Dishonest Abe, Honest Babe?


By Editors

When you first read the book, were you open to its idea about Lincoln's sexuality, or did you have to be persuaded?

I was fairly open to it. One of the reasons is personal. I've had my run-ins with this tight fraternity of scholars. When I was working on a bio of Mary Todd Lincoln, other scholars refused to let me see the insanity records. I've always felt myself to be an outsider in this group. I suppose I was predisoposed to like Tripp's work and what he was doing. Tripp was a sex researcher and he saw stuff that a heterosexual historian might not see. There's this idea that history is cold dead facts. People don't understand the process of history.
I don't think you have to support every contention that Tripp has made to believe that he does have a case. Again, sexuality in the 19th century is inferential and circumstantial. I guess what these folks [the skeptics] want is a smoking gun or a stained blue dress from the Gap.

David S. Reynolds, prize-winning author of Walt Whitman's America and the forthcoming John Brown, Abolitionist

(Professor Reynolds responded to an e-mail request for comments about the book and the debate over it.)

I haven't read Tripp's book but have read about it in the press. My view is that Lincoln was not consciously a homosexual. Certainly he was not one in our sense of the word. The word 'homosexual' was not used in English until 1892, long after Lincoln's death. It was not widely known to the public until the mid-1920s, when it was first used in The New York Times. In Lincoln's time, passionate intimacy between people of the same sex was common. The lack of clear sexual categories (homo-, hetero-, bi-) made same-sex affection unself-conscious and widespread. Same-sex friends often loved each other passionately. 'Lover' had no gender connotation and was used interchangeably with 'friend.' It was common among both men and women to hug, kiss, and express love for people of the same sex. In hotels and inns, complete strangers often slept in the same bed.
Even the poet Walt Whitman, who manifested romantic feelings toward men far more intensely than Lincoln ever did, resists easy characterization as a homosexual in our sense. When the gay writer John Addington Symonds asked Whitman if his comradely 'Calamus' poems expressed sexual inversion (the era's term for homosexuality) Whitman replied that such 'morbid inferences' were 'damnable.' Whitman saw himself as a working-class comrade who had a series of ardent relationships with young men, most of whom went on to get married and have children. The passages of same-sex in his poems were not out of keeping with then-current theories and practices that underscored the healthiness of such love. It tells us a lot about sexual mores of the time that the most prudish censors of Whitman's poems complained of even the mildest references to heterosexual sex while finding nothing objectionable in his images of same-sex love. Whitman wanted to be the one who brought real-life American friendship to the printed page. He insisted that his poems mirrored the 'approval, admiration, friendship' seen 'among young men of these States,' who he said had 'wonderful tenacity of friendship, and passionate fondness for their friends.'
In my view, Lincoln can be best viewed as a typical 19th-century romantic comrade. Like a number of Whitman's male 'lovers,' Lincoln had ardent friendships with men before and during heterosexual marriages that produced children.