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Synopsis

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

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    Fascinating historical document, revealing intimate details of the relationship between President and Mrs Lincoln, as well as what it was truly like to be a slave in an urban setting. It was fascinating to read the source for several anecdotes about the Lincolns that I had read before out of context. Keckley was writing for her immediate audience, and devoted many pages to justifying Mary Lincoln's attempt to sell her dresses -- too many pages for the modern reader who is not scandalized by a celebrity used-clothes sale. But that in itself is an interesting example of how History (with a capital H) is rarely made by the news-of-the-moment. Keckley is a good writer, with a fine eye for detail and a clear style of writing. Sadly, she was so demoralized by the vicious personal criticism that greeted her book, that she wrote no more for publication. I would have wanted to learn more about her son, who she barely mentions in this book. She raised him as a single mother, and successfully put him through college. He then joined the Union Army "passing" for white, and was subsequently killed in battle. Keckley gives the reader no insight into their relationship; perhaps that itself is an insight. I highly recommend this book to anyone interested in the Civil War, or in the history of race relations in America.

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