Academic journal article Legacy: A Journal of American Women Writers

Elizabeth Hobbs Keckley (1818-1907)

Academic journal article Legacy: A Journal of American Women Writers

Elizabeth Hobbs Keckley (1818-1907)

Article excerpt

Although Elizabeth Hobbs Keckley made only a single contribution to American women's writing, her significance as a writer and figure in US cultural history should not be underestimated. (1) Her memoir, Behind the Scenes. Or, Thirty Years a Slave, and Four Years in the White House, recounts a childhood and young adulthood in slavery followed by several years as a high-profile dressmaker to the nation's political elite. (2) Her intimate association with Mary Todd Lincoln made her a celebrity, and her chronicle of this relationship earned her notoriety. With this profile, I hope to generate wider scholarly interest in Keckley, first by offering a brief biography and then by suggesting some future critical directions and potential contexts for teaching her memoir.

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Elizabeth Hobbs was born circa 1818 in Dinwiddie Court-House, Virginia, to enslaved parents, and her upbringing was marked by family separation and constant physical abuse. (3) When she was in her early twenties Hobbs was relocated to St. Louis, where her owner hired her out as a seamstress. She worked tirelessly to establish a name for herself, noting, "The best ladies in St. Louis were my patrons, and when my reputation was once established I never lacked for orders. With my needle I kept bread in the mouths of seventeen persons for two years and five months" (45). While in St. Louis she met and married James Keckley. Her marriage, however, was short-lived, as Keckley soon realized that her new husband had misrepresented himself as free and, in her words, CC proved dissipated, and a burden instead of a helpmate" (50).

Fiercely committed to attaining freedom, Keckley raised the necessary funds to purchase herself and her son by borrowing from acquaintances, and upon receiving free papers in 1855 she moved to Washington, DC. She quickly established herself as a seamstress for the city's most influential residents; a regular client was Varina Howell Davis, the wife of Mississippi senator Jefferson Davis. Keckley was particularly eager to work in the White House. She writes, "Ever since arriving in Washington I had a great desire to work for the ladies of the White House, and to accomplish this end I was ready to make almost any sacrifice consistent with propriety" (76). Eventually, her aspirations were realized, as she secured a position as the personal dressmaker, or "modiste," for Mary Lincoln (92). (4)

In the years immediately before and during the Civil War, Keckley occupied an exceptional role as a White House insider. She virtually lived with the Lincolns on the eve of the war; consoled Mary Lincoln after the death of her son, Willie, and the assassination of her husband; and helped to craft--literally--the iconic image of the Lincolns. Her recollections of these intimate moments make up a substantial portion of Behind the Scenes.

Following her husband's assassination, Mary Lincoln found herself in financial straits and sought to sell her husband's personal items as well as several of her dresses. Many saw this decision as a breach of propriety and an affront to her late husband's legacy. The press seized upon the story, which became known as the "Old Clothes Scandal." Keckley entered into this fray herself with the publication of Behind the Scenes in 1868.

First published by G. W. Carleton, Behind the Scenes is attributed to "Elizabeth Keckley, formerly a slave, but more recently a modiste, and friend to Mrs. Abraham Lincoln." This authorial identification, a narrative in itself, exemplifies the self-conscious construction of identity and political acumen that made Keckley such a success. Unlike most slave narratives, which begin by announcing abolitionist motives in the preface, Keckley's offers a strikingly different rationale for authorship:

  I have been prompted by the purest motive. Mrs. Lincoln, by her own
  acts, forced herself into notoriety. She stepped beyond the formal
  lines which hedge about a private life, and invited public criticism. … 
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