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Unmasking the Genteel Performer: Elizabeth Keckley's Behind the Scenes and the Politics of Public Wrath.

When Elizabeth Keckley wrote her 1868 autobiography Behind the Scenes; or, Thirty Years a Slave, and Four Years in the White House, one of her primary goals was to defend herself and Mary Todd Lincoln from public ridicule. Because Keckley had "been most intimately associated with that lady in the most eventful periods of her life," she tells readers that her "own character, as well as the character of Mrs. Lincoln, is at stake" (xiv). Keckley was particularly concerned about public reaction to the "old clothes scandal," a scandal that erupted when the widowed Lincoln met Keckley in New York City and arranged to sell pieces of her wardrobe in what quickly degenerated into an event reminiscent of a circus sideshow. [1] Keckley thought that by providing more information she could demonstrate Mrs. Lincoln's positive characteristics and pure intentions, and, from what we know about Keckley, we have little reason to doubt her affection for Lincoln or overt motivation for writing her book. [2]

Despite Keckley's sincere intentions, Behind the Scenes was met with public ridicule and the media's wrath. Putnam's Magazine. for example, called it the "latest, and decidedly weakest production of the sensational press," which "ought never to have been written or published" and could not be read by "any sensible" person "with pleasure or profit" (119). The New York Times questioned Keckley's authorship and said she would have been better off to "have stuck to her needle" as "the disclosures made in" her book were "gross violations of confidence" (10.) [3] Perhaps nowhere is the wrath against Keckley more evident than in the vicious parody spawned by her text, Behind the Seams; by a Nigger Woman Who Took in Work from Mrs. Lincoln and Mrs. Davis. [4] This parody reveals the author's anxiety over an African American woman's rising in class and social status, and is intent on proving that, even if Keckley were no longer a slave, she would always be a "nigger" (a word that appears six times in the first paragra ph alone). In Keckley's personal and social circles, the response to Behind the Scenes was not much better. Mary Todd Lincoln read the book in early May and "thereafter renounced the 'colored historian' as friend and confident" (Baker 280). Later in her life, Keckley attempted to talk with Robert Lincoln (who reportedly requested that the book be removed from circulation), but he refused to see her because Behind the Scenes reprinted his mother's private letters to Keckley, a decision that was made, apparently, without Keckley's consent (Washington 241). [5] Within the African American community, according to Frances Smith Foster, some believed Keckley "had been victimized but most were angered by their fear that the backlash from her actions would jeopardize their own positions" (129). For a combination of reasons, Foster notes that the book was eventually withdrawn from stores, and Keckley was left to earn her living by sewing and from a small pension she received for her son's death in the Civil War. [6]

As the reviews, parody, and community's reaction reveal, the attacks on Keckley were so severe that her life was never the same after she published Behind the Scenes. Why, we might ask, was the public so outraged by Keckley's decision to write about Mrs. Lincoln? Certainly, the censure was not the result of the public's excessive love for Abraham Lincoln's grieving widow. By the time the book was published, Mary Todd Lincoln was considered by many to be extravagant and improper in her dress, manners, and actions. [7] Nor can we argue that Keckley's public discussion of Lincoln was unprecedented. As Keckley notes in her Preface, Lincoln had already "forced herself into notoriety" by stepping "beyond the formal lines which hedge about a private life, and invited public criticism" (xiii). She comments:

I do not forget, before the public journals vilified Mrs. Lincoln, that ladies who moved in the Washington circle in which she moved, freely canvassed her [Lincoln's] character among themselves. They gloated over many a tale of scandal that grew out of gossip in their own circle. If these ladies could say everything bad of the wife of the President, why should I not be permitted to lay her secret history bare, especially when that history plainly shows that her life, like all lives, has its good side as well as its bad side? (xv)

In this and other passages, Keckley represents herself as joining (relatively late) an already public conversation about Mary Todd Lincoln, one that began in the social circles of the capital and continued in the media. She insists that, had "Mrs. Lincoln's acts never become public property," she "should not have published to the world the secret chapters of her life" (xv).

Even if Keckley (rightfully) argues that she did not initiate public debate, her prefatory justifications indicate that she understood she might be accused of indecorum in writing about Mary Todd Lincoln. Nonetheless, she could not have been prepared for the extent of the furor her book aroused, and, indeed, she told people late in her life that the public's reaction caused her much sorrow (Washington 221). Why, we might ask again, did her book cause so much outrage? Although reasons for the anger Keckley faced are many, this essay argues that one significant basis for the wrath was the means by which Keckley's memoir jeopardizes the increasingly delicate self-construction of the white American middle class, what Karen Halttunen calls their "genteel performance." When the New York Citizen declared that Keckley's offense was "of the same grade as opening other people's letters" and "listening at keyholes" (qtd. in Foster 128), it revealed what Halttunen describes as a deep-rooted fear of many middle-class Ame ricans that any "vulgar boor" could suddenly "rip the fragile mask of the manner from the genteel performer and expose the would-be social climber in all his or her own underlying vulgarity" (116). The fact that Keckley was an African American woman writing about Lincoln intensified this fear, because the middle class's self-fashioning relied on an implicit juxtaposition of white and black womanhood. Keckley's text, intentionally or not, splinters the fragile veneer of middle-class culture in mid-nineteenth-century America, revealing and challenging the racial, gendered, and class ideologies that were inextricably tied to the middle class's increasingly precarious social status.

While the primary intent of this article is to explore Keckley's challenge to the white middle class's self-fashioning, a related goal is to examine the book's unique narrative structure. The work intertwines narratives of Keckley's's enslavement, her rise to prominence as a businesswoman in Washington, D.C., and her extensive and at times exclusive contact with Abraham and Mary Todd Lincoln. Without an understanding of the connections between the slave narrative elements of Keckley's work and the revelations about Mary Todd Lincoln's life, Behind the Scenes seems disunified, even to the point of being taken over by Mary Todd Lincoln's story for the majority of the text. However, the seemingly disparate sections of Keckley's narrative reveal a structural logic (one based on juxtaposition) when they are considered in relation to the roles of African American and white women in the postbellum era.

In the decade Keckley wrote and published her book, anxieties about the future status of all Americans were paramount. As the nation began its path toward what many hoped would be a radical reconstruction, Keckley's book carves out a space for herself as an African American woman claiming her right to participate in the public postbellum commodity culture not as property, but as proprietor. To understand better this aspect of the text, the first section of this essay examines Keckley's representations of commodity culture. Although it was essential for Keckley to claim a proprietary role in what she and other former slave narrators assumed would be a new era in American life, it was also important for her to assert her right to privacy and gentility, as these privileges were commonly associated with the domestic space and traditionally denied to African American women. Therefore, the second section of this essay examines Keckley's representations of gentility in relation to conceptions of race and womanhood in the Civil War era, arguing that Keckley's claims to gentility threatened some readers' sense of their own class status, and thus generated the backlash that greeted her book. Yet when we investigate the rules of gentility that Keckley draws upon to fashion herself as genteel, we begin to understand how, by writing her book, she violated those very rules in such a profound way as to destabilize her claim to a genteel self. Why would Keckley, a woman concerned about appearing genteel, ultimately write a book that threatened her own genteel status and outraged a friend she cared about? As my conclusion suggests, we can interpret Keckley's work as exposing the underlying anger, the unconscious or covert wrath, she may have felt for Mary Todd Lincoln in particular, or for white ladies in general. If the public's wrath against Keckley is overt, Keckley's wrath against some members of the public may be covert and private. Behind the Scenes becomes, then, among other things, a means by which Keckley can go public with her anger.

Keckley and Commodity Culture

Foster argues that postbellum former slave protagonists "could be characterized as the epitome of the American Dream, surpassing Benjamin Franklin's rise from poverty to power by moving from being property to becoming proprietors" (119). Because narrators writing shortly after the war wrote in what William L. Andrews describes as "a mood of optimism" ("Reunion" 8), authors such as Keckley could portray themselves as climbing the social ladder to new financial and personal heights. Therefore, a significant portion of Keckley's narrative is a success story, tracing her rise from a slave to a businesswoman who employed numerous workers and was requested by Washington's elite. On the one hand, Keckley's adherence to the American motif of social and economic mobility would have appealed to readers who may have had similar desires and goals. On the other hand, the fact that Keckley was a former slave woman may have led some readers to question how extensive social and economic mobility should be.

