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What Stuff!

The Intimate World of Abraham Lincoln
By C.A. Tripp
Edited by Lewis Gannett
(Free Press, 343 pp., $27)

Just about everyone has claimed Lincoln at one time or another--Republicans, Democrats, Christians, freethinkers, integrationists, segregationists. It is not surprising that someone else with a feeling of possession would step forward. But gay? Abraham Lincoln? How would you ever know? And why would you ever care? Surely there is no president whose sexuality we less want to think about. Reverence for the man is so deep that at times it borders on beatification. Somehow, you would be more willing to think about William McKinley's intimate life, or even Calvin Coolidge's.

Yet the virtue of this little book is to get you wondering. The late C.A. Tripp, a clinical therapist and popular writer on homosexuality, became fascinated with the question in the early 1990s and embarked on a long, obsessive quest through the minutiae of the massive biographical record on Lincoln to prove his theory. That was the decade that saw gay history flourishing in the academy, producing some sophisticated and influential interpretations. Tripp was drawn not to those works but rather to an older mode, which might be called posthumous outing. Instead of charting the development of homosexual subcultures or the impact of McCarthyism on American gays or the distinctions between homosexual acts (which have been around forever) and a full-blown gay identity (which is a relatively recent phenomenon), Tripp was determined to rescue a hidden gay hero.

He had plenty of material to search. In the manner of all bookish nineteenth-century people, Lincoln produced a huge corpus of writing, private and public. Letter-writing was the medium for ordinary life, as political writing and oratory would later be the expressions of political genius. He wrote letters constantly and profusely. His correspondents held on to them as they did to anyone's letters, tied into packets as tokens of relationships still alive or mementos of those now defunct in what was already, by the middle decades of the nineteenth century, a society of tremendous mobility.

Once Lincoln became important, these materials became all the more precious and made their way into archives and biographies. Later a cottage industry of reminiscence developed. Political cronies, old friends, and passing acquaintances published their recollections. The first biographer, Lincoln's law partner William Herndon, started to collect details of the life on the day of the funeral and did not stop for twenty-five years.

Yet Herndon, having spent a quarter-century on an excavation as exhaustive as an archaeological dig, concluded that Lincoln was essentially unknowable. The massive corpus of facts stood, in the end, before "a profound mystery--an enigma--a sphinx--a riddle … incommunicative--silent--reticent--secretive--having profound policies--and well laid--deeply studied plans." The "profound mystery" was a conceit of the time in this age of Egyptology and Orientalism (Herndon published his Life of Lincoln in 1889) as well as a self-aggrandizing device with which the bosom friend and unmatched fact-collector fended off rivals. But the legend of Lincoln the enigma proved durable, winding its way down through the early twentieth century and turning biographers into gumshoes bent on cracking the case. Did the death of his first love, Ann Rutledge, really break his heart? Was he clinically depressed?

Modern historians have found less to puzzle over, perhaps because their questions are larger. We still may not know the full story of Lincoln's feelings for Ann Rutledge, or whether he really did split rails. But his evolution from garden-variety political hack into the Great Emancipator now seems of a piece with the development of anti-slavery politics and the wrenching changes brought about by secession and war. The man was magnificent, a genius, but he was of his time, not above his time: a leader who concentrated within himself every available social and cultural resource to face a cataclysm and envision something beyond it. The transformation of the wisecracking, melancholy country politico into the author of the Second Inaugural, the canny commander-in-chief, and the "Marse Linkum" beloved of the freed-people now seems not so much an enigma as a miracle born of a specific historical alchemy.

But The Intimate World returns to the older realm of mystery. Tripp picks up the esprit of those earlier gumshoe researchers: unencumbered by the inhibitions of their day, he sees himself picking up hastily discarded clues--once too hot to handle--and venturing down paths where they were loath to tread. Like those blindered police detectives in a mystery who are too dim-witted or corruptible to pursue their leads, his predecessors are the foils against which Tripp sets himself up as the daring historian-detective who defies orthodox procedure. And what Tripp finds is a man living in a closet. The biographers, he insists, knew it all along, or could have known it, and covered it up.

