Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Emerson on Lincoln

Not Ralph Waldo though...

For the past few years, I've heard of this enthusiasatic young Lincoln scholar who stumbled upon a trunk of long lost Mary Todd Lincoln letters, dug much deeper than the letters and wrote a book, The Madness of Mary Lincoln. On Monday, I got to meet him.

Jason Emerson is a former National Park Service park ranger at places like Lincoln Home National Historic Site, Gettysburg National Military Park, and the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial (the Arch) in St. Louis. A short biography on his website says he was also a costumed interpreter at the Genesee Country Museum in Mumford, NY, a professional journalist, a newsletter publisher and a freelance writer.

Emerson spoke at the United Presbyterian Church in Peoria, which last year hosted a visit from Lincoln scholar Joshua Wolf Shenk. Emerson's visit was sponsored by Illinois Central College (ICC) Community Programs for Adults, ICC Social Sciences Department and the church.

Leaving his legacy
Emerson is also the author of Lincoln the Inventor, a great little book about the device for which Lincoln obtained a patent. He's got three other projects in the works:

  • the forthcoming biography of Robert Todd Lincoln, upon which he was working when he stumbled on the lost letters,
  • the publication of a previously unpublished manuscript, The Dark Days of Abraham Lincoln's Widow, As Revealed by Her Own Letters, and
  • the introduction for a reprint of the classic W.A. Evans book, Mrs. Abraham Lincoln: A Study of Her Personality and Influence on Lincoln.

Dark Days and the Evans book witll both be published by Southern Illinois University Press in 2010.

Emerson has also written scores of reviews and scholarly articles and even appeared recently on a Lincoln documentary. He made the big time with his Mary Lincoln book, and he's now given numerous lectures on his books, but I think that first documentary was a real high point for him. With that appearance he joined the "Society of Lincoln Talking Heads," a pretty prestigious group, if I might say so myself.

A few good laughs and a lot of substance
Jason Emerson is a pretty funny guy. He kept the audience laughing with his lecture Monday night, but he got serious when he needed to. Mary Todd Lincoln is a subject which calls for some serious research and some serious introspection and, as Emerson points out, people have written of her life from many different angles. Those views often oppose each other and paint her in a kaleidoscope of different lights.

What color is the lens through which Emerson sees her? It's not rose-colored, but it's not jaded either. This author has no agenda - not psychobabble, not feminism, not Mary-bashing. He's out to portray her time in a Batavia (Ill.) in the clearest light he can, and to look at the insanity case through the new view presented by Mrs. Lincoln's letters to and from Myra Bradwell.

If you ever get the chance to hear Emerson talk, please go. You'll enjoy it. And, by all means, read his books. I got my copy of Madness and also a copy of Inventor for my 11-year-old grandson, who was celebrating his birthday on the day of Emerson's talk. I'll be reviewing both here later this year, so watch for them.

Until then, keep your eyes and ears open. You never know when you may learn of the next great undiscovered find in American history. The steamer trunk Emerson stumbled across is not the last repository of stories yet untold.

© Copyright 2009 Ann Tracy Mueller. All rights reserved.


Rebecca said...

The biography of Robert Todd Lincoln sounds especially interesting. I've always wanted to know more about him specifically, since he was the only son of Lincoln to live to be an adult.

Lincoln Buff 2 said...


The Robert Todd Lincoln story is very interesting, and Jason is a great person to tell it. He leaves no stone unturned. If he thinks there's a morsel out there to be dug up and digested, he'll do it. And, if it leads to another, he'll pursue it, too.

My personal opinion is that Robert was somewhat underappreciated, perhaps even slighted, in his own lifetime and that his own very interesting story and accomplishments have been overlooked since then. I'm hoping and do believe Jason's book will change much of that. It will likely not only create a new interest in Robert Todd Lincoln, but also in David Davis, who served a a surrogate father to Robert after the President's death.

You and I and others who share our curiosity about RTL will have many of our questions answered, I believe.

Have a great week,