Behind the Scenes: or, Thirty Years a Slave, and Four Years in the White House (Penguin Classics)
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Originally published in 1868—when it was attacked as an “indecent book” authored by a “traitorous eavesdropper”—Behind the Scenes is the story of Elizabeth Keckley, who began her life as a slave and became a privileged witness to the presidency of Abraham Lincoln. Keckley bought her freedom at the age of thirty-seven and set up a successful dressmaking business in Washington, D.C. She became modiste to Mary Todd Lincoln and in time her friend and confidante, a relationship that continued after Lincoln’s assassination. In documenting that friendship—often using the First Lady’s own letters—Behind the Scenes fuses the slave narrative with the political memoir. It remains extraordinary for its poignancy, candor, and historical perspective.
you, and doubtless the severity of the lashing has made me remember the incident so well. This was the first time I was punished in this cruel way, but not the last. The black-eyed baby that I called my pet grew into a self-willed girl, and in after years was the cause of much trouble to me. I grew strong and healthy, and, notwithstanding I knit socks and attended to various kinds of work, I was repeatedly told, when even fourteen years old, that I would never be worth my salt. When I was eight,
associations of my early life. Well, Mrs. Lincoln came to my rooms, and, as usual, she had much to say about the Presidential election. After some conversation, she asked: “Lizzie, where do you think I will be this time next summer?” “Why, in the White House, of course.” “I cannot believe so. I have no hope of the re-election of Mr. Lincoln. The canvass is a heated one, the people begin to murmur at the war, and every vile charge is brought against my husband.” “No matter,” I replied, “Mr.
Lincoln will be re-elected. I am so confident of it, that I am tempted to ask a favor of you.” “A favor! Well, if we remain in the White House I shall be able to do you many favors. What is the special favor?” “Simply this, Mrs. Lincoln—I should like for you to make me a present of the right-hand glove that the President wears at the first public reception after his second inaugural.” “You shall have it in welcome. It will be so filthy when he pulls it off, I shall be tempted to take the tongs
were white, could imagine any contribution of significance that a woman of color could make to American history, unless as a helpmeet to her husband or a mother to her children. Careful not to presume too much, Keckley portrays herself humbly as “a feeble instrument” in God’s hands. These self-abnegating words, however, bear a more assertive implication than might first be apparent. They suggest that Keckley believed that God had selected her, along with “the enslaved millions of my race,” to
unwomanly was fraught with pitfalls, given the racial prejudice, as well as gender biases, of her audience. What Keckley had to reconcile in writing her autobiography was a potential contradiction built into her sense of self and her sense of the class of black Americans whom she represented. Behind the Scenes reflects but never entirely resolves the tension between Keckley’s intense commitment to personal freedom, economic independence, and societal respect on the one hand, and her powerful