Review by James Dinneen
$15.95, Published by Coffee House Press, 144 Pages
June, 1876. Mary Todd Lincoln writes in a letter to one Mrs. Bradwell: “The only trouble about me, in all my sorrow and bereavements has been that my mind has always been too clear and remembrances have always been too keen, in the midst of grief.” It’s perfectly regular grieving, but Mrs. Lincoln’s grief was not particularly regular. Just a year before writing, she was put on trial for insanity by her son Robert Todd—her other three sons, like her husband, were all dead. Confined to a sanatorium for four months, she grappled with hallucinations and an opiate addiction while the rest of the country failed at Reconstruction. Knowing all that, “my sorrow and bereavements” is kind of unsatisfying, especially for those of us drawn to the more macabre, tragic, gory strain of American history. It’s not all emancipation and bills of rights; it’s also unchecked slaughter and rapacity. Somehow, Mary’s sober 19th-century epistolary prose doesn’t quite get us there.
This is where Leanne Howe intervenes. In Savage Conversations, a slim book of dramatic verse, Howe imagines a series of phantasmagoric scenes during Mary Todd Lincoln’s months in the Bellevue Place Sanitarium, Batavia, Illinois, 1875. But the purpose of this book is not ultimately to get us to empathize with Mary’s pain as a psychotic, bonneted white woman. Rather, Howe hijacks Mary’s nightmares to resurrect a little-known segment of the hagiographic Lincoln history: in 1862, Abraham Lincoln ordered the simultaneous hanging of 38 Dakota Indians in Minnesota, which Howe’s introduction claims is the largest mass execution in U.S. history. In Savage Conversations, that atrocity produces a specter called Savage Indian who haunts Mary at Bellevue Place. They’re joined by the character of The Rope, a “merciless truth-teller” who “seethes” and ties nooses.
(There’s a way in which reading any historical narrative is a paranormal experience. It involves the resurrected dead, inscrutable characters tortured by long-forgotten concerns, the eerie feeling of recognizing the present in the past and trying not to be doomed to repeat it. But it seems the Lincolns are subject to more of this paranormal re-visitation than most historical figures. Seth Grahame-Smith’s Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter in 2010. George Saunders’s Lincoln in the Bardo in 2017. What is it about the Lincolns? Or is it something about the Civil War in general? Or Reconstruction and its still unfulfilled promises?)
Each night in the sanatorium, Mary and Savage Indian converse. She laments the many tragedies of her life. Sometimes he listens patiently, but most of the time he is an aggressive spirit who wants to open her eyes to the murderous policies supported by her husband’s administration on the Western frontier. In her repeating nightmare/masochistic fantasy, Savage Indian sews her eyelids open with wire. But little changes. She knows her husband was a hero (even if he loved another woman), her country victorious (even if she secretly harbored Confederate sympathies). “Even with your eyes sewn open you still see nothing,” Savage Indian chastises her.
Howe takes Mary seriously when she writes in that letter “my mind has always been too clear.” What if Mary’s well-documented ravings about an Indian coming in the night to sew her eyelids open were not random, but were revelations, prophetic visions granted by the god of history to the “Abused. Abuser”? What message might that ghoulish spirit have carried to Mrs. Lincoln in 1875? To us in 2019?
You’ll find answers in Savage Conversations, but it takes some patience. The conversations are written in a cryptic verse intricate with historical detail. The language sometimes gets weighed down by that history, even as it works to revitalize the usual historical mode. But Savage Conversations is a very short book, and there’s lots of space on the page—on one page the only text is “THE ROPE SEETHES”—and there are moments of incisive, enraged, shudder-inducing language. Take this scene, “THE ROPE SEARCHES FOR HIS LEGACY”:
I know the secret thrill for taut,
Tying up, tying down,
Lashing knot to payload—for kicks,
I am a collar,
I float in the wind like a flag on holidays.
I inspire national pride.
Or here, in “SAVAGE INDIAN LAMENTS”:
This is where I tell you about my friend’s dying.
A death song, he sang it, then we sang together.
On the platform in Mankato, we tried to grasp hands,
shouting to the winds
Mni Sóta Maḳoce, land where the waters reflect the skies,
The land where we die.
Words caught in our throats. Choked by a muscular rope.
You might expect Howe’s paranormal approach would allow some distance from considerations of historical accuracy, but throughout, Howe seems intent on locating this “tribe of ghosts” within a framework of real places and sources. She leans especially on a book called The Insanity File: The Case of Mary Todd Lincoln, where, she writes in her notes, she first read that Mary’s hallucinations included an American Indian spirit. Howe footnotes specific phrases culled from her research, such as Mary referring to Ford’s Theatre as “that dreadful house.” She includes Mary’s letter to her sister. The real-world address of each location is printed at the beginning of each scene. Howe footnotes an allusion to Genesis and a quote from Macbeth. She notes that a single noose from the Dakota hangings is preserved today at Fort Snelling, Minnesota.
But Savage Conversations takes place somewhere in between its sources, between sanity and madness, between then and now, between the living and the dead. It pushes past the limitations of textual sources for telling indigenous history and accounts of insanity. It’s American history at its most despicable, where no one sings “Glory, Glory Hallelujah,” and what remains is only a sadistic melodrama.
James Dinneen is a writer in Brooklyn.