Would Keckley's success somehow cheapen their claim to a higher social and/or class status? Such questions were especially pertinent given the anxiety over class and social status that preoccupied many mid-nineteenth-century middle-class Americans. As Halttunen explains, although antebellum Americans "threw themselves into the cult of self-improvement, many nonetheless expressed anxiety about the American pursuit of the main chance" (32).

In part, this anxiety manifested itself racially. The parody of Behind the Scenes makes it clear that Keckley's decision to enter into the public sphere of commodity as author and modiste threatened some whites, as it repeatedly attacks Keckley for supposedly lying to make money, and ends by deriding her entrance into commodity culture. Mocking her endeavors as author and modiste, the parody echoes the language common to nineteenth-century advertisement with the words "Publishers and ladies please take notice. Terms moderate," but follows this supposed advertisement with the signature: "Betsey Kickley, (Nigger,)" signed with an "X" for her mark (Behind the Seams 24). To the parody's author, Keckley's entrance into the commodified sphere of authorship and dress-making improperly transgressed racial lines. Therefore, s/he undercuts Keckley's newly claimed role by relegating her to the racialized category of "nigger"--a status that, as the inclusion of the "X" reminds readers, is (and presumably should be) asso ciated with a level of illiteracy that makes African American participation in the post-war economy in any role but laborer difficult if not impossible.

Despite the fact that many perceived her new role as threatening class and race structures, Keckley embraced capitalism and upward mobility. Early in her work she tells readers she selected "the most important incidents which I believe influenced the moulding of my character" (18). Of these, she mentions almost immediately that she was "repeatedly told, when even fourteen years old, that I would never be worth my salt" (21). This criticism bothers Keckley throughout her life, and, perhaps as a result of it, she often defines her self-worth through the market value of her labor. For example, when Keckley's financially struggling master threatens to place her mother out for service, Keckley receives permission to work for her mother and her owner's family. By sewing, she manages to feed seventeen people for more than two years. She reflects that, while she "was working so hard that others might live in comparative comfort, and move in those circles of society to which their birth gave them entrance, the though t often occurred to me whether I was really worth my salt or no; and then perhaps the lips curled with a bitter sneer" (45-46). As these comments suggest, commodity culture is not so threatening to Keckley as it may have been to antebellum narrators, because she is no longer capable of being defined by law as property. In Keckley's world view, slavery does not represent the logical extension of an exploitative and masculine marketplace, as it did to authors such as Harriet Beecher Stowe in Uncle Tom's Cabin in the antebellum era. [8] Rather, she portrays slavery as a "hardy school" in which she learned "youth's important lesson of self-reliance" (19-20).

The contrast of Keckley's postbellum position on slavery and commodity with an antebellum work such as

Harriet Jacobs's 1861 Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, Written by Herself, demonstrates the extent of Keckley's optimistic embrace of capitalism. Unlike Jacobs, who objects to her friends buying her out of slavery because "to pay money to those who had so grievously oppressed" her "seemed like taking from" her "sufferings the glory of triumph" (Jacobs 199), Keckley enlists the financial help of several white people in order to secure freedom legally for herself and her son. At one point, she plans to make a journey to New York City to appeal for help in securing funds. However, her owner tells her that she has to find six gentlemen who will vouch for her return and be financially responsible if she escapes. Asking one such man for his pledge, Keckley becomes "sick at heart" when he suggests she will go to New York, be influenced by abolitionists, and never return to St. Louis. "Slavery, eternal slavery," Keckley vows, "rather than be regarded with distrust by those whose respect I esteemed" (53). To avo id the financial humiliation she associates with failing to pay the loans raised to buy herself and her son, she works "in earnest, and in a short time paid every cent that was so kindly advanced" by her "lady patrons of St. Louis" (63).

Keckley's concern over her financial status, as Andrews notes, contrasts dramatically with Jacobs's narrative, as Keckley is far more troubled about her economic reputation than her sexual one. At this point in Keckley's narrative, we have been told about her son, who was born out of wedlock and fathered by a white man. Keckley tells readers that she does not "care to dwell upon this subject, for it is one that is fraught with pain. Suffice it to say, that he persecuted me for four years, and I-I became a mother" (39). Unlike Jacobs, who dwells on her sexual choices at some length and asks readers to "pity" and "pardon" her for having children with a white man to escape the persecution of her owner (54), Keckley rejects any guilt or blame, saying that if her son suffered the humiliation of his birth, "he must blame the edicts of that society which deemed it no crime to undermine the virtue of girls in my then position" (39). Keckley not only rejects blame, but also, through her use of "my then" position, sug gests that she simply cannot be held to a morality that did not apply during slavery. As Andrews points out, no one, "least of all Keckley herself, is concerned about this slave woman's sexual respectability." Instead, her "financial reputation" is at issue, and "we may be sure that she wanted her postbellum audience to know of her unswerving fealty to the ethics of the marketplace" ("Changing" 233).

These passages reveal Keckley's self-presentation as a businesswoman willing to follow the rules governing the marketplace, even if those rules once defined her as chattel or are unjust. Interestingly, it is through the language of the marketplace that Keckley attempts to put the issue of slavery to rest. Speaking from a successful postbellum position, Keckley says with regard to slavery that, "as in all things pertaining to life," she "can afford to be charitable" (xiii). It is as if her role of successful capitalist affords her the luxury of forgiveness. Clearly, Keckley wants to represent slavery as a regrettable national sin, but one which, nonetheless, prepared her to be worth "her salt" in the postbellum economy. By contrast, the white women whom Keckley represents are pitifully ill-prepared for the post-war era. We get an early glimpse of white women's apparent ineptness in the person of Mrs. Burwell, a mistress of Keckley's whom she describes as "helpless" (31) and for whom she has to do the work of "three servants" (32). Throughout the narrative, Keckley is astonished not by white women who are unproductive and/or inept, but by any white woman who is productive or resourceful. This is evident in Keckley's short-lived work in the White House during President Andrew Johnson's administration.

When Keckley visits the White House to make a dress for President Johnson's daughter, she notes that the sight of the President's daughter "busily at work with a sewing-machine" was "a novel one," as she could not "recollect ever having seen" Mary Todd Lincoln "with a needle in her hand" (225).

Keckley's subtle comparison of the preparedness that women from different races showed in the postbellum era is particularly noticeable in her representation of reunions with her former owners after the war. Keckley's reunion scenes shape her as an active participant in reconstruction history, and we can understand them as genuine attempts to revisit her past and salvage what was useful from it. [9] However, they also highlight her economic success, and juxtapose this success with the status of her former mistresses. For example, when Keckley's former mistress, Miss Ann, asks her if she always feels "kindly" toward her, Keckley answers that the only thing she holds against her is that she "did not give me the advantages of a good education." Miss Ann agrees, but goes on to comment that Keckley has "not suffered much on this score" since she gets "along in the world better than we who enjoyed every educational advantage in childhood" (257). Although this scene is designed to create a mood of reconciliation, K eckley's former mistress's comments reveal that the education Southern ladies received was virtually worthless in the postbellum economy. Keckley underscores her success when one of her former master's daughters comes to see her and is surprised to find Keckley "so comfortably fixed" (259). Likewise, she ends the chapter that contains these reunions with a letter from one of her former master's daughters, who has been forced to take up teaching and is suffering through a Massachusetts winter. The writer laments that none of the children Keckley worked for were "cut out for 'school marms' [ldots]. I am sure I was only made to ride in my carriage, and play on the piano. Don't you think so?" (265-66). But Keckley does not answer this question explicitly. Rather, she leaves it up to the reader to conclude that her former charge is not so competent, as Keckley in thriving in the social order surfacing after the war.

