[Marxism] Elizabeth Keckley

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Thu Jan 10 08:07:21 MST 2013

NY Times January 9, 2013
A Strong Thread in a Torn Union

When Elizabeth Keckley, a former slave turned professional dressmaker 
and confidante of Mary Todd Lincoln, published her memoir, “Behind the 
Scenes,” in 1868, the response was vitriolic. One Washington reviewer 
called Mrs. Keckley “treacherous” and asked: “What family of eminence 
that employs a Negro is safe from such desecration? Where will it end?”

What a difference 145 years make.

The memoir is now ensconced as a historic literary treasure, and in pop 
culture’s most recent outbreak of Lincoln fever, Mrs. Keckley is logging 
significant time onstage, on screen and on the page, where her 
remarkable life has allowed other writers to explore the complicated 
intersections of race and power in 1860s America.

“She had always prided herself on her integrity and dignity, and to 
suddenly be dismissed as a lowly servant telling tales was quite a 
shock,” said Jennifer Chiaverini, whose novel “Mrs. Lincoln’s 
Dressmaker” is being published by Dutton on Tuesday.

Mrs. Keckley’s rise from slave to independent businesswoman for the 
elite would be fascinating had she landed in the White House next to 
Chester Arthur. That she was privy to the halls of power during the most 
fateful moments in the Union’s history makes her that much more compelling.

In Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln,” Gloria Reuben plays Mrs. Keckley in a 
limited role but steals a pivotal scene. Tony Kushner, who wrote the 
screenplay, said that his and Mr. Spielberg’s decision to focus the 
story on the inner workings of the federal government restricted their 
ability to include black characters, and that Mrs. Keckley’s “entirely 
plausible” access to the president allowed for “a very important 
opportunity to have a black character talk directly about slavery to 
Lincoln.” Mr. Kushner called the moment “in many ways the cornerstone of 
the film.”

Born to a slave and her master in Virginia in 1818, Mrs. Keckley bought 
herself and her son out of slavery in 1852. Ms. Chiaverini’s novel picks 
up the story in 1860, after Mrs. Keckley had moved to Washington, where 
she set up shop and was soon making dresses for the wives of Robert E. 
Lee and Jefferson Davis, among other powerful Southerners.

Soon after Lincoln was elected, Mrs. Keckley became personal modiste to 
the troubled first lady. Ms. Chiaverini said, “Elizabeth had spent 38 
years as a slave, and she had, just for her own survival, learned how to 
deal with difficult white women, to put it bluntly.”

Paula Vogel, whose play “A Civil War Christmas,” which recently closed 
at New York Theater Workshop, prominently features Mrs. Keckley and Mrs. 
Lincoln, said most of the history written about that time was 
“war-centric and Lincoln-centric, but the truth of the matter is that 
people had to carry on, and all of these individuals became equally 
remarkable at functioning.”

Ms. Chiaverini, the author of 21 novels, said that as she was 
researching earlier books set during the Civil War, she kept coming 
across secondary sources that relied on Mrs. Keckley. After reading the 
memoir, which Mrs. Keckley published three years after the assassination 
of Lincoln pushed Mrs. Lincoln out of the White House, Ms. Chiaverini 
was inspired to imagine the many intimate day-to-day moments between the 
seamstress and the first lady that were left out of it.

Jennifer Fleischner, an English professor at Adelphi University, has 
written the most comprehensive historical account, “Mrs. Lincoln and 
Mrs. Keckly” (2003). (Her book title uses an alternative spelling of 
Mrs. Keckley’s name; both versions appear in the historical record.) 
“The fact that she’s portrayed at all” in recent popular depictions of 
the era “is a real change,” she said.

“Lincoln” got Mrs. Keckley’s presence in the family’s private quarters 
“just right,” said Ms. Fleischner, who added that she wished the film 
had included a longer look at her autonomy, since she wasn’t a servant 
and didn’t live at the White House.

“She was doing a lot of stuff during that time, other than sitting next 
to Mary Lincoln or mourning her son, ” Ms. Fleischner said. (Mrs. 
Keckley’s son died in the Civil War.) “If you’re going to show someone 
like Keckley, at least show her going home once in a while to have a 
real life.”

That busy life included the founding of the Contraband Relief 
Association in 1862. That organization helped newly freed slaves with 
housing, clothing, medical care and other necessities. Frederick 
Douglass, among others, offered his support. “If the white people can 
give festivals to raise funds for the relief of suffering soldiers,” 
Mrs. Keckley recalled thinking in her memoir, “why should not the 
well-to-do colored people go to work to do something for the benefit of 
the suffering blacks?”

That she steadily negotiated a life among whites and blacks makes Mrs. 
Keckley a contrast to Lincoln himself, according to Mr. Kushner.

Lincoln’s time in Illinois, which had a severe code that enforced 
segregation and limited immigration of blacks to the state, meant that, 
“by the time he arrived in the White House, he had far less experience 
with slaves or free black people than many of the people in his 
government,” Mr. Kushner said. “He was on a steep learning curve. He 
spoke honestly and openly about that lack of familiarity.”

In a widely debated New York Times Op-Ed article on “Lincoln,” Kate 
Masur, an associate professor of history at Northwestern, argued that 
the film had missed an opportunity to show the hands-on role Mrs. 
Keckley and other blacks played in lobbying for and securing their 
freedom. “It’s disappointing that in a movie devoted to explaining the 
abolition of slavery in the United States, African-American characters 
do almost nothing but passively wait for white men to liberate them,” 
she wrote.

Speaking generally about the large number of “extraordinary characters” 
in that period of history, Mr. Kushner said his original draft of 
“Lincoln” ran to more than 500 pages and included several scenes with 
Mrs. Keckley that ended up being cut. “There’s a possibility I might 
write more about her in the future,” Mr. Kushner said. “Gloria and I 
have talked a lot about other moments that we could look at.”

One thing Mrs. Keckley shared with Lincoln was pragmatism. According to 
Ms. Fleischner’s book, Mrs. Keckley “had her eye on sewing for the new 
inhabitants of the White House — whoever they might be — and she would 
not have jeopardized her success by being open about her political 
views.” In 1860, as political tensions mounted, Jefferson Davis’s wife, 
Varina, offered to bring Mrs. Keckley south with them.

“I preferred to cast my lot among the people of the North,” Mrs. Keckley 
wrote in her memoir. “I parted with Mrs. Davis kindly, half promising to 
join her in the South if further deliberation should induce me to change 
my views.”

Mrs. Lincoln’s mood swings, however, occasionally strained their 
friendship, just as they strained the presidential marriage. While in 
1867 Mrs. Lincoln would write to Mrs. Keckley, “I consider you my best 
living friend,” the falling-out they had over the memoir, which included 
some of the first lady’s personal correspondence, was painful for both 
of them.

Mrs. Keckley “wrote impassioned, apologetic letters to Mrs. Lincoln, but 
never received so much as a single word in reply,” Ms. Chiaverini 
writes. In this she is sticking to the historical record. Mrs. Keckley 
and Mrs. Lincoln never spoke again.

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