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 Washington, D.C. She became modiste to Mary Todd Lincoln and in time her friend and confidante, a relationship that continued after Lincoln’s assassination. In documenting that friendship—often using the First Lady’s own letters—Behind the Scenes fuses the slave narrative with the political memoir. It remains extraordinary for its poignancy, candor, and historical perspective.
First time in Penguin Classics
"Invaluable...Elizabeth Keckley's memoir of her life as a White House dressmaker for Mary Todd Lincoln...[is a] curious gem"--Eric J. Sundquist in The New York Times Book Review "A remarkable vantage point on the Civil War"--Chicago Sun Times
I was enthralled by every page of this book. I couldn't put it down and was disappointed when it ended. As I was reading the book, I felt like I was stepping back in time witnessing the ordinary, human, day-to-day life behind the historical events we studied in school. The story was simple and yet it presented a very intimate glimpse into the genuine personalities of Abraham and Mary and the life the author shared with them. Elizabeth Keckley was not writing to impress anyone with her "insider" position in the White House, she was just sharing her story. The stories about her life as a slave also offered the reader an opportunity to experience slavery through the eyes and heart of a slave. How lucky we are that she wrote this book.
Well, you can't get closer to being in the Lincoln White House than this. The story of Mary Todd Lincoln's dressmaker is written by the seamstress herself, Mrs. Keckley. She gives a fine, but brief, narrative of herself - starting out as a slave, a brief marriage and eventually buying her own freedom from the talent of her needle. Selling dresses to the wealthiest women around, she eventually catches the interest of Mrs. Lincoln and becomes her dressmaker. Her interactions with the President up to his assassination, though few, are remarkable and give us another eye witness glimpse of the Personal Lincoln. Most interesting is her account of Mary Lincoln after leaving the White House. Detailed are Mary Todd's efforts to sell her dresses for income, with the assistance of Mrs. Keckley. She tells about Mrs. Lincoln traveling incognito, which is extremely interesting. Mrs. Keckley writes in a very educated manner and shows her caring self through her words. A short book, and nominally priced, it is good for pleasure reading or as a source book for researchers, containing information that may not be found elsewhere.
The controversial memoirs of Mrs. Lincoln's dressmaker2011/2/9
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.
Interesting, But Flawed2012/10/20
Behind the Scenes by Elizabeth Keckley is an interesting tale which inspired me to do further research on her and the Lincoln family as well.
I would like to have read more about Mrs. Keckley's experiences as a child and young adult. One reviewer put it well that the 30 years Elizabeth was a slave covered such a short portion of this book, while her four years in the White House and several years afterward claimed most of this work.
Mrs. Keckley states in the beginning of this tale that part of the reason she wrote this book was to "attempt to place Mrs. Lincoln in a better light before the world". Personally, I don't believe that this goal was met. While Mrs. Keckley shares some lovely inside moments in the lives of the Lincolns, the overall impression I was left with regarding Mary Todd Lincoln after reading this book was that Mrs. Lincoln had some severe problems...and not just of a financial nature.
Much has been speculated and written about Mary Lincoln and what drove her. Was she simply an outspoken woman who was ahead of her time or was she mentally unbalanced? The evidence of this book, to me at least, seems to point strongly to the latter. At the very least she had extremely entitled, narcissistic tendencies.
The letters included in the latter part of the book from Mary Lincoln to the author are disturbing to say the least. Reading Mary Lincoln's constant missives to this woman, who was a trusted friend and who closed down the shop that provided her livelihood so that she could attend to Mrs. Lincoln's interests in New York, proved to be quite irritating to me. Mrs. Lincoln's whining about how poorly treated she was by just about everybody and how destitute she was grew tiresome. This woman obviously blew through money like it was water and then had the gall to complain about the government not giving her more. She left Washington at least $70,000.00 in debt...and this was in 1865. This sum would be a daunting debt in today's society, let alone then. I found her high-handed orders, couched in self pitying rhetoric, directed at Mrs. Keckley to be in very poor taste.
All in all, I could have done with more of Mrs. Keckley's personal history and a bit less of the Lincoln years...especially involving Mary Lincoln.
I got a copy of this book from a book fair not on purpose. As a non-native English learner, what strikes me is the ability of Keckley to express rich emotions in very simple words and sentences. I always like reading first person narratives, fictions or true stories, but seldom find one as captivating as this. A five-star from me and it's a pity she didn't seem to have written other books.