For 17 of the 22 years they spent together, Abraham and Mary Todd Lincoln cheated the laws of gravity. Their marriage was forged from the heavy materials dug from the earth, yet it was engineered with such precision it could ride on a puff of air.
It was only after Lincoln went to the White House, according to Baltimore author Daniel Mark Epstein, that the couple's delicate balance began to lose its equilibrium.
Epstein, 59, has chronicled the pair's loving, turbulent relationship in The Lincolns: Portrait of a Marriage. A scholarly portrait of the 16th president of the United States - hardly an untapped field - might seem an unlikely project for a writer acclaimed for works of the imagination.
Epstein has won several high-profile prizes for his poetry, including the Prix de Rome and the Robert Frost award, and next year will come out with his eighth book of verse, The Glass House. Previous publications include three plays, a memoir, a book of short stories and four well-received biographies of such figures as Nat King Cole and Edna St. Vincent Millay.
Yet Lincoln was something of an artist himself; his public addresses are among the finest speeches this country has produced. Honest Abe also was a romantic and an idealist - qualities that resonate with his newest biographer.
We asked Epstein about The Lincolns, which will be published May 20. Can you describe your writing process?
I'm one of the last guys to write everything longhand first and then go to the computer afterward.
Neurologists who study brain waves say the mind acts differently when writing longhand than when typing. There's something about the physicality of the ink, the arm and hand effort, that makes me feel more engaged.
For years, I used a BIC pen that required active, physical pressure. Now, I use a felt ballpoint that is weightless and that skims across the page.
When I actually go from the spiral notebook to the computer, it's a major transition. How did you get the idea for The Lincolns: Portrait of a Marriage?
While I was working on a previous book [Lincoln and Whitman: Parallel Lives in Civil War Washington] I was privileged to give talks at the Lincoln Forum in Gettysburg and at the Lincoln Symposium in Springfield, Ill. I learned that, for years, scholars had been trying to write a balanced portrait of the Lincoln marriage, but the topic had defeated them.
Partly, that's because most of the Lincoln biographies are written by men, who had their own feelings about women and marriage.
There are so many prejudices about Mary and Abraham Lincoln. The hagiography started immediately after his death and lasted for generations. There was the notion that she was a crazy, abusive harpy, that he was a saint, and that their marriage was a living hell.
Even after that viewpoint began to change, scholars simply didn't have the resources available to us today. Your publisher [Ballantine Books] is calling this the first complete book to be written about the Lincoln marriage.
In 1953, Ruth Painter Randall wrote a very good book called Mary Lincoln: Biography of a Marriage. But she didn't have access to resources that are available today. For instance, Lincoln's law partner, Billy Herndon, interviewed everyone who had known Lincoln. There were hundreds and hundreds of pages of interviews, but they weren't transcribed until 1998, when a book called Herndon's Informants was published.
Ruth Painter Randall also didn't have access to the Internet in 1953. The Web makes it vastly easier to track down newspaper archives and other databases. It might have been possible to see the same documents before the computer age, but it would have been horribly labor-intensive. Did these tools result in new discoveries?
My book has several "firsts." For instance, it had been rumored that Mary Lincoln struck her husband in the face with a log of firewood, but my book provides the smoking gun. I found a receipt from the drugstore the day after the incident for the gelatin used in the plaster bandage that Lincoln wore over his wound.
In addition, when Lincoln was president-elect and on his way to Washington, his supporters got wind of a planned assassination attempt. He took a separate train, while Mary and the children stayed on the original train as a decoy. She knew all the while that they might never make it. My book is the first account that has been written of what happened when Mary and the children rode into Baltimore. She was very brave. But that's not the whole picture. Lincoln was notoriously despondent, and Mary was occasionally violent. Initially at least, your book attributes his moodiness and her outbursts to outside events, not inherent instability.
My personal feeling is that too much has been made of mental illness in the drama of these two historical people. I have striven from the beginning to avoid pathologizing either one of them, but especially her. I don't think it's a way to get at the truth of the story.
The difference between me and other Lincoln biographers is they start with the later years and use that as a lens to say, "She was always crazy." Did you reach any conclusions about Mary Todd Lincoln's mental health?
Mary always was very volatile, even as a young woman. Today, she might be diagnosed as mildly manic-depressive. But she was very high-functioning. She threw a party for 350 people in a wood-frame home. She took care of four children and made all the clothes and household linens herself.
After she got to Washington, she began to decompensate. There were spending sprees, her pathological jealousy, her influence-peddling, her deep, deep despair over the death of their son Willie. It's impossible for me to deny that in her later years, Mary was manic-depressive and possibly schizophrenic, as well. You say you hope the book will hold up as a work of scholarship, in addition to being popular history. Were you daunted by your lack of formal training as a historian?
Not any more. My education came when I was writing my first biography, of Aimee Semple McPherson. It was difficult at first. There are rules out about what it takes to establish a historical fact, how citations should be made.
The Lincoln books pose a different challenge, because the field is so vast. There are about 150 books that you have to be in command of to even be in the game.
But I've been fascinated by Lincoln ever since I've been in the seventh grade, and I've had nearly 50 years to get through that reading list.
And I've been very, very pleased at the reception my work has received from the academic community. At times, your book reads almost like fiction, with you as the omniscient narrator describing what your characters saw, how they felt, and what they thought. How did you reconstruct the Lincolns' inner lives?
There's a wonderful quote from Virginia Woolf in which she says that in order to write biography, the writer needs both "the granite of facts and the rainbow of imagination."
If someone was lying in bed, it's not taking too much of a liberty to say that they were looking at the ceiling, out the window, or at the candle flame.
On the other hand, I'd never put thoughts into my characters' heads unless I am quoting from a letter they wrote, or some other relevant document.
Part of my job as a storyteller is to create atmosphere. But I take pains to know the architecture of the buildings I'm talking about and what furniture was in the rooms. I know what constellations were in the sky, and what the weather was like.
If I say that the moon was in such-and-such a phase on a particular day, you can be assured that it really was in that phase.