“Grief became my friend, my work:” Mary Todd Lincoln’s Uneasy Union with Memory in LeAnne Howe’s SAVAGE CONVERSATIONS (2019)


  • Stefanie Schäfer




First Lady, Mary Todd Lincoln, motherhood, memory culture, settler colonialism


This essay examines the politics of service vested in the First Lady role and her affective labors by turning to a contemporary fictional representation of Mary Todd Lincoln. In Savage Conversations (2019), LeAnne Howe considers issues involving US national memory, White womanhood, and settler colonial violence. The play imagines Lincoln’s insanity episode in the Bellevue asylum in the 1870s, where, as Lincoln told her doctor, an “Indian” visited her every night, scalping her and wiring her eyelids open. By outlining Mary’s performance of caring widow and her petitioning for compensation for her public service, Howe reveals Mary’s complicity in the Lincoln presidency’s settler violence. The play recalibrates the gendered renditions of (public) service inherent to the narratives of mourning, motherhood, and insanity tied to Mary’s persona and shows the flip side of the care narrative, connecting the long 19th century to the First Lady persona of the present.

Author Biography

Stefanie Schäfer

Stefanie Schäfer is a scholar of North American Studies, Gender Studies and Popular Culture and currently professor of British and North American Media Studies at Marburg University in Germany. Her ongoing research focuses on Cowgirls and First Ladies and has been funded by the EU’s Horizon 2020 program in the project TACOMO (Transatlantic Cowgirl Mobilities). Her second book (habilitation) Yankee Yarns. Storytelling and the Invention of the National Body in Nineteenth-Century American Culture was published with Edinburgh University Press in 2021.




How to Cite

Schäfer, S. “‘Grief Became My Friend, My work:’ Mary Todd Lincoln’s Uneasy Union With Memory in LeAnne Howe’s SAVAGE CONVERSATIONS (2019)”. New American Studies Journal: A Forum, vol. 74, Sept. 2023, https://doi.org/10.18422/74-1391.