Saturday, February 23, 2013

Book Review: My Thoughts Be Bloody

My Thoughts Be Bloody: The Bitter Rivalry That Led to the Assassination of Abraham Lincoln by Nora Titone (Free Press, 2011) paperback, 484 pages

John Wilkes Booth, the assassin of Abraham Lincoln, is widely known to have been an actor.  In countless books, Booth's career has informed the retelling of the assassination and the surrounding conspiracy.  As an actor, Booth had a knowledge of the theater, which allowed him to plan his access to Lincoln, the timing of his act, and his escape.  More than this, though, there was a theatrical spectacle in the act, from the ambitious nature of the conspiracy to decapitate the government to Booth dramatically leaping from the president's box to the stage and uttering an exit line as he crossed the stage.

Despite his career as an actor and his relationship to the most famous acting family in 19th Century America, this aspect of Booth's life has been less explored by historians of Lincoln's assassination.  Nora Titone's recent joint biography of Edwin Booth and John Wilkes Booth, My Thoughts Be Bloody: The Bitter Rivalry That Led to the Assassination of Abraham Lincoln, is an important corrective.  Chronicling the life of the acting family sired (out of wedlock) by Junius Booth, it begins with the extramarital relationship that forced the senior actor to flee his native England for the United States and then documents the family's up and down fortunes until 1865, when John Wilkes would ignominiously establish the family name in history.

The well-researched and beautifully written book is rather uninterested in the mechanics of the conspiracy and assassination.  Instead, and most helpfully, it offers a vivid presentation of two significant contexts for John Wilkes Booth's life and character: the theater profession and his family dynamics.

Through the Booths, Titone explores the travails of being an actor in early 19th Century America.  As a whole, actors and theater workers had a poor reputation as lower class people with very questionable morals.  Further, it was a risky business financially.  For backstage workers and company actors, the pay was measly, and even for established actors, earnings were directly tied to ticket sales.  To earn enough to support a family generally required extensive touring and mounting multiple different productions in each city, which led Junius Booth and then his sons to be away from home for extended periods of time.

As a young teenager, Edwin Booth began accompanying his father on tour, mostly to ensure that the famous actor was not drinking too much or gambling and losing his earnings.  Thus began Edwin's apprenticeship, watching his father perform famous roles again and again, and then taking ever more important parts in these performances.  After the untimely death of Junius Booth, Edwin became the main breadwinner in the family as an actor, eventually establishing himself in New York City.

While Edwin Booth seemed to have received or learned his father's substantial theatrical gifts, it was the impulsive younger brother John Wilkes Booth who inherited his father's smoldering good looks.  Trading on his close resemblance to his father and on the Booth family name, John Wilkes worked hard to break into acting, with initially frustrating results.  Even as he depended on his brother Edwin's financial support, he chafed under his brother's refusals to help advance his career, which apparently stemmed from a combination of sibling rivalry, a fear of professional competition, and a recognition that John Wilkes was not very talented as an actor.

After the early years where Junius struggled to establish himself in the American theater, the narrative alternatively focuses on Edwin Booth and John Wilkes Booth.  Seemingly required to grow up more quickly, Edwin always seems the more complete figure, while an increasingly frustrated John Wilkes moved around the edges of Edwin's orbit.  While this likely is a reasonable assessment of the relationship between the two brothers and their very different professional experiences as actors, it also betrays that Titone's interest here lies mostly with Edwin, certainly an intriguing and attractive biographical figure in his own right.  This leads to a fascinating dismissive tone toward John Wilkes Booth from both older brother Edwin and historian Titone.

As a result, not all of the psychological motivations of the assassin are fully explored here.  John Wilkes Booth's political sensibilities seem to form haltingly towards supporting the Confederacy, partially in rebellion to Edwin's support of the Union, but his interaction with the Confederate Secret Service is barely mentioned.  Neither is there much attention to the other conspirators, though I must confess that Titone's assessment of Booth Achieves a breakthrough -- here the assassin seems to have a personality compatible with the almost comical misfits assembled for the plot (with the exception of John Surratt, who has always seemed the smartest of the bunch to me).

Instead, what emerges is the story of the petulant, overgrown teenager who wants to prove he is his own man, whether in pursuing acting in a rather haphazard way or in aggressively -- and imprudently -- voicing his political views.  Driven to desperate lengths to make his name, this man eventually assassinates Abraham Lincoln.  This portrait of immaturity and petulance largely matches the personality quirks that John Wilkes Booth displayed during the 12 days after the assassination, as he tried to escape.  It does not, though, offer sufficient insight into Booth's association with the Confederate Secret Service, or more importantly, their willingness to associate with him and trust him as an operative -- and there is strong circumstantial evidence to suggest this is an important part of the story, as Edward Steers and others have argued.

Still, there is much here to recommend.  Despite the depth of research, the book is not dry or cumbersome.  Instead, it offers a compelling narrative more similar to a novel.  If it leaves questions about Booth's motives for assassinating Lincoln, it expertly demystifies key parts of his personality and life.  Instead of an actor playing a part (badly), here is a more nuanced and fleshed-out portrait of the man who would be Brutus.

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