STARRED REVIEW
February 2017

A sister’s labor of love

I have never thought of 13 as a particularly unlucky number, but in the wee hours of April 14, 2015, I found out just how inauspicious it could be. I was peacefully asleep in London when the phone rang.
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I have never thought of 13 as a particularly unlucky number, but in the wee hours of April 14, 2015, I found out just how inauspicious it could be. I was peacefully asleep in London when the phone rang.

Beverly Louise Brown and Elizabeth Brown Pryor

Beverly Louise Brown (left) with
her late sister, Elizabeth Brown Pyror.

After a few seconds, I comatosely pulled myself out of bed to answer it, assuming that my 92-year-old mother had taken a turn for the worse. The voice at the other end of the line was sobbing, “I’m so sorry, I’m so sorry.” “Is it mother?” I asked. “No,” came the reply, “Elizabeth has been killed.”

On the afternoon of April 13, my sister, Elizabeth Brown Pryor, had been driving home from the dentist down a quiet street in Richmond, Virginia, when a manic-​depressive driver, who thought he could fly his car, rear-ended her beloved Audi TT at 107 miles per hour. She was killed instantly. He walked away unscathed. 

When I arrived in Richmond, I found her study stacked high with books on Abraham Lincoln, piles of the corrected pages of Six Encounters with Lincoln: A President Confronts Democracy and Its Demons and a phalanx of flash drives, where she had backed up each chapter and painstakingly stored her transcriptions of original documents. 

The previous January she had jubilantly called me in London to announce that she had finally finished her work on “the tyrant Lincoln.” It had been a long, slow gestation that had begun with a chance discovery in 2008. On the day she received the Lincoln Prize for Reading the Man: A Portrait of Robert E. Lee Through His Private Letters, she had spent the morning doing research at the New-York Historical Society. When she arrived back at the flat where we were staying to change for dinner (into my new Armani jacket), she was ecstatic. Not in anticipation of receiving such a singular honor—although she was, of course, delighted to receive it—but because she had just discovered an unpublished drawing of Abraham Lincoln sketched in a letter written home during the Civil War. As she put it, “There sits Abraham Lincoln, with a familiarity almost unimaginable today, legs folded and tall hat in place, looking for all the world like a cricket perched on the nation’s front porch.” 

What had been a brief encounter in 1862 between the president and one of his military guards turned out to not only be a fascinating tale, but a springboard for investigating a neglected but significant aspect of Lincoln’s administration. Over the next seven years Elizabeth submerged herself in the letters, diaries and newspaper articles of the 1860s, carefully piecing together six episodes that explored Lincoln’s difficulty in managing a republic. Her own quarter-century career in the State Department gave her a unique perspective on how slowly the wheels of government turn and how our Founding Fathers’ insistence on a balance of power could cause the cogs of those wheels to lock in an unwelcome impasse. Few other Civil War historians could marry personal experience with scholarly insight in such a compelling way. As she was fond of saying, she had lived “-real-time” history. It was her unique ability to tie the various threads of her life experience together and reflect upon the lessons that she had learned which allowed her to render such a vivid picture of 19th-century American history.  

When I found the manuscript of Six Encounters after her death, the text, footnotes and bibliography were virtually ready for publication. She had meticulously highlighted in yellow any quotations or page numbers that needed to be rechecked. Only the preface was missing. I undertook the task of checking the footnotes, quotations and bibliography. She had ordered four or five photographs, but left no list of illustrations. I only knew that she had once told me that she wanted “a lot of pictures.” Luckily, as an art historian, ordering photographs is one thing I know how to do. As I read through the manuscript, I tried to visualize what she was describing and set about to find appropriate images. She may have never intended to illustrate the party given at the White House in February 1862, but when I found an illustration of it in Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, I knew that it would be the perfect accompaniment to her account of the event. I was also able to unearth several drawings of Lincoln that were virtually unknown in the great canon of Lincoln scholarship. 

Elizabeth and I and our sister, Peggy, grew up listening to my mother’s tales of the Civil War with rapt attention. Not that mother herself had been around then, but as a child she spent hours sitting on the front porch in Terre Haute, Indiana, listening to the tales of her great-grandfather, John J. Kenley, who saw action at the battles of Shiloh, Corinth, Vicksburg and Mobile. The house was full of Civil War heirlooms, including the walnut bookcase made for his wedding in 1863, the fork from his mess kit and a pile of letters, one of which Elizabeth quotes in Six Encounters. Yet, as she often said, it was not the “stuff” that got her hooked on the Civil War, but mother’s storytelling ability. Mother died just four months after Elizabeth, but for seven years she had been able to follow the progress of the book from beginning to end, listening to the chapters as they were written. 

Taking on the task of polishing Elizabeth’s manuscript and seeing it through publication was a labor of love that took me outside my own comfort zone of Italian Renaissance art. For a year I gave up my own scholarship as I grappled with learning an entirely new field of history and cast of characters. I was acutely aware of needing to stay true to Elizabeth’s vision and not imposing my own views. I simply wanted to make certain the facts were correct and do her hard work justice. I have no words to express adequately my admiration for her achievement as a historian. I only know that more than once the sheer beauty of her prose brought tears to my eyes and that I miss her with all my heart every hour of every day.

 

This article was originally published in the February 2017 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.

Six Encounters with Lincoln
By Elizabeth Brown Pryor
Viking

ISBN 9780670025909

Get the Book

Six Encounters with Lincoln

Six Encounters with Lincoln

By Elizabeth Brown Pryor
Viking
ISBN 9780670025909

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