Elizabeth Keckley's memoirs caused shock waves when they appeared in 1868. The press lambasted Keckley for daring to unveil the secrets of her betters. Mrs. Lincoln, who always called Elizabeth "my best and kindest friend," abruptly dropped her. And Lincoln's eldest son had the book suppressed.
Why Elizabeth Keckley wrote this intimate chronicle at the height of her involvement with Mary Lincoln is a puzzle. She thought she was justifying Mrs. Lincoln, whose erratic behavior was always under fire by observers and the press. We must read between the lines for insights into Keckley's motivation, and that's precisely what makes the book so fascinating.
Keckley revered President Lincoln as the liberator of her people. But she portrays Mary Lincoln as paranoid, jealous, capricious, extravagant and prone to hysterics. At the same time, Keckley shows great sympathy for Mrs. Lincoln's sufferings.
The memoirs begin with an account of Keckley's life as a slave and how she rose to become a fashionable dressmaker, able to buy freedom for herself and her son. As a free black in Washington, her talents and entrepreneurial spirit won her the patronage of the elite.
Eventually she became Mrs. Lincoln's dress designer, personal maid and confidant, heavily relied upon in every crisis. She also became an activist, organizing relief for penniless newly freed slaves.
What followed the memoirs? Troubles of every sort. Mrs. Lincoln was at one point committed to an insane asylum by her son. Keckley never benefited from her memoirs. She spent her last years in a home she herself had founded for destitute women, a picture of Mrs. Lincoln hanging in her room.
Elizabeth Keckley's autobiography is a remarkable document, and I heartily recommend it to anyone interested in Black history, the Civil War - or the complex psychology of human relationships.