Chief among the culprits is the folksy Carl Sandburg, author of one of the twentieth century's most popular biographies of Lincoln, who in 1924 alluded gently to the man's "streaks of lavender and spots soft as May violets." Tripp flogs the passage for a confession of intent, making much of the proximity of the lavender and violets to Sandburg's mention of Lincoln's "tough physical shanks and large sockets" and "loins and tissues." There is indeed something odd and significant about the remark, although Tripp doesn't notice; Sandburg, who was writing in the 1920s, would have been well aware of the language of "pansies" and the color code of purple already widely disseminated in his own city of Chicago, where there was a thriving gay scene. Tripp also makes much of Sandburg's conclusion to the book's preface: "month by month in stacks and bundles of fact and legend, I found invisible companionships that surprised me." Invisible companionships? Was Sandburg, writing at the far end of living knowledge of the man, dropping a broad hint?

The case for Lincoln's same-sex love, those "invisible companionships," rests mainly on his relations with two men: Joshua Speed, his housemate for four years in Illinois, and David V. Derickson, a middle-aged captain in the president's bodyguard. Tripp leads with the Derickson "affair": its curiosities are less easily explained away and it has received short shrift from previous writers--omitted, passed over, or, if Tripp is right, hidden away. The muckraking journalist Ida Tarbell, who followed Herndon's book a few years later with one of her own, dug up Derickson's reminiscences from his obscure hometown Pennsylvania newspaper in 1888. Derickson's story was in most ways a familiar tale of Lincoln's kindly intimacies, democratic manners, love of talk and company. But there is an added intensity to his portrait of the president.

Lincoln apparently took to Derickson from the moment they met. He became a fixture in the president's daily routine, breakfasting with him, gallivanting around Washington in the official carriage, and at the end of the day accompanying him back to the summer White House, the family's cottage on the grounds of the Soldiers' Home five miles out of town. Lincoln introduced him to the top brass, surprising some of the mighty, he noted coyly, when the president presented the humble captain to generals on well-nigh equal terms. Lincoln explained the military situation to him, read aloud telegrams from field commanders, and confided his perplexities about affairs of state. When Lincoln went out to walk with little Tad, it was Derickson, and Derickson alone, who accompanied them.

One could minimize this Forrest Gump-ish yarn of a simple man's importance to the great if it were not for a gratuitous--and thus more reliable--recollection buried in an obscure history of his Pennsylvania regiment, written by one Thomas Chamberlin, who served during the war as Derickson's commanding officer. In chronicling the regiment's duties in Washington, Chamberlin, too, tapped the broad vein of recollections of Lincoln's homey felicities. Lincoln was easy and genial with the men, he recounted, so much so that one of them, Derickson, became a constant companion, even spending the night with the president in the same bed when Mrs. Lincoln was gone: "it is said," Chamberlin remarked jauntily, "--making use of his Excellency's night-shirt!"

In 1895, when Chamberlin published the account, the exclamation would have been taken as a mark of comic incongruity. But a much earlier source--this one a Washington political wife's diary of 1862--tilts toward scandal, not silliness. "Tish says," this woman wrote, referring to the socialite Letitia McKean, "`there is a Bucktail soldier here devoted to the president, drives with him, and when Mrs. L. is not home, sleeps with him.' What stuff!" Onto the stuff Tripp piles more stuff: Lincoln countermanded an order to transfer the company; Mary Lincoln absented herself from home just when Lincoln was getting close to the captain; Derickson supposedly had the real lowdown on whether or not Lincoln ever split rails. It is flimsy, but then there is that matter of sharing the bed.

As for Joshua Speed, Lincoln met him in 1837, when he moved from New Salem, Illinois to the state capital of Springfield. Lincoln was a penniless first-term legislator. Speed was proprietor of the general store. In his long-after-the-fact recollection, lightning struck the day he spotted the lanky down-at-the-heels customer who came in to buy a bed. "I have a large room with a double bed up-stairs, which you are very welcome to share with me," Speed recalled in the gimcracky vernacular, replete with verbatim dialogue, that is common to Lincoln reminiscences. "`Up-stairs,' said I, pointing to a pair of winding stairs.…He took his saddle-bags on his arm, went up stairs, set them down on the floor, and came down with the most changed countenance. Beaming with pleasure he exclaimed, `Well, Speed, I am moved!'" Lincoln stayed at Speed's for four years.

