Book Review: Behind the Scenes, Elizabeth Keckley

P1040695As I mentioned in my review of the play Mary T. and Lizzy K., the characters made several reference to a book which Lizzy had written.  This piqued my curiosity and necessitated a stop at the lobby shop to see if such a book existed.  Yes, Elizabeth Keckley had written Behind the Scenes, or Thirty Years a Salve, and Four Years in the White House.  At 160 pages, this was a good read with all of our family visits in the past week.Elizabeth Hobbs Keckley was born in 1818 and passed into the 20th century, dying in 1907.  Her time as the seamstress for Mrs. Lincoln was in the middle of her life.  According to the dialogue in the play, she published Behind the Scenes in 1868, seeking a means of an income after years of making dresses for Mrs. Lincoln and society ladies, who then deferred payment with complaints of their own limited finanical means.  In some ways this is the theme of the book: how early to middle 19th century women survived slavery, financial and emotional dependence on men, and the loss of those men to disease, alcohol, and war.

Some of the freedmen and freedwomen had exaggerated ideas of liberty.  To them is was a beautiful vision, a land of sunshine, rest and glorious promise.  They flocked to Washington, and since their extravagant hopes were not realized, it was but natural that many of them should bitterly feel their disappointment.  The colored people are wedded to association…

The first few chapters address Miss Keckley’s childhood and youth, growing up with the duty to care for the children of her owners.  At the time of her writing, over one hundred “slave narratives” had already documented the social conditions of women and men who labored for others, were sold with the fortunes and losses of the owners, and raped for punishment and control.  Miss Keckley adds her accounts, less for the statistics, but more to demonstrate what she experienced and how this contributed to her desire to purchase her freedom, while remaining connected to white society.

Alas! the sunny face of the slave is not always an indication of sunshine in the heart.

She did purchase her freedom, through a commitment by her owner and loans from patrons of her dress making work.  She then set up an independent shop and earned the money to repay those loans.  Though she detested the bondage of slavery, she did not begrudge the masters and misteresses, whom she saw as equally enslaved in their roles.  She maintaind contact with the family who previously owned her, and even visited them after the Civil War.

‘Why, Lizzie, how can you have a kind thought for those who inflicted a terrible wrong upon you by keeping you in bondage?’ they would ask…

‘But they have forgotten you.  They are too foolish to give a single thought to you, now that you are no longer are their slaves.’

‘Perhaps so, but I cannot believe it.  You do not know the Southern people as well as I do — how warm is the attachment between master and slave.’

My Northern friends  could not understand the feeling, therefore explanation was next to useless.  They would listen with impatience, and remark at the close,with a shrug of the shoulders, ‘You have soe strange notions, Lizzie.”

Mrs. Keckley was severely chastized for writing about her experiences and opinions about the Lincoln White House years.  Though many in political and social circles turned their backs on Mrs. Lincoln after the President’s assassination, they did not want a “kiss and tell” book circulating.  What Miss Keckley writes seems mild compared to today’s run of former famous people making a buck with a biography and the lecture circuit.  If anything, she emphasizes her loyalty and affection for the former First Lady, even when voicing her frustration about leaving slavery to enter a world of uncompensated work.  This loyalty is most promient in the last chapter, two years after the White House years, when Mrs. Lincoln requests that Miss Keckley join her in Ner York, where they attempt to show and sell a collection of the dresses that Miss Keckley made in order to generate an income for Mrs. Lincoln.

Two elements of Miss Keckley’s text impressed me.  First, she writes with an eloquance of 19th century literature, though in a simple, and direct style.  Her accounts are accessable, not simplistic or stylistic.  Second, she includes selected letters from people who were involved in the events that documents.  While this may have been intended as a means of verifying what she has asserted, these contains a way of communication via personal, written communication, which is all but lost in our mail boxes today.

Bishop Payne, Dear Sir, Allow me to donate certain valuable relics, to be exhibited for the benefit of Wilberforce University, where my son was educated, and whose life was sacrified for liberty… Learning that you were struggling to get means to complete the college that was burned on the day our great emancipator was assassinated, prompted me to donate, in trust…, the identical cloak and bonnet worn by Mrs. Lincoln on that eventful night.  On the cloak can be seen the life-blood of Abraham Lincoln.  This cloak can not be purchased from me, though many have been the offers for it.  I deemed it too sacred to sell, but donate it for the cause of educating the four million slaves liberated by our President, whose character I revere…Your sister in Christ, L Keckley


About hermitsdoor

Up here in the mountains, we have a saying, "You can't get there from here", which really means "We wouldn't go the trouble to do that". Another concept is that "If you don't know, we ain't telling." For the rest, you'll have to read between the lines.
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5 Responses to Book Review: Behind the Scenes, Elizabeth Keckley

  1. Barneysday says:

    A very interesting review. Its hard to understand the double-edged sword that was emacipation in that time. Freedom was not the same as security, nor an automatic door to a future. Some were much worse off after freedom, than before.

    I always understood that Mrs. Lincoln was heartily disliked, and your description of this book seems to prove it.

    Thanks for the review.

    • hermitsdoor says:

      In a recent article in a Civil War magazine, I read that tens of thousands of “freedmen” died from cholera as the flocked to D.C. only to find squaller living in tents and shacks which they assembled from debris. The cholera spread south through many of other refuge camps. Of course, the soldiers did not fare much better. I wonder how many died from disintery rather than battles. Thanks for reading.

      On Sun, Apr 28, 2013 at 10:23 AM, hermitsdoor

    • hermitsdoor says:

      I read an article about the small-pox epidemic among the freedmens’ refugee camps. This started in D. C. as freed slaves moved north. The Northerners had no plans of what to do with those whom they were freeing. Rather then let them fend for themselves, resulting in tent cities, rotten food, and human waste piling up. From 1862 to 1865 small pox travelled south though various refugee camps. By 1869 it had travelled to the Western Territories, where it jumped to the Native American settlements. Estimates of 80,000 to 100,000 freedmen died from small pox. Sadly, the white population (North and South) considered disease to be inevitable so basic housing, food, and sanitation methods, that had been employed more than 50 years earlier to prevent small pox, were not attempted. Some public health folks believe that if the freedman had been allowed and provided supplies to build barracks in D. C. the small pox epidemic may have never started. Thanks for reading.

  2. What a great history. I’m putting this on my reading list. Thanks for the review.

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