Friday, November 04, 2011

The "Gaybe" question revisited

Six years after its appearance, C.A. Tripp’s book “The Intimate Abraham Lincoln” (2005) still ranks as the most serious and inclusive roundup of arguments for the homosexuality of the 16th president of the United States. Initially the volume elicited a frosty reception from the community of Lincoln scholars, though today, in 2011, a couple of cracks may be detected in the edifice of nonreception.

Before turning to these, let us examine one of the assertions of “new evidence,” something that Tripp did not know about. In 1994, Larry Kramer claimed to have a trump card, a smoking gun in the form of a hitherto unknown Joshua Speed diary, as well as a stash of letters in which Speed writes explicitly about his love affair with Lincoln. The secret pages, which were discovered hidden beneath the floorboards of the old store where the two men lived, now are said to reside in a private collection in Davenport, Iowa.

Kramer refused to share any portions of these documents, and five years later he abandoned the claim. What became of the purported diary and papers is unknown. This debacle has not prevented him from engaging in further speculations to the effect that Lincoln's murder may have been a kind of gay-bashing, resulting from a kinky sexual set-up. "There's some evidence that shows that Speed presented Booth to Lincoln as a 'present' and the young Booth, who was a gorgeous man, was virulently homophobic, like the men who killed Matthew Shepard," he stated. "If the murder turns out to have had a homosexual underpinning, that's going to freak everybody out."

I turn now to two more serious contributions, both by respected scholars. One comes from John Stauffer, chair of Harvard University’s Department of American Civilization. In his book “Giants: The Parallel Lives of Frederick Douglas and Abraham Lincoln,” he supports the thesis that Joshua Speed was, as he states, “Lincoln’s soul mate and the love of his life.” In a subsequent article in the scholarly journal "Reviews of American History," Stauffer wrote,“In light of what we know about romantic friendship at the time, coupled with the facts surrounding Speed’s and Lincoln’s friendship, there is no reason to suppose they weren’t physically intimate at some point during their four years of sleeping together in the same small bed, long after Lincoln could afford a bed of his own. To ignore this, as most scholars do, is to pretend that same-sex carnal relationships were abnormal. It thus presumes a dislike or fear about such relationships, reflecting a presentist and homophobic perspective.”

This assertion seems to amount to a definite “maybe.” At all events, Stauffer doesn’t seem to have any new evidence, as the Speed connection was one of the chief features of Tripp’s book.

There is also a second respected scholar, the octogenarian William Hanchett, professor of history emeritus at UC San Diego. In an article in the “Lincoln Herald,” Hanchett challenged historians to take Tripp’s book seriously, either confirming it or refuting it. Hanchett claimed to break new ground when he alluded to the Memo books kept by Lincoln’s law partner William Herndon. Whether these really add new information is uncertain.

The most recent scholarly contribution is “Was Abraham Lincoln Gay?” in the "Journal of Homosexuality," 57:9 (2010), pp. 1124-57. This article, by Michael Ferguson, collects evidence that male same-sex behavior was more common in mid-19th century American than has usually been assumed. Yet the evidence is circumstantial, and application to Lincoln is tenuous.

Thus we are left with the sense that we have not moved much beyond Tripp’s book of six years ago. It may be that the coming years will see some real advance, but that is impossible to know now.



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