Monday, January 19, 2009

New in Paperback: The Lincolns: Portrait of A Marriage by Daniel Mark Epstein

As The New York Times’ Janet Maslin pointed out when The Lincolns: Portrait of A Marriage (Ballantine) was new in hardcover, Abraham Lincoln as a topic for biography is territory that is so well worn, there is even a book about the top 100 Lincoln books. One would think that, after all, so much ink has been spilled, there wouldn’t be much new to say. However, if anyone is going to mine new material from the Lincoln mother lode, veteran biographer and poet Daniel Mark Epstein would be the one to do it. More: almost everyone -- including Maslin -- agrees that with The Lincolns, he has.

Epstein approaches his material with a poet’s eye and heart and the award-winning biographer’s soul. You don’t have to get far into The Lincolns to understand this; Epstein entrances us from the very first page: “Walking east on Jefferson Street with the setting sun behind him, Abraham Lincoln followed his shadow toward the house on Sixth Street where he had arranged to meet his love in secret.”

Though Epstein here chronicles the 22 year marriage of Mary Todd and Abraham Lincoln, this is territory not new to this author: he’s tackled aspects of Lincoln’s life before, including 2004’s Lincoln and Whitman: Parallel Lives in Civil War Washington.

First published in mid-2008, The Lincolns is a fantastic book. Beautifully researched, wonderfully told. It would be a better book if it ended more happily -- there’s a lot of sturm und drang in the story of this couple: marital stress, the loss of a child, the pressures of a life lived in the spotlight and it’s probably not too much of a spoiler to tell you Mrs. Lincoln ends up alone. But, obviously, Epstein had no say in how it all turned out. What he brings us is the best imaginable window on a story as yet so fully untold. A happy ending for this particular tale is a little too much to ask.

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