Wednesday, February 02, 2005

Historical role models

We now have the monograph of Clarence Tripp, "The Intimate World of Abraham Lincoln," positing a major gay component in the life of our sixteenth president. I was a friend and admirer of Tripp, an independent scholar who deserves great credit for doggedly pursuing and completing this task during the closing years of his life. Later I may comment on the book and the degree to which it seems convincing. For the moment though, let me proceed on the premise that, as preliminary reviews and responses suggest, Tripp’s case remains moot.

Why would one want to write and publish such a volume—and why would the public want to read it? To be sure everything we can learn about Lincoln, arguably our greatest president, is of interest. However, there is a larger pattern of motivation. Many in the gay community find comfort in enlarging the stock of gay and lesbian figures known from history.

The pattern is not limited to that group. Let me illustrate this from James Joyce, who some eighty years ago detected this habit of conscripting heroes among the Irish. The Calypso chapter of "Ulysses" contains several parodic catalogues, adhering to the principle of chaotic enumeration identified by Leo Spitzer. In one of these catalogues Joyce recites an honor role of some eighty-eight notable Irish figures. Here we find the legendary heroes Cuchulain and Conn of hundred battles, but also such recent figures as Captain Boycott, Wolfe Tone, and Henry Joy McCracken. More surprising are Herodotus, Julius Caesar, Buddha, “Brian Confucius,” Paracelsus, Charlemagne, Benjamin Franklin, and Napoleon. We also encounter the Queen of Sheba and Cleopatra.

That last name rings a bell. That Cleopatra was black has been recently been argued by a number of scholars, notably my late colleague at Hunter College: John Henrik Clarke. Today this ethnic identification is widely accepted among African Americans, while others, at least those who have pondered the issue, remain skeptical.

Then there is the curious case of Christopher Columbus. A good many years ago Salvador de Madariaga proposed that the admiral, whose background remains obscure, was actually a converso, a person of Jewish ancestry. Cecil Roth, a respected Jewish historian, endorsed that conclusion. Some Jewish scholars continue to support it today. Yet the widespread deprecation of Columbus on the occasion of the sesquicentennial in 1992 served to curb the enthusiasm. Nonetheless, the figure of Columbus was still attractive enough for a Norwegian scholar to propose that he had actually been born in Norway!

So the tendency of gays to assemble rosters of historical role models finds parallels in similar endeavors stemming from a number of ethnic groups, notably Irish, African Americans, and Jews. The general principle seems clear. Groups that have been historically discriminated against experience a need to reassure themselves, and the host society as well, of their worthiness. Compiling such lists of role models is one way of doing so.

Gays have plenty of heroes already, from Socrates and Alexander to Michelangelo, Frederick the Great, and Walt Whitman. Lesbians may refer, e.g., to Sappho, Queen Christina, Emily Dickinson, and Gertrude Stein. Why add another name to the list—namely Lincoln? Of course, if Tripp’s case is transparently evident, it is a simple matter of acknowledging the truth. But it does not seem so evident.

Thus far the only president thought to have been homosexual was James Buchanan, a dandy whose administration (1857-61) was undistinguished. (Yet I have doubts about Buchanan’s gayness too.) Adding a vigorous, manly president to the lavender roster would be an achievement. And it may be that over time independent observers will come to acknowledge Lincoln’s bisexuality (and this is really all that can be claimed).

Whatever the outcome of the controversy regarding our sixteenth president, the thought patterns that motivate the assembling of these categories of “ethnic conscripts” remain of interest.