Nowhere is the juxtaposition between former slaves and former "ladies" more evident than in Keckley's representation of Mary Todd Lincoln's financial excesses. It is in this example that we can explore further the text's narrative pattern of juxtaposition. Keckley calls upon readers to consider the logic structuring her narrative early in her work, when in her Preface she discusses slavery, saying that, if she has "portrayed the dark side of slavery," she has also "painted the bright side" (xi). Just a few pages later, after Keckley has shifted from a discussion of slavery to a justification for writing about Mary Todd Lincoln, she echoes her earlier language, arguing that "history plainly shows that her [Lincoln's] life, like all lives, has its good side as well as its bad side" (xv). Keckley's use of similar language invites the reader to compare the two subjects of her study--the story of her life in slavery and the story of Mary Todd Lincoln--in order to identify connections. Just as her Preface attempts to integrate the different parts of her narrative, so too do individual chapters often reveal a similar pattern of juxtaposition. In effect, we can read some chapters as a synecdoche for the overall structure of the book, as Keckley often intertwines seemingly disparate but actually relevant topics with one another. Such is the case in Chapter Nine, which functions to compare ironically Mary Todd Lincoln with the Contraband population in Washington. Keckley begins by describing the freedmen and women who arrive in Washington with "exaggerated ideas of liberty" (139), particularly one "good old, simple-minded woman" who was "fresh from a life of servitude" and seemed to think that "the President and his wife had nothing to do but to supply the extravagant wants of every one that applied to them" (141-42). However, Keckley clarifies that this woman's wants were in fact "not very extravagant," that the freed woman was only upset because Mrs. Lincoln had not given her the standard present of two sets of undergar ments that mistresses often provided for their slaves each year.

What is particularly interesting about Keckley's descriptions of the freed woman whose "extravagant" demands include two pairs of undergarments is that it appears in the same chapter that introduces the topic of Mary Todd Lincoln's debts. Keckley notes that the First Lady, "in endeavoring to make a display becoming to her exalted position," had to incur many expenses that she kept hidden from her husband. All totaled, Keckley claims these debts to amount to the staggering sum of $27,000. The irony of Mary Todd Lincoln's extravagance in the face of the freed woman's simple request is left to speak for itself. Keckley proceeds to include Mary Todd Lincoln's comment that there was "more at stake" in the reelection than Abraham Lincoln dreamed of, because if he were not reelected her debts would come to light (149). The inclusion of these comments might give readers pause, especially as they follow descriptions of former slaves in Washington. How could Mary Todd Lincoln compare the great needs of the Union durin g the devastation of the war with her personal debt? How could there be any more "at stake" in the war than the future of the slaves and the future of the nation? A reader could certainly question who was really more fit for freedom, the former slave woman or the former First Lady.

While the subject of slavery seems more historically profound than any scandal Mary Todd Lincoln could momentarily stir up, through her text's pattern of juxtaposing the narratives of white and African American women, Keckley demonstrates the importance of interrogating the relationship between white and black womanhood in the reconstructing nation. The two central topics of Keckley's narrative, then, are connected by more than just the historical fact that she worked for Mary Todd Lincoln; they interrogate the racial and symbolic order that justified enslavement and defined class and social status in postbellum America. One way she does so, as I describe below, is by claiming her own gentility and unmasking the genteel performance of white women such as Mary Todd Lincoln. However, as my above description of Keckley's embrace of capitalism indicates, Keckley also altered the perceived roles of white and African American women in the postbellum period through her representation of herself as a successful prop rietor. As Behind the Scenes demonstrates, slavery forced most African American women into the commodified realm, while at the same time relegating many white women (at least symbolically or ideally) to the home, a sphere envisioned as removed from the marketplace and crowned with sincerity and gentility. [10] This twist of history, Keckley suggests throughout her narrative, left African American women particularly well-suited for an economic role in postbellum culture.

However, if Keckley carves a place for former slaves and African American women in the public sphere by juxtaposing her resourcefulness with the ineptitude of white "ladies," she still has to struggle with stereotypical and harmful associations of the African American woman as ungenteel and publicly accessible. After all, many antebellum Americans considered slave and free African American women's bodies as public property. The perception of their public status, all too often interconnected with harmful stereotypes of their alleged sexual availability, made any claims to true womanhood, to a private self, difficult to maintain. Therefore, Behind the Scenes cannot be read solely as an unproblematic representation of Keckley's triumphant rise from property to proprietor. Rather, Keckley points at times to her discomfort with certain aspects of commodification in the public realm, and her desire to distance herself from an uninterrogated acceptance of public commodity culture. Although Keckley certainly embrace s capitalism, she develops strategies to enter into the public space of authorship and proprietorship while asserting a private, non-commodified, and genteel self.

This delicate balancing act that Keckley undertakes-the representation of herself as a public proprietor and a private lady-is exemplified in a revealing section of her book involving Keckley's work for President Johnson's family. When Keckley is asked by friends if she sent her business card to Johnson's family, she answers that she "had no desire to work for the President's family," as "Mr. Johnson was no friend to Mr. Lincoln" and "had failed to treat Mrs. Lincoln, in the hour of her greatest sorrow, with even common courtesy" (221). As we read elsewhere in Keckley's narrative, Johnson did not fulfill the expectations associated with genteel sympathy, neglecting to call or send a letter of condolence after Abraham Lincoln's death. Therefore, Keckley's reluctance to accept business from his family marks her as someone who upholds the genteel rules governing mourning practices and the extension of genteel sympathy. Indeed, Keckley's decision not to send her business card brings to mind the social calling ca rd, thus aligning Keckley's refusal to seek Johnson's acquaintance to the process of social selection that Halttunen describes as essential to ante- and postbellum rules of gentility (112). Keckley's grounds for refusing to seek work from the Johnson White House differ from the opinions of the women she employs, who have their own reasons for not wanting to sew for Johnson's family. Although Keckley does not actively seek work from the Johnsons, when she is visited by Johnson's daughter, she takes an order for a dress. Upon learning of the order, one of Keckley's workers remarks that she fears "Johnson will prove a poor Moses," and that she "would not work for any of the family." None of her workers, Keckley comments, "appeared to like Mr. Lincoln's successor" (224-25).

In contrast to Keckley's seemingly apolitical and genteel reasons for initially refusing to seek work from the Johnson family, her employees express political, and specifically racial, motivations for wanting to refuse the dress order. Nonetheless, the lines that follow Keckley's description of her workers' dissatisfaction with Johnson are as follows: "I finished the dress for Mrs. Patterson, and it gave satisfaction. I afterwards learned that both Mrs. Patterson and Mrs. Stover were kindhearted, plain, unassuming women, making no pretensions to elegance" (225). Here, in addition to showing how her desire to participate in the marketplace economy overrode her initial concerns (and the objections of her workers), Keckley continues to mark herself as genteel. Despite Johnson's reconstruction policies, she represents his daughters as the epitome of gentility, describing them as sentimentally sincere, making no hypocritical or overly theatrical "pretensions" to a false gentility. Therefore, Keckley claims gentil ity as a woman working within the marketplace, a move that puts her at odds with the middle-class culture that Halttunen describes. Rather than dividing business and home into separate spheres and charging women with the task of maintaining the family's gentility through a display of sincerity in the domestic and social space of the parlor, Keckley applies rules of gentility to the marketplace, thus asserting the dual roles of businesswoman and genteel lady that are crucial to her self-representation. Doing so, she blurs the boundaries between the domestic and public spheres, and, like Jacobs just seven years earlier, redefines conceptions of nineteenth-century womanhood. Yet, as the remainder of this essay argues, Keckley's representations of herself as genteel rely upon a precarious juxtaposition of her own life with Lincoln's, a juxtaposition that ultimately forces her to break the very expectations of gentility that were so important to her self-fashioning.

