrs. Lincoln was destitute. Elizabeth Keckley is fascinating! And though she focuses much of her efforts on apparently trying to rehabilitate the reputation of Mrs. Lincoln, barbs of insight come through, showing her ferocious intellect. For instance, she witnesses young Tad Lincoln fail at his lessons, and remarks how he has this luxury as a white child, while a Black child who showed such obstinacy and lack of knowledge would be taken by society as a sign that his race was not worthy.
One wishes for more such moments of clarity and truth, and a bit less of apologizing for Mrs. Lincoln’s finances. The record on Mary Todd Lincoln is harsh, yes, and perhaps unduly so in some respects. But it’s also true that Mary was in the habit of spending more than she could afford, no matter how sorry Keckley wants us to feel for the widow of the man she calls the “great friend” of her people. So my sympathy for Mary Todd Lincoln is mixed, especially since she seems quite content to have Keckley, a working woman, make personal and financial sacrifices on her behalf, while she sits around writing letters about how sad she is no one will donate money to her. But it is certainly a testament to Keckley’s own generosity and nobleness of spirit that she was willing to do so much.
Behind the Scenes is worth reading for the intimate glimpses into the Lincoln household, which is, I believe, how many historians have traditionally used it. It is, however, also worth reading for Keckley’s own story. Though she tries to obscure much of it and chooses to fade into the background, glimpses of her remarkable personality and life still come through. I really wish she had written more about herself. She leaves so much unsaid, but she is worth reading about!
2 thoughts on “Behind the Scenes: or, Thirty Years a Slave, and Four Years in the White House by Elizabeth Keckley”
The subtitle made me think that this book would be primarily about her life as a slave but it sounds like a powerful narrative (if very biased towards Mrs Lincoln) either way!
Yes, 30 years is a lot longer than four, so one would think that the 30 years would take up more narrative space! I do find Keckley fascinating, though. I researched her life post-book and she was certainly a mover and a shaker! I wish I could tell her that later generations would want to read her story, not just that of famous political figures.
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