Elizabeth Keckley in Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln”

Lincoln film posterIn this crosspost from the Long Civil Rights Movement blog, Alison Shay writes about Elizabeth Keckley’s portrayal in the new film Lincoln. UNC Press published Elizabeth Keckley’s 1868 book Behind the Scenes, Or, Thirty Years a Slave, and Four Years in the White House as part of our DocSouth Books series.

Two of our authors have also commented about the new film. At the NY Times, Kate Masur writes about the disappointingly passive black characters in the film. Harold Holzer is quoted in a Daily Telegraph article about criticism of the voice Daniel Day-Lewis chose for his portrayal of Lincoln.


On Friday Steven Spielberg’s much-anticipated new film, Lincoln, opened in theaters across the United States. Covering Lincoln’s final months in office, the film portrays the actions he took to end the war and abolish slavery.

Spielberg based more than 40 of his characters on historical figures; included in this group is Elizabeth Keckley, an enslaved woman whose 1868 book (Behind the Scenes, Or, Thirty Years a Slave, and Four Years in the White House) UNC Press and the UNC Library republished last year through the DocSouth Books program.

Keckley, born a slave in Virginia in 1818, suffered through decades of slavery’s horrors, including beatings and a sexual assault. Eventually, she raised enough money to purchase freedom for herself and her son, moving to Washington, D.C. to work as a seamstress. A close confidante of Mary Todd Lincoln, for whom she sewed, Keckley eventually published Behind the Scenes both as a slave narrative and a memoir of her relationship with the First Lady. The book also attempted to defend the sale of Mrs. Lincoln’s dresses to help solve Lincoln’s financial problems.

Unfortunately, negative public reaction to the book’s revelations of Mrs. Lincoln’s private feelings and financial troubles caused Keckley’s dressmaking business to fail and the Lincoln family to cut off ties with her. But Behind the Scenes remains an important view into the Lincolns’ life and the White House of the 1860s, quoted to this day by biographers.

Behind the Scenes, by Elizabeth KeckleyTo learn more about Keckley, check out this summary from the Documenting the American South web site. To see a sketch of a gown Keckley created for Lincoln, check out this page from the Smithsonian Institution.

You can purchase Behind the Scenes in print-on-demand paperback or electronic format from UNC Press. DocSouth Books, a collaboration between UNC Press and UNC Library, brings classic works from the digital library of Documenting the American South back into print and makes them available as downloadable e-books or print-on-demand publications.

You may also be interested in checking out Slate‘s recent article comparing historical photos of the real people to pictures of the actors who portray them in the Lincoln film.