The Mask of Gentility

The juxtaposition of Keckley's and Lincoln's lives becomes more evident when one considers the tension between privacy and revelation in Behind the Scenes. Scholars note Keckley's seeming reticence about disclosing the personal facts of her life in slavery and after emancipation. In an argument relevant to my own, Rafia Zafar investigates Keckley's crafting of a "literary veil" to protect "the black female narrator from any scrutiny save one suitable for a black woman conscious of her tenuous status within middle-class American society" (153). [11] Indeed, Keckley tells us in the first paragraph of her Preface that "much has been omitted, but nothing has been exaggerated" (xi). That Keckley has selected facts and events to omit is significant enough for her to repeat in the first chapter, when she says that because she "cannot condense," she "must omit many strange passages in" her history (18). By asserting her power to omit, Keckley claims the dual roles of author and editor; she indicates that she has fina l say over what she will reveal in her text and what she will leave veiled. Doing so, she reverses rhetorically the racial dynamic of textual exposure that often appeared in antebellum antislavery texts. Much antislavery rhetoric written by white women was based on the dynamic similar to that described by Lydia Maria Child in her editor's preface to Jacobs's Incidents. Here, Child assumes responsibility for "presenting" the "monstrous features" of slavery to readers with the "veil withdrawn." But what she reveals is the corporeal secrets of Jacobs's personal history. By contrast, Keckley takes it upon herself to insist that the "veil of mystery must be drawn aside" from Mary Todd Lincoln's actions (xiv). Rather than unveiling the secrets of African American or slave women, Keckley withdraws the veil from the face of Mary Todd Lincoln's false gentility, exposing her to the public's gaze.

Keckley's awareness of the power of an author to veil and reveal is also evident when she describes her husband, a man who misrepresented himself to Keckley and led a life of "dissipation." In a move characteristic of her reluctance to reveal aspects of her personal life, Keckley tells very little about him, commenting that "he had his faults, but over these faults death has drawn a veil" (64; emphasis mine). But of course it is Keckley who has the power to let the veil remain intact or to rip it away. In this case, because it involves her own life and, perhaps, because it involves an African American, she elects nondisclosure. As Zafar argues, Behind the Scenes contains an "intriguing double-veiling" that can be found in the writing of other African American women, as the authors "withdraw the veil from the frivolous and self-centered nature of their white women employers at the same time they draw the veil over their own lives" (154). Examples of Keckley's unwillingness to reveal herself to the public's vi ew can be found throughout her narrative, and a few suffice to demonstrate what we can identify as her strategic reticence. Chapter Two, "Girlhood and its Sorrows," divulges the most corporeally specific details about Keckley's life in slavery. In this chapter, Keckley reveals the cruel treatment she received at the home of Mr. Burwell, a man whom she identifies as a Presbyterian minister. Although she describes some of the beatings she received at Mrs. Burwell's prompting, she tells readers that she "will not dwell on the bitter anguish" of the hours after her beatings, "for even the thought of them now makes me shudder" (38). Just as Keckley refuses to "dwell" on her torture, so too does she "not care to dwell upon" the subject of the sexual abuse that resulted in her son. That Keckley refuses to comment in depth (or apologize at all) for her son is typical of her representations of him throughout her text, which are scarcely present and always reserved.

By veiling her private life and emotions, Keckley marks herself in mid-nineteenth-century terms as sincere and genteel. When she unveils, or unmasks, the white ladies she represents, she exposes them as ungenteel. To understand better the process of veiling and unveiling in relation to gentility, a brief summary of Halttunen's work is necessary. According to Halttunen, the ideal of social mobility, combined with urbanization, generated an enormous amount of anxiety among the American middle class in ante- and postbellum America. As middle-class Americans left their communities to pursue social mobility and wealth in urban areas, they struggled with how to "secure success among strangers without stooping to [ldots] manipulating appearance and conduct" (34). This conflict between "sentimental sincerity and genteel self-restraint" was resolved in what Halttunen calls the "genteel performance, a system of polite conduct that demanded a flawless sell-discipline practiced within an apparently easy, natural, sincer e manner" (93). From its inception, the genteel performance was connected with ideologies of gender, particularly the ideal of true womanhood. Halttunen explains how middle-class Americans, unable "to understand the historical forces at work modernizing their society," generally "identified the problem in simplistic, moral terms: American were becoming hypocrites." She continues: "The solution easily followed: the most naturally sincere portion of the population, women, were to ensure that hypocrisy was barred from polite middle-class social intercourse. The problem of hypocrisy, which had arisen in the streets and marketplaces of the world of strangers, would be confronted and resolved in the parlor of the middle-class home" (60). As Halttunen indicates, women were thought to be naturally inclined toward sincerity, although they were still capable of corruption. Therefore, women were important to a family's claim to gentility, as they embodied sincerity and worked to ensure that their home, particularly the parlor, was a place that would banish the hypocrisy that infested the marketplace and urban society.

Although Halttunen does not pursue the question of race in relation to the American middle class in much detail, to assess Keckley's work we need to consider the idea of the sentimental, sincere woman in terms of the racial binaries of womanhood at work in the nineteenth century. As Hazel V. Carby argues, any "historical investigation of the ideological boundaries of the cult of true womanhood is a sterile field without a recognition of the dialectical relationship with the alternative sexual code associated with the black woman," because black female sexuality was used to define the "boundaries" of true womanhood (30). If white women of the middle and upper class were often coded as private, sentimental, genteel, and passionless, black women were considered public, unsentimental, ungenteel, and passionate. [12] In effect, the sentimental, genteel culture represented by the ideal white woman was a racialized method of defining class status. Therefore, when Keckley marked herself as genteel through the method s that I analyze below, she threatened to dismantle the racialized binary of true womanhood that the genteel performance partially relied upon. Such a move was not to be tolerated by middle-class Americans. As the reviews and parody I quote in my introduction indicate, many believed that Keckley would have been better off to "have stuck to her needle" and remained a "woman who took in work" from white ladies.

But Keckley refuses to acknowledge her prescribed place in society, and therefore complicates the codes of gentility that dominated her time. One way of understanding the full extent of her challenge is to situate her book in relation to the major components of the genteel performance. Because the "line between true gentility and false etiquette was perilously thin," the genteel performance was only made possible by hundreds of rules that Halttunen divides into three areas: "the laws of polite social geography, the laws of tact, and the laws of acquaintanceship" (101). Additionally, as Halttunen explains, the rules governing mourning were increasingly important to the genteel performance as the century progressed. All four of these aspects of the genteel performance are critical to understanding the backlash toward Keckley's work. The first, "the laws of polite social geography," functioned to establish the parlor "as the stage upon which the genteel performance was enacted." Drawing upon the work of Erving Goffman, Halttunen argues that, in "societies built on the promise of social mobility, high demands for control over bodily and facial expressiveness made necessary a division of living space into front regions and back regions." In the front region, the social actor is "onstage or 'in character,' "but in the "back regions" a genteel performer could momentarily relax. The daunting task of the genteel hostess was to "keep all private domestic arrangements from intruding upon the genteel performance," particularly her servants, as hostesses' "own gentility rested in part on" their servants' "ability to remain inconspicuous" (104-06). One manual, Etiquette at Washington: and Complete Guide through the Metropolis and its Environs, published eleven years before Behind the Scenes, instructed readers in what Halttunen calls an "unusually explicit statement of the theatrical nature" of the hostess's task that "the internal machinery of a household, like that portion of the theater 'behind the scenes,' should [ldots] be studiously kept out of view" (qtd. in Halttunen 105).

When one considers "the laws of polite social geography" in general and the idea that the household's machinery was to be kept behind the scenes in particular, one begins to realize the subversive implications of Keckley's title. How could a genteel lady ensure her family's status by keeping the domestic machinery behind the scenes if her friends and/or servants could at any moment lift the curtain and reveal the messy, emotional, unrestrained actions that took place in the back regions? It is not so much, then, that Keckley revealed Mary Todd Lincoln's secrets but, rather, that this revelation demonstrated just how fragile the theatrical performance of parlor etiquette was for the typical middle-class aspirant. Seven years earlier, Jacobs told readers that, if "the secret memoirs of many members of Congress should be published, curious details would be unfolded" (142). Now, rather than threatening to go public with private sexual information involving African American women and white men, Keckley went publi c with private, domestic information involving, primarily, white women. True, what we learn is not all that scandalous in relation to nineteenth-century journalism. However, Keckley's revelations about Mary Todd Lincoln are threatening because they unmask a white woman's genteel performance.