Whether they actually remained in the same room and the same bed is not clear--Tripp assumes they did. But they certainly became close friends, privy to each other's family affairs, longings, courtships, and love lives. Speed introduced Lincoln to Mary Todd, the daughter of a prosperous Kentucky merchant who was staying in Springfield with her married sister. It was, in worldly terms, an auspicious match for a country boy, but neither party entered into it without ambivalence. Speed was Lincoln's close confidant throughout an engagement marked by Lincoln's doubts and the Todd family's disapproval. Speed, in turn, confided his worries about his own imminent marriage. The men wrote loving letters to each other long after they went their separate ways, sometimes admonitory, sometimes peeved, sometimes wistful, but always tender. Their intimacy and their lasting feeling for each other serve for Tripp as illustrations of a fundamental erotic stratagem: "how bisexual men often support each other's heterosexual efforts in a spirit of being helpful, yet also as a way to stay close by and fully informed of every move."

Tripp habitually falls back on such supposed eternal verities about homosexuality. The propositions allow him to infer helter-skelter, wrenching the evidence in line to make the case. Thus a letter from Speed to Lincoln that lacks any personal content is interpreted as an ingenious cover-up: "it is precisely this kind of impersonal recounting of some irrelevant bit of news that is often resorted to by distraught lovers who are contending with some strain." Speed's profuse sentimental testimony of love for his bride masks his true feelings for Lincoln: the professions of feeling were "a highly suspect move in view of what is well understood in sex research … from one whose heterosexual commitment was shaky from the outset." The hard fact that Speed himself sometimes took pains to put the relationship into perspective--as a friendship between two single men--also serves as proof of a cover-up: "his basic mode of defense was not only to act as if he and Lincoln were less close than they really were, but to send people like Herndon down the wrong path whenever possible."

Tripp emerges as a curious figure in his own book: hectoring and overbearing, yet somehow appealing in his wacky tendentiousness. It turns out that he was a close friend of Alfred Kinsey. He became a convert to the Kinsey project after reading the master's Sexual Behavior in the Human Male. James H. Jones's life of Kinsey recounts a maniacally empirical Kinsey moment in which Tripp was the principal mover. Kinsey's data had led him to believe that the urology literature was incorrect in assuming that the male orgasm consisted of "dribbling" rather than "squirting." To settle the dispute, Kinsey decided to film two thousand men--a standard big-picture Kinsey sample--masturbating to climax.

But where to get the subjects? Enter Tripp, who knew the New York gay scene and volunteered to set up the experiment. He enlisted the help of a beautiful boy hustler. The prostitute would be paid for every man he recruited, and each volunteer would also make two dollars. On the night scheduled for filming, the line stretched around the block. When the photographer panicked because his carpet would be ruined, Tripp cheerfully put down sheets. The films showed that most of the two thousand dribbled rather than squirted. And a Kinseyan elation over an empirical point nailed down--eureka!--no matter how extraneous to the human venture, erotic or anything else, still resonates in Tripp's book.

The Kinseyan conception of sexuality is most evident in Tripp's treatment of Lincoln's boyhood. Lincoln's gawkiness before he reached the age of ten, Tripp insists, signaled an early puberty, which Kinsey "proved" inclined boys toward homosexual experiences: "the boy who becomes adolescent at 10 or 11 has not had as many years to build up inhibitions against sexual activity." The point is elaborated at great length, bolstered by Kinsey's graphs and by contemporaneous testimonies to Lincoln's awkwardness around girls. Tripp couples the puberty argument to Lincoln's often recounted love of raunchy jokes and stories. The smoking gun is a doggerel parody "found on the road" in Lincoln's neighborhood in 1829 and attributed to the twenty-year-old local scholar and wit: the poem concerns two boys who marry and produce a "jelly baby," a slang term for the imagined results of homosexual intercourse. "Something significant is gained from seeing the connections between Lincoln's basic biology … and a sex-mindedness that dominated his sense of humor and much of his life," Tripp concludes.

