Tuesday, January 18, 2005

Pink Storm Rising

Reading Andrew Sullivan's review, Log Cabin Republican of C. A. Tripp's The Intimate World of Abraham Lincoln one is almost convinced that the case has been definitively made that Lincoln was gay. The crux of Sullivan's defense is the following two paragraphs:

That Tripp has an "ax to grind" is to my mind unfair. Yes, he sought to understand the homosexual experience better. But he was a Kinseyite social scientist, not a New Left propagandist. His database of Lincoln material is regarded as superb and invaluable to Lincoln scholars everywhere. He had a PhD in clinical psychology; and a mastery of the facts of Darwin's life as well. Yes, he [Tripp] was gay. But being gay can also be an advantage in this respect. The contours of a closeted gay life - the subtle effects of concealed homosexuality on behavior, public and private - are most easily recognized by other gay men, for the simple reason that many have experienced the same things. And the very nature of a closeted life is that it is hard to discern from the surface. I don't doubt that my own view that Lincoln was obviously homosexual is affected by my personal recognition of some aspects of the story, especially in his early years. The danger, of course, is over-identification and projection. But the danger of under-identification is also there - and it may well have impeded real research into what made Lincoln tick. Certainly if you're looking for clear evidence of sexual relationships between men in Lincoln's time in the official historical record, you'll come to the conclusion that no one was gay in the nineteenth century. But of course, many were.

But was Lincoln? Here's what I'd say are the most persuasive facts. Lincoln never developed deep emotional relations with any women, including his wife. Even the few snippets we have of early romances, or his deeply strained courtship of Mary Todd, suggest a painful attempt to live up to social norms, not a regular heterosexual life. His marriage was a disaster, by all accounts. Why? Well, ask Brookhiser in the NYT, who tries to exonerate Todd from charges of being cruel and psychopathic as well as corrupt: "Explosive, imperious, profligate, she may well have been mad. But in fairness to her, Lincoln was maddening -- remote and unavailable, when he was not physically absent." Hmmm. Remote, emotionally unavailable, running away to hang with men whenever he could. Ring a bell? Not in Brookhiser's mind.
I am always very leary of arguments that turn on insight rather than evidence, but I am willing to concede that I am not really in a position to judge, not having read the original book and not being particularly interested in the subject in general. It does strike me that, given the circumstantial nature of the case, which both Sullivan and Tripp concede, it is unfair to conclude, as Sullivan does that the primary motivation for dismissing it is prejudice:
But today's right-wingers are right about one thing. The truth about Lincoln - his unusual sexuality, his comfort with male-male love and sex - is not a truth today's Republican leaders want to hear. They are well-advised to attack and suppress it. They are more closely related to the forces Lincoln defeated than those he championed; and his candor, honesty and brave forging of a homosocial and homoerotic life in plain sight would appall them. The real Lincoln is their greatest rebuke; which is why they will do all they can to obscure the complicated, fascinating truth about the man whose legacy they are intent on betraying.
However, this is the sort of diatribe one has come to expect from Sullivan on this issue and I really have begun to despair that anyone in the public light is still capable of judging a case on the merits rather than looking for ideological use. Spin is in, truth is out, even among conservatives whom I otherwise respect.

But this piece by David Greenberg suggests that I may have been too quick to concede the factual side of this case:
The most surprising thing about The Intimate World of Abraham Lincoln, the new book that claims the Great Emancipator was bisexual, is how charitable the reviews have been. Even skeptical reviewers have allowed that the author—the late psychologist C.A. Tripp—may have a point and have retreated to the safer position that Lincoln's sexual orientation doesn't really matter anyway—that Tripp's project is a trivial one.
Alas, both notions—that Lincoln's sexual orientation is unimportant; and that Tripp's book raises powerful circumstantial evidence to support his claims—are wrong. On the one hand, if it could indeed be shown that Lincoln was "predominantly homosexual," as Tripp puts it (after all, Lincoln was married and had four children), this would be significant. No, it wouldn't directly alter our understanding of his political opinions or actions as president. But it would give us a fuller sense of the private man and thus in indirect ways might revise our understanding of his psychology. Tripp, however, doesn't even begin to make a persuasive case in this tendentious, sloppy, and wholly unpersuasive farrago. In more than 300 pages, he gives us no convincing reason to believe his central claim.
To bolster the case for his preferred interpretation, Tripp willfully reads fact after fact to support his conclusions and to ignore or explain away other possibilities. So, for instance, Tripp insists that the anxiety that Lincoln and Speed expressed to each other about their wedding nights proves they had a sexual relationship, when such worries were hardly unusual in the days before widespread premarital intercourse. Likewise, Tripp finds what he calls a "smoking gun" in the way Lincoln signed one letter to Speed: "Yours Forever." But in an honest afterword to the book, historian Michael Burlingame reminds readers that David Donald found cases of Lincoln using the same closing in letters to at least a half-dozen other friends. One could go on. Tripp produces not circumstantial evidence but facts that resemble evidence only if one starts with a closed mind.
I am, for the record, equally troubled by the assertition that "one could go on". My usual response to this is, "Well, why don't you?" Such assertions usually indicate that the author wants to suggest a large body of supporting evidence, but lacks the confidence to actually produce it for scrutiny. I obviously don't know the details of Slate's editorial policy nor of Greenberg's obligations as a columnist, but it seems that a bit more detail would have been much more persuasive.

Nevertheless, this is the sort of argument I like to see. Facts are extremely important in historical assessments, especially when the subject matter is expected to be controversial. If Tripp lacks the facts to support his thesis conclusively, he should not have foisted this issue onto the public forum. Greenberg makes telling contrasts with other controversial issues such as the bisexuality of Eleanor Roosevelt and the relationship between Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemmings. In both arguments the case is based on concrete evidence, not interpretations based on priveleged insight. Again, I haven't read Tripp's book and don't really feel inclined to, but it sure would be nice if the scolarly world would return to a more rigorous standard of evidence. I don't care if Lincoln was gay or not. But integrity is vastly important.

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