Interestingly, Keckley deflects her decision to go behind the scenes and reveal the private, domestic life of Mary Todd and Abraham Lincoln by describing the seemingly inappropriate desires of others to do something quite similar. At one point, Keckley tells readers that she "soon learned that some people had an intense desire to penetrate the inner circle of the White House," especially because Abraham Lincoln had "grown up in the wilds of the West," a fact that shocked the polite world and "intensified curiosity." In fact, one woman, whom Keckley pointedly refuses to call a lady, asks

Keckley for her assistance in introducing her to the "secrets of the domestic circle." Keckley refuses, and soon learns that the woman was an actress who wished to "publish a scandal to the world" (92-95). In this exchange, the anxiety over theatricality, class, and penetration of the back regions is evidenced on several levels. First, the Lincolns appear as ungenteel social climbers, as their roots in the West subject them to scrutiny from the seemingly more genteel, polite East. [13] Having read "patronizing newspaper comments about" the Lincolns' "supposed western vulgarity" before arriving in Washington to become First Lady, Mary Todd Lincoln was determined to assume the proper role of the genteel woman by flaunting appropriate fashions (Baker 165). Although the donning of correct clothes for a genteel role was hardly unique to Mary Todd Lincoln, her intense desire to wear the costume of gentility may have uncomfortably reminded many Americans of the theatricality underlying their own social status. Indee d, the ire directed toward Mary Todd Lincoln in one review of Behind the Scenes shows the anxiety generated by alleged social climbers. The editors of the Cleveland Daily Plain Dealer declared that they were pleased that Keckley's book was published, as it would serve as a warning "to those ladies whose husbands may be elevated to the position of the President of the United States [ldots] not to put on airs and attempt to appear what their education, their habits of life and social position, and even personal appearance would not warrant" (1). Second, the woman who wishes to penetrate the White House is an actress, also underscoring the too close relationship between gentility and theatricality. Third, the actress planned to reveal the private, domestic aspects of the White House (presumably the Lincolns' lack of gentility) in the public realm of the marketplace for all to consume, thereby showing how perilously thin was the line between the genteel parlor and the ungenteel marketplace. Keckley, however, refu ses to allow the actress access, thereby sparing Mary Todd Lincoln the embarrassment of having her "back regions" revealed.

Her willingness to shield Mary Todd Lincoln's domestic back regions from the public eye marks Keckley as genteel through her acquiescence to the second and third categories of rules that comprised the genteel performance, the laws of tact and acquaintanceship. Halttunen explains that the laws of tact" governed not the genteel performance itself, but its reception by those who witnessed it." In particular, the laws ensured "that members of the polite audience would assist, encourage, and honor a genteel performer's claims to gentility," especially by honoring "the sanctity of the back regions," a domain where a polite visitor "never intruded" (Halttunen 107). Because "lapses in gentility occurred," the performance could only be sustained "by the tact of the genteel audience" (111). Indeed, the "most tactless blunder a house guest could commit was to carry tales of her hostess's household" (108). Therefore, laws of tact relied upon the laws of acquaintanceship, a complex process of sorting out those who merite d social invitation. Since "any ill-bred person [ldots] threatened to undermine everyone else's claims to gentility, such rudeness had to be banned from polite social intercourse" (111). By distinguishing her literary activity from the actress's inappropriate desire for scandal, Keckley represents herself as aware of, and adhering to, the genteel rules of tact and acquaintanceship, at least in this case.

Locating Keckley's and Mary Todd Lincoln's relationship within genteel rules of etiquette is difficult; their alliance is not easily definable because both blur the rigid social line between servants and acquaintances that gentility mandated. Keckley's title-page identifies her as "formerly a slave, but more recently modiste, and friend to Mrs. Abraham Lincoln," thus indicating a certain progression--from chattel, to employee, to friend. Yet the book at times denies this linear progression, and places Keckley simultaneously as a friend and employee. A striking manifestation of this uncertainty comes near the end of the book, when Keckley relates her dealings with Mary Todd Lincoln in New York. Keckley includes a scene detailing her first night in the city with Lincoln, who is traveling under the guise of "Mrs. Clarke." When Keckley attempts to secure a meal in the hotel's dining room, she is ordered to leave, as the steward assumes that she is Mrs. Clarke's servant. The exchange is revealing:

"Are you not Mrs. Clarke's servant?" was his abrupt question.

"I am with Mrs. Clarke."

"It is all the same; servants are not allowed to eat in the large dinin-groom. Here, this way; you must take your dinner in the servants' hall." (280)

Granted, Keckley is trying to maintain Mary Todd Lincoln's anonymity and does not want to create conflict. Yet her ambivalent answer, "'I am with Mrs. Clarke,'" reveals her uncertainty as to just how to describe her role. After all, she requests and receives compensation from the United States government for her work when Mary Todd Lincoln cannot pay her, and therefore their relationship is located, to some extent, in the marketplace. [14]

Yet if we consider Behind the Scenes in relation to laws of acquaintanceship and to laws of tact, we see that Keckley has violated the rules of the genteel performance on both accounts. If readers of Behind the Scenes consider Keckley a servant, they would have reason for concern, as servants were to remain inconspicuous to ensure the gentility of the hostess. And if they considered Keckley an acquaintance of Mary Todd Lincoln, they could likewise be disturbed, as the foremost duty of an acquaintance was to help a friend maintain his or her mask of gentility. It is also fair to suggest that Keckley's blurring of the strict social categories necessary to the genteel performance could have hit a nerve in readers trying to maintain those illusive, but all-important, social distinctions. Certainly, when the editors of the Cleveland Daily Plain Dealer told readers that Keckley's book served as a lesson "not to make confidants of, or allow themselves to be duped by servants, modistes, or what ever they may be call ed, white or black, unless they wish to court notoriety by being held up by this class of people in a manner to disgrace" (1), they were revealing the perceived need to maintain the fabricated, yet necessary, genteel distinctions that Keckley and Mary Todd Lincoln's relationship challenged.

As the Plain Dealer indicates, instead of enabling Mary Todd Lincoln to maintain a mask of gentility, as a good servant or acquaintance would, Keckley reveals her in intense private moments. This is especially the case in relation to Mary Todd Lincoln's mourning for her son, Willie, and her husband. It is in the representations of mourning that we see the most pronounced juxtaposition between the gentility of Keckley and the ungenteel behavior of Mary Todd Lincoln. The contrast between Keckley's representation of deaths in her family and that o. the Lincolns' mourning is striking. Indeed, nowhere is Keckley's strategic reticence more evident than in her representations of her own mourning, which may strike readers as significant, even odd. Although Keckley briefly refers to deaths in her family at various places in her narrative, they are eclipsed, in terms of space and emphasis, by the deaths in the Lincoln family. For example, after a detailed description of Willie's death, Keckley mentions her own son's d eath at the end of a paragraph about Willie's and Mary Todd Lincoln:

Previous to this I had lost my son. Leaving Wilberforce, he went to the battle-field with the three months troops, and was killed in Missouri--found his grave on the battlefield where the gallant General Lyon fell. It was a sad blow to me, and the kind womanly letter that Mrs. Lincoln wrote to me when she heard of my bereavement was full of golden words of comfort. (105)

As the sentence sequence of the above quote reveals, Keckley's son's death is subsumed into the narrative of Willie Lincoln. It is introduced in relation to Willie's death ("previous to this"), and the same sentence that comments on Keckley's reaction ("It was a sad blow for me") ends by emphasizing Mary Todd Lincoln's gentility in sending a letter of condolence. As if to downplay even further her son's importance to the narrative, Keckley follows this brief comment about his death with an extensive abstract of the "beautiful sketch" written by Nathaniel Parker Willis for Willie Lincoln, which ends the chapter.

