Multi-Media Review: Abraham and Mary Lincoln: A House Divided (PBS) : CWT

Abraham and Mary Lincoln: A House Divided, directed by David Grubin, written by Geoffrey C. Ward and David Grubin. Airs on PBS in three two-hour parts on February 19, 20, and 21. Check local listings for times.

He was born in a log cabin. He had little formal education. What he knew about the world beyond the backwoods of his boyhood he knew because he read widely and diligently. Despite the odds against his ever attaining worldly success, he grew up to be a renowned lawyer, politician, and eventually president of the United States. Abraham Lincoln was clearly the quintessential self-made American man.

That much is true, but it neglects one critical factor in his dramatic rise from log house to White House: his wife. The soon-to-be-aired PBS documentary Abraham and Mary Lincoln: A House Divided maintains that Mary was a key to her husband’s success. Though their personalities often clashed, the disparate halves of this seemingly misfit couple complemented each other in important ways. The Lincoln success was truly a team effort.

Part of the popular American Experience series, Abraham and Mary Lincoln is produced in a style familiar to viewers of the PBS and A&E biographies of people who lived before the days of motion pictures and color photography. Lots of black-and-white photos and illustrations show up on the screen. Color comes from camera pans across modern landscapes that suggest the 19th century, shots of artifacts and documents in period settings, and footage of re-created action (with the appearance of modern people on screen tastefully minimized–no faces). Breaking up the fine narrative are words of the Lincolns read by actors, and interviews with some of the world’s most respected Lincoln scholars.

In the end, Abraham and Mary Lincoln: A House Divided gives a concise yet well-rounded look at one of the most important and intriguing couples in American history. Burdened with terrible personal and relationship troubles, family tragedies, and powerful, uncontrollable outside forces that could have torn any couple apart, the Lincolns managed to rise above it all and leave a legacy of wide-reaching accomplishments for the ages. You might say their marriage was a house divided that stood.

Carl Zebrowski

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