Tripp possesses enough historical training to know that evidence cannot be taken at face value, but he usually takes that principle as license to beat the sources for the confession that he is seeking. The third degree is glaring when he goes after each of the reminiscences that anchor the Derickson case and the Speed case. These sources are recollections, with the reorderings and rearrangements that memories entail. Both Speed and Derickson maximized the significance of the events that they described--if in fact those events did occur. Did Lincoln really talk over "the business of the day" with Derickson? Perhaps he did, in an age when the line between officialdom and private life was permeable, when the president received couriers in his bedroom, and (early in the war) still traveled around the capital unguarded and mulled over the difficulties of the war with many visitors.

Or perhaps the events themselves were a fabrication or a distortion of moments long past and, if the truth be told, only faintly remembered. This possibility occurs only in passing to Tripp, who takes the recollections as documentary truth. Thus he sees Speed's 1884 account of meeting Lincoln as a telltale event full of "sticking points" that indicate immediate erotic attraction--"On close examination the sexual implications become unmistakable.…Within moments of Lincoln arriving on that borrowed horse Joshua Speed evidently targeted him as a desirable bed partner"--as if Speed were reporting from a time-traveling capsule.

If Lincoln was gay, what about the women in his life? Tripp joins others in dismissing the tale of Lincoln's lost love for Ann Rutledge, who died in 1835, as a fabrication originating with Herndon, who was looking for romance to embellish the frontier years. He is then left with the rather more substantial fact of Lincoln's marriage. Here the book shifts from obsessive investigation to slashing denunciation, with a portrayal of Mary Todd Lincoln and family life at the White House that sounds like the Arkansas state troopers' version of the Clintons. Mary Todd Lincoln certainly was known to everyone as a difficult, temperamental, and troubled woman (but also, on occasion, as charming). She was not blessed with extraordinary powers to transmute either her mistakes or her sufferings into something larger; and she had an abundance of both.

It is not necessary to sentimentalize the woman to see that she endured much. A Southern newcomer to a wartime capital, she lived essentially alone. She tried to invent a role for herself as official hostess, but ran up against Washington society's disdain for a backwoods outsider. She fended off rumors that she was a Confederate spy, worried about her large Confederate family and many male relatives who were Confederate officers, and fretted--not incorrectly, it turned out--about her husband's safety. Most important, she lost her twelve-year-old son Willie to illness in 1862, the second of her four adored children to die. (Eddie died in 1850.) So if, the next year, Tripp has her acting like a crazy woman in a public incident when she felt she was pushed out of the official limelight by a woman of lesser rank, a more understanding writer might have suggested some reasons why. Instead Tripp portrays her as a harpy and a shrew, avaricious, cunning, mean, vengeful, and parasitic on her husband's good nature and high position. The rendition is not just dumb and sexist, it is also sneering and misogynist.

The problem with scorning historical method, as Tripp does here and everywhere, is not that he gets things wrong. In fact, he is often a stickler for facts-- or at least the ones he likes. The problem is that he is so ungenerous, so small-minded. The compulsive quest for the "truth" of Lincoln's homosexuality blinds him to the great expanses of life that lie outside his exceedingly straitened notion of sex. The nadir comes in the chapter on Lincoln and religion, where he ponders the contradictions between Lincoln's early freethinking impulses and the magnificent cadences of the Second Inaugural, steeped in Calvinist conceptions of a vengeful God. "What in the world could have made such a change in Lincoln's mind and outlook … from the mildness of His image in 1862 to this angry Almighty less than three years later?" he queries. Could it have been the deaths of more than six hundred thousand Americans, along with that of his favorite child?

In his very naivete, however, Tripp compiles a dossier of ambiguities--not truths, but ambiguities--worth considering. He wants to trumpet the unassailable truth of Lincoln's homosexuality--or, in his more nuanced moments, what he implies to be bisexuality. His bullish proclamations are easily countered, and not just by the heterosexists and the homophobes whose attacks he predicts will result from his revelations. But he puts forward some oddities. Too insubstantial in themselves to prove anything about Lincoln, they do add to a larger body of evidence concerning sex before sexuality--that is, bodily life before the advent of the modern notion of an all-encompassing state that lies at the core of identity.