When we consider Keckley's representations of mourning in relation to conceptions of gentility, Behind the Scenes' strategic reticence takes on an increased significance. For as the nineteenth century progressed, mourning practices increasingly became part of public, commodity culture (Halttunen 124-52). According to Keckley's representations, neither Keckley nor Mary Todd Lincoln participated in extensive public mourning rituals. Keckley wrote almost nothing about the deaths in her family, and Mary Todd Lincoln generally refused to attend the public functions in honor of her son's and husband's deaths. Therefore, in some respects, Keckley aligns herself and Mary Todd Lincoln with the sentimental idea that mourning is a solitary practice that is more sincere when private (Halttunen 132). However, by writing extensively and in detail about what many considered Mary Todd Lincoln's excessive and self-centered grief for Willie and Abraham, Keckley foists Mary Todd Lincoln into the public sphere while remaining p rivate in her own grief. As Zafar notes (177), "Keckley's relative silence" about her grief could "confirm her in white eyes as a successful performer" within genteel culture because it demonstrated her emotional self-restraint.

To complicate matters, the details that Keckley reports about Mary Todd Lincoln's grief mark Lincoln as noticeably ungenteel. Although Mary Todd Lincoln's seclusion after the death of her son and husband could have signaled her sincere bereavement, her other actions belie a lack of gentility. In addition to the idea that sincere mourning was private, three components of sentimental, genteel mourning that Halttunen describes are particularly relevant to Keckley's representations of Mary Todd Lincoln. By analyzing each one in turn, we begin to see just how thoroughly Behind the Scenes unmasks Mary Todd Lincoln's performance. One rule of genteel mourning was that, although "middle-class men and women were encouraged to indulge 'the luxury of grief' as a mark of their sentimental sensibilities, they were instructed never to grieve excessively." Rather, mourning was to be "an occasion for discipline in emotional self-expression, for genteel self-improvement" (Halttunen 134). On all accounts, Keckley describes Mar y Todd Lincoln as absolutely "inconsolable" (104), revealing an unacceptable level of emotional and physical abandonment. After the death of Willie, she describes Mary Todd Lincoln's "paroxysms of grief" as so severe that Abraham Lincoln warned that, if she did not control herself, she would be driven "mad" and might end up in an asylum (104-05). After Abraham Lincoln dies, Mary Todd Lincoln is found in "a new paroxysm of grief" with "the wails of a broken heart, the unearthly shrieks, the terrible convulsions, the wild, tempestuous outbursts of grief from the soul" (191). As Jennifer Fleischner points out (130), Keckley connects Mary Todd Lincoln's mourning with traits often assigned to African Americans (wild, child-like, passive, and weak), an association that underscores the racial reversal that Behind the Scenes enacts. Clearly, Mary Todd Lincoln fails to live up to the standards of genteel emotional self-restraint, standards that are racially coded as white.

Just as Mary Todd Lincoln is incapable of controlling her excessive grief, so too does she fail to channel it in the proper direction. The proper genteel mourner, according to Halttunen, feels "a rush of benevolence toward all men" at a certain point in the grieving process, a rush that manifests itself in a desire to "practice kindness toward all" and results in a restored and strengthened confidence among humankind (131). Mary Todd Lincoln's grief is noticeably devoid of any such communal response. Its intensity and excessiveness are shown to take over all aspects of her life, even her maternal role. Keckley tells readers that "Tad's grief at his father's death was as great as the grief of his mother, but her terrible outbursts awed the boy into silence" (192). Although Keckley does not linger upon this fact, the reader may be shocked that Mary Todd Lincoln, rather than being strong for her son, remained self-centered in her mourning. Additionally, her grief over Willie makes her object even more strenuous ly to Robert's entering the army. Keckley reports that, although Robert "was very anxious to quit school and enter the army," the "move was sternly opposed by his mother," because the Lincolns had "lost one son," and his loss was as much as Mary Todd Lincoln could "bear, without being called upon to make another sacrifice." To this, Abraham Lincoln would counter that "many a poor mother has given up all her sons" and "our son is not more dear to us than the sons of other people are to their mothers" (121). Although Mary Todd Lincoln eventually relinquishes Robert to military service, this scene reveals that her grief for Willie did not manifest itself in compassion for other mothers or in larger societal concerns. As when she hopes her husband will be reelected so that her debts will not be revealed, she here seems incapable of manifesting a greater feeling of benevolence or social responsibility.

By contrast, Keckley, rather than becoming consumed by private grief upon the death of her son, uses her experience to sympathize more fully with Mary Todd Lincoln, thereby showing herself as sentimental in understanding another woman's pain. Even while Keckley criticizes Mary Todd Lincoln, saying, for example, that if she had been less secluded in her grief she might "have had many warmer friends to-day," she calls upon readers to be compassionate: "Could the ladies who called to condole with Mrs. Lincoln, after the death of her husband, and who were denied admittance to her chamber, have seen how completely prostrated she was with grief, they would have learned to speak more kindly of her" (196). Indeed, this passage seems to echo and reverse racially the quintessentially sentimental scene that appears in Chapter Nine of Uncle Tom's Cabin. In Stowe's novel, the fugitive slave Eliza Harris, in an effort to justify having fled her allegedly benevolent masters, asks Senator Bird's wife if she has "ever lost a child" (149). The Birds, who are mourning their son's death, are able to sympathize with Eliza due to their own suffering, and we are left to assume that the Senator will act more benevolently and correctly in the public sphere in the future. In Behind the Scenes, it is Keckley who is shown to have empathy with Mary Todd Lincoln's grief and an overall desire to turn her own mourning into the actions needed to better humankind and relieve suffering. In the chapter following Keckley's descriptions of Mary Todd Lincoln's grief, and in the same chapter that we learn of Mary Todd Lincoln's reluctance to risk Robert in the war effort, Keckley reveals her creation of the Contraband Relief Association, a society designed to alleviate the sufferings of the recently freed slaves who were fleeing to Washington, D.C., during the war. Although Keckley does not make the connection explicit, it appears that her grief over her son has led her to consider with more compassion others who have suffered, thereby leading to the Association's formation. While it is true that Mary Todd Lincoln donates $200 to Keckley's charity, this gesture does not have the same resonance as Keckley's sentimental compassion and public benevolence, especially when one considers it in relation to the excessive debt Mary Todd Lincoln accumulates furnishing her wardrobe and the White House.

The final aspect of genteel mourning that is relevant to Keckley's work is that of the sentimental keepsake, the "reverence for the personal tokens or keepsakes left by the deceased" (Halttunen 133). As Joanne Dobson explains, in much nineteenth-century literature, "the sentimental keepsake constitutes a vivid symbolic embodiment of the primacy of human connection and the inevitability of human loss. Its use in numerous texts with varying (sometimes contrasting) intentions stems from a body of convention resonant with grief, loss of memory, consolation, and an acknowledgment of the fragility of human life" (273). In Behind the Scenes, the reactions of Keckley and Mary Todd Lincoln to sentimental keepsakes underscore their different mourning practices. To Keckley, the keepsake functions as an essential tie to those she has loved and lost. For example, at one point in her narrative, Keckley includes an abstract from an article in the New York Evening News based on information that Keckley provided to the repor ter. In the article, the author writes that most "of the other articles that adorned Mrs. Lincoln on that fatal night became the property of Mrs. Keckley," who has "carefully stowed" them away and "intends keeping them during her life as mementos of a mournful event" (311). Here, Keckley represents herself to the reporter and to her readers as someone who longs genteelly to keep mementoes of Abraham Lincoln. Indeed, Keckley later makes it clear that the sentimental keepsake is an almost sacred object that should neither be neglected nor sold for profit. Although the cloak stained with Abraham Lincoln's blood could "not be purchased from" Keckley, she is willing to donate it to Wilberforce College, the institution that her son attended. By offering to donate the cloak to Wilberforce, Keckley shows, once again, that her private grief leads her to public benevolence, as she wishes to help the "cause of educating the four millions of slaves liberated by our President" (367). As Fleischner points out, despite Keck ley's representation of herself as a proprietor, the "items Keckley accumulates are fundamentally unusable objects whose value is mostly sentimental and memorial, rather than pragmatic" (101).

