The longer title, Behind the Scenes or 30 Years a Slave and 4 Years in the White House, is a more detailed picture of this autobiography of Elizabeth Keckley. And while this does describe the woman’s background, it is not an accurate portrayal of what you will find in this book. Written in 1868, Mrs. Keckley does discuss her past as a slave, but she rushes through her history. She argues that there is happiness as well as horror in the life of a slave, and while she was clearly abused by some of her white owners, she was also well-loved by some.
Mrs. Keckley’s purpose in writing this book was not to present a slave narrative, however. For 4 years, she was the dressmaker for Mrs. Abraham Lincoln, working for her and also befriending her. In the aftermath of President Lincoln’s assassination, Mrs. Lincoln sought Mrs. Keckley’s help in selling some of her vast and expensive wardrobe, due to Mrs. Lincoln’s greatly diminished income. Mrs. Lincoln claimed she was on the verge of destitution. Although she tried to accomplish this quietly, Mary Todd Lincoln was found out, and the public opinion of her actions was unfavorable. And so, Mrs. Keckley claimed to write the book in order to defend Mrs. Lincoln.
Not surprisingly, Mrs. Lincoln was not pleased to have her private life publicly displayed, and without consultation. Their friendship was severed, and while I found the book interesting, the public, apparently, did not. Behind the Scenes did not sell well.
The poor outcome of the book’s release began a series of negative events in Mrs. Keckley’s life, including the loss of her white clients and thus her formerly successful business. Eventually she retired in Washington D.C. at the National Home for Destitute Colored Women and Children.
While not a great work of literature, I did find it an interesting little read.
2 1/2 stars (out of 5)
Published in 1898