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The Mentelles: Mary Todd Lincoln, Henry Clay, and the Immigrant Family Who Educated Antebellum Kentucky

by Randolph Paul Runyon

Availablecloth$40.00s 978-0-8131-7538-6
280 pages  Pubdate: 05/04/2018  6 x 9  14 b/w images

Though they were not, as Charlotte claimed, refugees from the French Revolution, Augustus Waldemar and Charlotte Victoire Mentelle undoubtedly felt like exiles in their adopted hometown of Lexington, Kentucky—a settlement that was still a frontier town when they arrived in 1798. Through the years, the cultured Parisian couple often reinvented themselves out of necessity, but their most famous venture was Mentelle’s for Young Ladies, an intellectually rigorous school that attracted students from around the region and greatly influenced its most well-known pupil, Mary Todd Lincoln.

Drawing on newly translated materials and previously overlooked primary sources, Randolph Paul Runyon explores the life and times of the important but understudied pair in this intriguing dual biography. He illustrates how the Mentelles’ origins and education gave them access to the higher strata of Bluegrass society even as their views on religion, politics, and culture kept them from feeling at home in America. They were intimates of statesman Henry Clay, and one of their daughters married into the Clay family, but like other immigrant families in the region, they struggled to survive.

Throughout, Runyon reveals the Mentelles as eloquent chroniclers of crucial moments in Ohio and Kentucky history, from the turn of the nineteenth century to the eve of the Civil War. They rankled at the baleful influence of conservative religion on the local college, the influence of whiskey on the local population, and the scandal of slavery in the land of liberty. This study sheds new light on the lives of a remarkable pair who not only bore witness to key events in early American history, but also had a singular impact on the lives of their friends, their students, and their community.

Randolph Paul Runyon, professor emeritus at Miami University and a native of Kentucky, is the author of Order in Disorder (on Montaigne), Intratextual Baudelaire, Ghostly Parallels: Robert Penn Warren and the Lyric Poetic Sequence, The Braided Dream: Robert Penn Warren’s Late Poetry, Delia Webster and the Underground Railroad, and books on La Fontaine, Montesquieu, and Raymond Carver.

Randolph Paul Runyon has done a laudable service in researching the primary sources related to the American and French sides of the Mentelle family. Their story provides a window into early Lexington that adds greatly to our knowledge of the community and its storied past. -- Lindsey Apple, author of The Family Legacy of Henry Clay

Randolph Runyon brings to life in The Mentelles the trials, tribulations and contributions of an exceptional French couple who emigrated to the United States in the early years of the republic. Previously the story of Charlotte and Waldemar Mentelle has been little more than a footnote in the lives of Kentucky luminaries such as Mary Todd Lincoln and Henry Clay. Now in a biography based on new material the story of the couple’s emigration, their life first in Ohio, then in Kentucky adds to our understanding of many aspects of social history, especially that of education. -- Jean H. Baker, author of Mary Todd Lincoln: A Biography