Saturday, November 30, 2019

Irving Stone, Love is Eternal


Opening Passage:

She leaned across her dressing table and gazed into the gilt-framed mirror on the wall. Strange, she thought, how much time you can spend studying your own face, and then scarcely know it. Her nose, at least, never altered: it was short and straight: but everything else seemed to change with her mood. Her upper lip was thing, almost prim, her lower lip full and sensual; the lock she combed across the massive brow was blond but the rest of her hair, which fell in waves below her shoulders, was chestnut. Her eyes were large, wide-set, deep blue, clear and penetrating in their outward gaze though not always lucid within; tonight she was happy, and the intruder who sometimes lurked behind them was nowhere to be seen. (p. 1)

Summary: Mary Todd is a young beauty from a Kentucky family who lives in Springfield, Illinois, where she is beginning to catch the interest of a number of men, most notably the up-and-coming Stephen Douglas. She is ambitious, has a vast number of important connections through family and friends, and wants a political husband. Into her life at this point comes the most unlikely suitor of all, young ungainly Abraham Lincoln, a largely self-taught small-time lawyer with folksy, backwoods ways. He is also interested in politics, and also ambitious, although he is sometimes faced with crippling self-doubt and extended bouts of depression due to the apparent mismatch between his ambitions and his background. He is a good speaker, however, with a name for 'lucible' speeches; folksiness is in fashion in Illinois due to the Log Cabin and Hard Cider campaign; and Abraham has a reputation for good-humored integrity, which tends to make up for his lack of a fancy background. Mary could have a more promising man, and certainly a much prettier and wealthier man, but something about Abraham's mix of seriousness and humor holds her attention like nothing else.

Marriage mixed with politics makes for choppy seas, however strong the marriage may be. Theirs would be a marriage with its share of fights, although Abraham usually could defuse such arguments to mutual satisfaction. It would even more often be filled with long tedium; both law and politics in that day were on-the-road jobs. When Abraham is not gone for the circuit courts, which in those days literally traveled through a territory, he is often gone for political speaking engagements to help out some Whig, and later Republican, candidate or other. And Lincoln did not actually have any kind of great success; it would be exaggeration to say it was mostly failures, since there were definite successes, but he mostly muddled along. He managed in 1846 to be elected to the U.S. House of Representatives, which he served one two-year term, mostly just toeing the party line; he had pledged to serve only one term, so he then went back to law. He supported Taylor in the 1848 election, and for that was offered governorship of Oregon Territory; both he and Mary agreed that this would effectively end their political ambitions, so he passed that up and continued working at law. So it went until 1854, when, having been elected to state legislature, he made a play for the U.S. Senate (at that time elected by state legislatures), and failed. He became a Republican for the 1856 elections and backed Dayton and Frémont, campaigning for them throughout Illinois. Buchanan, the Democrat, won instead, but the campaigning made Abraham a well-known figure in Illinois politics. He then made a play for the Senate again, this time against Stephen Douglas; while the Republicans won the popular vote, the Democrats won more seats in the state legislature, so were able to elect Douglas. Throughout it all, Mary used her connections to try to keep him afloat, and it eventually paid off by making Lincoln the Republican candidate for the 1860 elections. And, of course, South Carolina seceded on December 20, 1860, shortly after it was clear Lincoln had won.

It was a hard time to become President all around, but it's sometimes overlooked amidst other things that Washington, D.C., was a very Southern city, sharing more with Virginia than anything, and Republicans were not welcome there at all. Mary did her best to undo this. The White House at the time was famously shabby, having had very little more than minimal maintenance on it for decades, and Mary set out to try to navigate the byzantine customs governing how it was funded -- not always successfully, and in such a way that she developed a reputation for someone who liked to spend money (which in fairness was perhaps partly true), but she did manage to restore a great deal of social respectability to the Executive Mansion.

But through it all, there were tragedies of a nonpolitical kind to deal with, as well. Their son Eddie died in 1850 at the age of six. Their fourth son, Tad, born in 1853, had a cleft palate. Their son Willie died in 1862 at the age of twelve. The death of Willie in particular would hit both parents hard; Mary started attending seances in the hope of seeing him again.

And, of course, one day shortly after the end of the Civil War, and shortly into Lincoln's second term, the couple took time out to go to Ford's Theatre to re-watch a play, Our American Cousin, that Abraham had previously liked. Washington, D.C., was a very Southern city.

Stone's novel is essentially a novelization of Mary's life, since it is largely from her perspective that everything is seen. But Mary Todd Lincoln had a significant role to play in her husband's career, through her connections, through her support, through her formidable administrative ability. She did a great deal to make him presentable to the world, and to keep him presentable to the world, as he often did a great deal to give her ambitions a bit of realism. The title, Love Is Eternal, is written on the wedding band that Abraham gives to Mary. It is a motto of hope more than anything else, appropriate for the beginning of a marriage and for its end.

Favorite Passage: Mary Todd's first introduction to Abraham Lincoln:

In the midst of the bedlam she thought she suddenly had taken leave of her senses, for out of a trap door above the speaker's stand a pair of feet emerged, and then a naked pair of calves, then long legs that kept dropping downward into the room, legs that seemed to cover the full twelve feet from the trap door to the stand. As she sat there in a state of shock the rest of the man finally appeared, a long scrawny torso and neck, arms that seemed to her even longer than the incredible legs, a dark, gaunt, bone-ridged homely face and a disheveled stand of thick coarse black hair.

Turning her head slowly she saw that the men in the aisles and on the platform had frozen in their tracks. After a moment of silence which hung in the air even as had the descended apparition, the man began speaking in a high nasal voice.

"Hold on, gentlemen. This is a land of free speech. Baker has a right to speak, and if you take him of the stand you'll have to take me, too." (p. 38)

Recommendation: Recommended. It builds slowly, but gets quite interesting as it goes.


Irving Stone, Love is Eternal, Doubleday & Company (Garden City, NY: 1954).

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