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Elizabeth Keckley. Frontispiece, Behind the Scenes, 1868.

Documenting the American South, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Libraries

One of the most important 19th-century accounts of life in the White House was Behind the Scenes, or Thirty Years a Slave and Four Years in the White House. Behind the Scenes was the memoir of Elizabeth Keckley, dressmaker to Mary Todd Lincoln. Keckley (her name on some documents is spelled “Keckly”) was an independent businesswoman, and not technically a member of the White House staff. Her memoir, published in 1868, gives many details of Mrs. Lincoln's personality and behavior. The book also contains the text of personal letters Keckley apparently received from Mrs. Lincoln.

Keckley herself seemed aware that her book might raise a public outcry. Her preface states, "If I have betrayed confidence in anything I have published, it has been to place Mrs. Lincoln in a better light before the world [. . .]."1

Behind the Scenes did meet with a great deal of criticism, and even a parody, whose title, Behind the Seams, lampooned Keckley's profession as a seamstress. One reviewer called Keckley's book "'the latest, and decidedly weakest production of the sensational press.'"2

In the 20th century, Behind the Scenes has been reprinted many times. Scholars have evaluated the narrative from various angles. Some believe it to represent the voice of a brave and talented woman who bought herself out of slavery and designed gowns for a fashionable first lady. Others believe that Keckley’s unscrupulous editor tricked her into lending him Mrs. Lincoln’s letters, which he then included in the book.

Additional Information

Read more: Jennifer Fleischner, Mrs Lincoln and Mrs. Keckly. New York: Broadway Books, 2003. Elizabeth Keckley, Behind the Scenes, or Thirty Years a Slave, and Four Years in the White House. 1868. Reprinted with an introduction by James Olney: Oxford University Press, 1988. Carolyn Sorisio, "Unmasking the Genteel Performer: Elizabeth Keckley's Behind the Scenes and the Politics of Public Wrath," African American Review 34 (Spring 2000): 19–38.

Footnotes & Resources

  1. Elizabeth Keckley, Behind the Scenes, or Thirty Years a Slave, and Four Years in the White House. 1868. (Oxford: Oxford University Press rpt., 1988), xiv.
  2. Review of Behind the Scenes, Putnam's Magazine July 1868: 119, quoted in Carolyn Sorisio, "Unmasking the Genteel Performer: Elizabeth Keckley's Behind the Scenes and the Politics of Public Wrath," African American Review 34 (Spring 2000): 19.

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