Once again, Mary Todd Lincoln's behavior stands in stark contrast to Keckley's actions, as Lincoln rids herself and her home of almost all of Willie's and Abraham's possessions. After Willie's death, Mary Todd Lincoln "could not bear the sight of anything he loved" and "gave all of Willie's toys--everything connected with him--away" because she could not look upon them "without thinking of her poor dead boy" and to think of him in the grave was "maddening" (18182). Likewise, when preparing to leave the White House, "Mrs. Lincoln gave away everything intimately connected with the President, as she said that she could not bear to be reminded of the past" (202). Mary Todd Lincoln's refusal to honor the genteel custom of the sentimental keepsake marks her as self-centered in her grief. Fleischner argues that her rejection of the sentimental keepsake is made all the more distasteful by her obsession with the mourning costume: "Keckley's depiction of Mrs. Lincoln's mourning [ldots] makes it the emotional equivalen t of her materialism--all-consuming and self-directed. Mrs. Lincoln's impulse to get rid of everything connected to her dead while at the same time adding to her mourning wardrobe suggests that she experiences the death of loved ones as blows against herself, and not against another" (129). Unlike Keckley, whose experiences with death confirm her connections to humankind, Mary Todd Lincoln's obsessive behavior appears child-like, sell-indulgent, and markedly ungenteel.

The contrast between Keckley's and Mary Todd Lincoln's mourning practices offers the most extreme example of the narrative juxtaposition that constitutes Behind the Scenes' logical structure. As a widowed and recently emancipated African American woman, Keckley had to carve a space for herself in the postbellum economy, and she does so by showing herself a competent businesswoman, one who has learned more than many white ladies because she endured the "hardy school" of slavery. Yet Keckley is also, no matter how much she refuses to "dwell" on the fact, a woman who suffered terrible sexual and physical abuse while a slave, at times at the prompting of white women. As a woman whose body was once considered chattel, it would make sense that she would feel a particular urgency about claiming privacy, and about considering herself deserving of the respect that accrues to genteel women. To assert these dual roles, Keckley contrasts her own life and character with those of several white women, most noticeably her f riend Mary Todd Lincoln. Doing so, she challenges conceptions of gender, race, gentility, and commodity culture that were already in flux after the war.

Reading Behind the Scenes, this narrative juxtaposition is so pronounced that it almost seems impossible to accept Keckley's assertion of pure motives and good intentions when writing about Mary Todd Lincoln. Our information about Keckley indicates that she was a woman who held firm to genteel practices throughout her life. For example, one person who knew Keckley described her as "a woman of high ideals, character and dignity" who was "very reserved, refined, intelligent and unobtrusive" and had "certain rules of decorum" that she "always observed" (Washington 217). How, then, could she fail to observe the rules prohibiting any revelation of the messy material hidden behind the scenes? One answer to this difficult question is provided by Fleischner in her nuanced analysis of Keckley's psychological reaction to slavery. As Fleischner demonstrates, given "the nature of internalized prohibitions against self-assertion and self-expression--a likely legacy of actual enslavement--coupled with the external constra ints against black candor in a white world, the unspoken, the masked, the ruptured, and the contradictory are palpable presences in slave narratives" (5). According to Fleischner, the "necessarily suppressed and repressed life of a mulatta woman serving in the White House in the 1860s" would surface in interesting ways (99). To this, I would add that the prohibitions against self-assertion and self-expression to which Fleischner refers would make it extremely difficult for Keckley to go public with her private wrath, or, perhaps, even to articulate that wrath to herself in a conscious manner. Certainly, one could argue that Keckley had sincere intentions, but like any author (especially, as Fleischner argues, one who has endured trauma), could not entirely control her text. Her unconscious or repressed wrath, either against Lincoln in particular or against the white women who authorized her abuse and whose claims to a genteel status rested on the denigration of African American women in general, may have caus ed a contradiction between intention and result. There are times when anger and other emotions surface and inform the text in ways that may have startled even the author herself.

We can also answer the question of how the gap between motivation and result may have widened by examining the social changes regarding gentility that were taking place as Keckley wrote and published. In Keckley's Preface, she frames her work on the genteel premise of the sincerity of her intentions, saying that she was "prompted by the purest motive" to write, and her defense of Mary Todd Lincoln is based on the fact that Lincoln's intentions "were good" (xiii-xiv). The significance of inner character, intention, and motive dominates the prefatory justification, and points to the sentimental premise underlying Keckley's text. As Halttunen argues, sentimentalists believed that at its foundation good behavior "was not a matter of outward rules and ceremonies; it was simply the outpouring of right feelings from a right heart" (93). In its purest sense, to be genteel meant to be sincere. Therefore, even though Keckley is cognizant of her transgression of genteel etiquette, she justifies it by invoking the senti mental ideals that were supposed to be the foundation of the rules governing gentility, the belief that, if one's character were pure and motivation good, then outward actions would be judged accordingly. However, as Halttunen points out, by the 1860s, sentimental "anxieties about the hypocrisy of social disguise and formal ritual were yielding before a growing middle-class fascination with the theatrical arts of everyday life" (174), and many Americans were willing to accept the fact that "middle-class social life was itself a charade" (185). In this context, Americans were less concerned about the sincerity allegedly at the roots of genteel culture and more concerned about the outward forms of that culture itself. In fact, many Americans were able to laugh at their own theatricality, poking fun at the rules that governed their existence (Halttunen 153-90).

Yet even if white middle-class Americans in the 1860s gathered in parlors to mock their own theatricality, they clung to the privileges and the performance that accompanied their newly found genteel status and were far from prepared to have them challenged by' an African American woman who was once a slave. Because their class status continued to rely partially upon an implicit juxtaposition between white and black womanhood, Keckley's challenge to these prescribed categories was particularly troublesome. Likewise, because their social status depended upon an idealized separation of the domestic and public spheres, and between those who would be servants and those who would be social equals, Keckley's claim to both privacy and proprietorship, to both service and friendship, transgressed boundaries that the white middle class wanted to uphold. When Keckley ripped away the curtain to expose the private behavior of a white middle-class woman in such a public forum, when she revealed what many readers wanted so desperately to keep behind the scenes, it was an unforgivable violation of gentility and an unacceptable assertion of racial worth. This combination was certain to, and indeed did, generate an enormous amount of wrath.

Carolyn Sorisio is Assistant Professor of English at West Chester University of Pennsylvania. She wishes to express her gratitude to Carolyn L. Karcher, Martha J. Cutter, and Debra J. Rosenthal for their assistance with this essay.


(1.) In September 1867, the widowed Mary Todd Lincoln arrived in New York City to negotiate the sale of her clothes, where she was met by Keckley whom she had pleaded with to come. Although Lincoln claimed to want to remain anonymous and traveled under the guise of "Mrs. Clarke," she gave an appraiser a ring with her name inscribed on it. Once she was detected, the sale was widely known. In addition to drawing criticism for negotiating the sale, Lincoln also was criticized for her willingness to shame key Republican leaders into assisting her by going public with her financial needs in the press. Additionally, the dresses, many of which were given to Lincoln during her husband's first term in office, represented her willingness to exchange her access to the President for extravagant gifts during the war. For more information on the old clothes scandal, see Baker 271-80.

(2.) For example, late in her life, Keckley told Anna Eliza Williams (a woman who helped care for her) that she wrote Behind the Scenes because Lincoln had been a "true friend" and by selling the book she intended to help Lincoln, who was in "poor circumstances." Yet she lamented that the book caused so "much sorrow and loss of friends" and stated that she "never thought of injuring such a loyal friend" as Lincoln (Washington 221).