It mostly comes down to this: what did it really mean for people to sleep together in small beds? The practice was habitual, a convention of friendship and comradeship. Travelers piled in with each other at inns; siblings routinely shared beds; women friends often slept with each other as readily on an overnight visit as they took their tea together in the kitchen--and sometimes displaced husbands to do so. Civil War soldiers "spooned" for comfort and warmth (and Civil War re-enactors now do the same for accuracy's sake). Nursemaids might sleep with their small charges to keep them company and keep them quiet.

Historians who care about such things argue about them. Some insist that it is anachronistic to read back our own post-Freudian assumptions into an age when eros was more contained; and that the evidence tells us that it was masturbation, not same-sex contact, that was the real taboo. Victorian women's frequent expressions of longing for lips, hands, and kisses signify, in this reading, permissiveness for a range of sensuous experience that lay outside the genital contact we now define as sex.

The view has a tinge of the old 1960s celebration of the polymorphous perverse: sex was more playful, more fun, when it was less focused. Especially in terms of the history of women, this interpretation has the advantage of specifying some distinctly female response to a sexual culture that was largely male-defined and still inextricably tied to procreation. For women, sensuality may well have been more alluring than genital sexuality in a culture in which sex was not so much something a man and a woman did with each other as something a man did to a woman. But even for men, bodily intimacy surely had broader connotations than we give it today.

There are also historians who cannot let go of the possibility that at least some people did in bed exactly what people have always done in bed. It is due to them that we now pretty much accept that Walt Whitman, when he wrote in his day journals about his encounters with men in New York in the 1850s, was speaking of something palpably sexual: "Dec 28 [1861]--Saturday night Mike Ellis--wandering at the cor of Lexington av. & 32d St.--took him home to 150 37th street,--4th story back room.…Thursday evening April 17th '62 The hour or two with Henry W. Moore, evening, in Broadway, walking up--and in Bleecker street.--the brief 15 minutes, night July 18th '62." There was a time when this interpretation of the great poet was treated as clumsy and obsessive--ridiculous to portray the artist of "Leaves of Grass" and Lincoln's magnificent elegist in "When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloomed" as a wildly, even obscenely sexual gay man cruising and screwing in random crevices of New York. Yet by now the image of Whitman as sexual adventurer and world-class hustler has immeasurably enriched both our understanding of nineteenth-century New York and our reading of his poetry. Try reading the wonderful "City of Eros" after dipping into Whitman's journals, which chart his meetings with strange men with the assiduity that nineteenth-century farmers devoted to recording daily weather conditions and crop yields.

As for Lincoln, what was he doing in bed with Captain Derickson? Tripp has him growing up in a backcountry Midwest where raunchy jokes were made about men screwing men. It is possible that in a society where genital sex was understood as an essentially male matter--penetration and climax--some might have engaged furtively in mutual masturbation or even penetration in a rough, no-nonsense, practical sort of way: a homespun American version of the ethos of the English public school. Sailors did just this; and it was this kind of sex that a young Southern aristocrat spoke of in 1826 (to his chum James Hammond, the future secessionist) as "poking and punching a writhing Bedfellow with your long fleshen pole--the exquisite touches of which I have often had the honor of feeling." Tripp suggests another variant: "femoral intercourse," or rubbing up against someone else's leg.

Lincoln was certainly no Whitman, poking and punching about with the best of them; nor was he, in the Southerner's manner, an arrogant and rapacious rake. But he was, like the great majority of nineteenth-century men, most comfortable with other men. Both Derickson and Speed would have fit into the Whitman scheme of "camerados" whose ties made up the American demos. The sole fact of those male affinities did not make Lincoln homosexual in the sense that Tripp wants. He married a woman whom he seems to have loved and created a family that was a mainstay of his life. He had much on his mind, to say the least, besides the biological quivering that Tripp equates with homosexual love. Finally we have only conjecture amplified by conjecture; and finally it doesn't matter much. Still, it's what gets you through the night. If Captain Derickson helped the grieving father and the burdened president, we should only be grateful.

Christine Stansell is a professor of history at Princeton. She is writing a book on the history of feminism.