(3.) Although Keckley's book generated much anger, it was not universally condemned. For example, a review in Hours at Home indicated that the editors' "first impressions of the book" had "been greatly modified on reading it" as Keckley "writes with a straight-forwardness, a propriety, good sense, and grace and force of diction, that is not a little surprising, and which proves her true womanhood, notwithstanding she was born in slavery and passed thirty years of her life in bondage" (192). Also, although The New York Times condemned Keckley's writing of the text, its inclusion of a three-column review, complete with lengthy abstracts, belies the editors' supposed recoil from Keckley's revelations, as does a subsequent article on "Mrs. Lincoln's Wardrobe," which after only a paragraph written by the staff of the Times quotes extensively from Keckley's work.

(4.) The parody Behind the Seams; by a Nigger Woman Who Took in Work from Mrs. Lincoln and Mrs. Davis was republished by an anonymous "A. Lincoln Fann" in a limited edition in New York in 1945, and it is from that edition that I quote. I am grateful to Oberlin College for access to this text.

(5.) According to Washington (239), Keckley gave Mary Todd Lincoln's letters to James Redpath, who was helping to edit her book. Redpath promised that nothing would be printed that would in any way injure Mary Todd Lincoln, but then proceeded to include the letters with almost no editing.

(6.) Washington reports that Keckley "continued to sew for the best families in Washington" and "lived in the best colored homes" for many years after publishing Behind the Scenes (240). Although Keckley died in the Home for Destitute Colored Women and Children, she had enough in savings to leave some money to charity (215).

(7.) Before arriving in Washington as First Lady, Mary Todd Lincoln was causing a sensation; according to Baker, already "there was grumbling about her violation of female decorum" (166).

(8.) For an analysis of Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin in relation to the nineteenth-century conception of separate spheres, see Tompkins.

(9.) Andrews notes that postbellum reunion scenes have multiple functions, including representing the former slave as "demonstrating the moral leadership in such reunions" and therefore as "an active agent in the reconstruction of the South" ("Reunion" 12). Jennifer Fleischner argues that Keckley had to return to her past because personal "memory constitutes identity and is precious to the individual, no matter how it is conditioned by larger cultural and political forces of oppression" (117).

(10.) When referring to the Doctrine of Separate Spheres, I intend to indicate the ideal that was often held out to nineteenth-century middle-class Americans, not necessarily the reality of women's lives--white or African American--in this time period. As Cathy N. Davidson points out in her preface to the September 1998 Special Issue of American Literature (which is dedicated to interrogating the assumption of separate spheres), the "binaric version of nineteenth-century America is ultimately unsatisfactory because it is simply too crude an instrument--too rigid and totalizing--for understanding the different, complicated ways that nineteenth-century American society or literary production functioned" (445). But even if it was not a reality for many Americans, we can still argue that the rhetoric endorsing the home as a sacred, private realm ruled by a sentimental and sincere woman (coded white) was powerful enough to stimulate a response in writers such as Keckley. For an excellent overview of the concept o f separate spheres in historical work, see Kerber.

(11.) As my use of Zafar's discussion of veiling and unveiling in African American women's texts indicates, Zafar's argument is, in some respects, similar to mine. In addition to exploring the relationship between revelation and concealment in African American women's autobiography, Zafar analyzes Keckley's representation of mourning in relation to Halttunen's work, arguing that Mary Todd Lincoln's mourning behavior was not consistent with proper genteel expectations and that, by contrast, Keckley's "relative silence" about her family members' deaths could confirm her as a successful genteel performer (see Zafar 177-80). Although we share these critical questions and strategies, my essay adds to Zafar's by exploring how Keckley's unveiling of Lincoln reveals the text's narrative logic of juxtaposition. Additionally, as I suggest, a discussion of Keckley's claims to gentility is enhanced by situating them in relation to Keckley's assertion of a place within postbellum commodity culture for African American wo men. Finally, my essay concentrates more upon the text's reception, both by addressing reviews of the work that I have not seen quoted in contemporary scholarship on Keckley, and by exploring the disparity between Keckley's sincerely benevolent intentions and the wrath that is evidenced in the book itself and in the book's reception.

(12.) Deborah Gray White explores the connections between reproduction and privacy in the slave community. "Just as with reproduction," she argues, "that which was private and personal became public and familiar" for slave women, whose bodies were often exposed or semi-exposed while they were working in the fields, being tortured, or sold on the auction block (27).

(13.) Mary Todd Lincoln is aware of her precarious status and justifies her extreme consumerism on the basis that she "must dress in costly materials" as the "people scrutinize every article" that she wears "with critical curiosity" because she grew up in the West (Keckley 149).

(14.) For information on Keckley's payment for her service to Lincoln, see Washington 225.

Works Cited

Andrews, William L. "The Changing Moral Discourse of Nineteenth-Century African American Women's Autobiography: Harriet Jacobs and Elizabeth Keckley." De/Colonizing the Subject: The Politics of Gender in Women's Autobiography. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1992. 225-41.

-----. "Reunion in the Postbellum Slave Narrative: Frederick Douglass and Elizabeth Keckley." Black American Literature Forum 23 (1989): 5-16.

Baker, Jean H. Mary Todd Lincoln: A Biography. New York: Norton, 1987.

Behind the Seams; by a Nigger Woman Who Took in Work from Mrs. Lincoln and Mrs. Davis. 1868. New York, 1945.

Carby, Hazel V. Reconstructing Womanhood: The Emergence of the Afro-American Woman Novelist. New York: Oxford UP, 1987.

Davidson, Cathy N. "Preface: No More Separate Spheres!" American Literature 70 (1998): 443-63.

Dobson, Joanne. "Reclaiming Sentimental Literature." American Literature 69 (1997): 263-88.

Fleischner, Jennifer. Mastering Slavery: Memory, Family, and Identity in Women's Slave Narratives. New York: New York UP, 1996.

Foster, Frances Smith. Written by Herself: Literary Productions by African American Women, 1746-1892. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1993.

Halttunen, Karen. Confidence Men and Painted Women: A Study of Middle-Class Culture in America, 1830-1870. New Haven: Yale UP, 1982.

Jacobs, Harriet. Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, Written by Herself. 1861. Ed. Jean Fagan Yellin. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1987.

Keckley, Elizabeth. Behind the Scenes; or, Thirty Years a Slave and Four Years in the White House. 1868. New York: Oxford UP, 1988.

Kerber, Linda K. "Separate Spheres, Female Worlds, Women's Place: The Rhetoric of Women's History." To ward an Intellectual History of Women. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 1997. 159-99.

"Mrs. Lincoln's Wardrobe." New York Times 26 Apr. 1868: 3.

Rev, of Behind the Scenes; or, Thirty Years a Slave and Four Years in the White House, by Elizabeth Keckley. Cleveland Daily Plain Dealer 23 Apr. 1868: 1.

Rev, of Behind the Scenes; or, Thirty Years a Slave and Four Years in the White House, by Elizabeth Keckley. Hours at Home June 1868: 192.

Rev, of Behind the Scenes; or, Thirty Years a Slave and Four Years in the White House, by Elizabeth Keckley. New York Times 19 Apr. 1868: 10.

Rev, of Behind the Scenes; or, Thirty Years a Slave and Four Years in the White House, by Elizabeth Keckley. Putnam's Magazine July 1868:119.

Stowe, Harriet Beecher. Uncle Tom's Cabin, or Life Among the Lowly. 1852. New York: Penguin, 1981.

Tompkins, Jane P. "Sentimental Power: Uncle Tom's Cabin and the Politics of Literary History." The New Feminist Criticism: Essays on Women, Literature and Theory. Ed. Elaine Showalter. New York: Pantheon, 1985. 81 -104.

Washington, John E. They Knew Lincoln. New York: Dutton, 1942.

White, Deborah Gray. Ar'n't I a Woman?: Female Slaves in the Plantation South. New York: Norton, 1985.

Zafar, Rafia. We Wear the Mask: African Americans Write American Literature, 1 760-1870. New York: Columbia UP, 1997.
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Author:Sorisio, Carolyn
Publication:African American Review
Article Type:Critical Essay
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Mar 22, 2000
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