Gannett demolishes the phantom Ann Rutledge

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by Lewis Gannett (via email)

The email message below is from Michael Chesson, Harvard Ph.D., a David Donald student, professor at UMASS/Boston, perhaps New England's leading scholar of the American South, Pulitzer nominee, the only scholar to win both major awards for books about Southern history. He's a former professor of mine, a friend, and the writer of one of the Afterwords in Tripp's book. He's straight, married with kids, a captain in the Navy Reserve, a church deacon, and in some ways quite conservative; but in other ways breathtakingly heterodox for a man of the "breeder" ilk, as he puts it (I'd never use that term! Some homos do, after all, breed).

I'd like to put JALA's acceptance of my article into context. The subject is the alleged romance between Ann Rutledge & Abe when she was 21 and he a few years older, in the tiny hamlet of New Salem, Illinois. William Herndon, Lincoln's law partner and eventual biographer, launched the story with a lecture in November, 1866. It became a huge hit because Ann tragically died of (probably) typhoid in 1835, leaving Lincoln, according to Herndon, bereft ever after--the reason, in short, for Lincoln's famous "melancholy." By the 1920s, professional historians came to doubt the story, and disliked the maudlin, faux-high-romance appeal of it in popular culture. By the late '40s, the Rutledge story had been laughed out of the academy.

But in 1990 it made a huge comeback. (Read all about it in the current issue of the Gay & Lesbian Review). Long story but suffice it to say, nearly every major Lincolnist endorsed the scholarly rehab. Today, if you go to the Lincoln section in a bookstore and check the index pages of the books, in nearly every last one of them you will find Rutledge, Ann with page numbers that take you to Abe's terrible misfortune, the great loss of his youth, his suicidal depression, blah, blah, blah.

C. A. Tripp smelled a rat in all of this; he intuited that the Rutledge story is a cover-up of young Lincoln's actual great love, Joshua Speed, the man with whom Lincoln slept in the same bed for four years in Springfield, Ill. Tripp wanted to publish on it. The first thing he had me do after he hired me was to look into the Rutledge tale. The more I learned, the more incredulous I became. Via Tripp I got crates of primary-source material from Tom Schwartz, state historian of Illinois and legendary Lincoln archivist. I drafted text and proudly sent it to Tripp.

He said, "You can't say this! No one has ever said this!" I said, "You're saying things about Lincoln that no one has ever said." He said, "Yes, but I am me, and you are you." I couldn't argue with that. I shelved my Rutledge findings. Tripp did however publish on Rutledge in the JALA. He was hugely proud of that. Put copies of the journal all around his enormous living room.

But then after Tripp died, and I didn't have daily fixes of talking Lincoln with him, I dusted off my Rutledge findings, wrote them up, sent the piece out to the JALA. Silence. Months went by. I published the thing in Gay & Lesbian Review, and almost with a sense of spite sent copies to Donald and Tom Schwartz. More months went by. Then I got email from Donald: "Splendid!" He wanted me to publish it in the JALA and I did.

The article focused on Rutledge-family reminiscences and to me, at any rate, made a conclusive argument that the romance story was, is, a phantasm. But! It made no discernible impact at all on Lincoln scholarship. No surprise there, in retrospect. Who the hell am I? From the point of view of most Lincolnists, especially senior ones, my association with Tripp irretrievably tainted me.

Well, of course I got a bit miffed about that, but let the whole thing slide for a few years. Then late last year I remotivated, so to speak. Christopher got ill, we stopped drinking altogether, I meditated on the important things in life, etc., what will I have to show for myself, how can I smite these Lincolnist bastards who made fun of Tripp and even invented the idea that he died of AIDS. It dawned on me: I will conclusively prove that the Rutledge revival is an eerie episode of academic voodoo, and in the process demonstrate that the homo-Lincoln hypothesis can't fall like loose change into crevices of the academic sofa.

It wasn't really all that fun to do--I'd long since become thoroughly sick of the Ann Rutledge story, its banalities, and, it must be said, its exploitation of a young woman who was in real life by all accounts a very nice person. But there was a principle at stake. Critics of Tripp's homo hypothesis harped shrilly on his lack of evidence, on his mishandling of evidence. I very well knew that these complaints applied far more astringently to the Rutledge evidence. Time to blow the whistle. The hetero bias was so blatant--that is, obtuseness about seeing the homo angle, and even greater obtuseness & naivete in clinging to the hetero angle. A double standard was at work. Homo evidence was intrinsically suspect; hetero evidence was intrinsically plausible; but the homo evidence just happens to be far more compelling than the hetero evidence. Playground bullies were beating up vulnerable types who were, in fact, oddly enough, beefier than their tormentors. Unfair! UnAmerican! Underdogs: Unite! Especially since we can mop the floor with these jerks.

The point here is not Ann Rutledge. It's actually a much bigger issue: bias in historiography.

And so I scribbled out my jihad and in March sent it to Bryon Andreasen, editor of JALA. Silence. Then, yesterday and the news.

As Chesson says, Bryon Andreasen has balls. It took him a while. And I suspect that he had serious qualms. Lincoln-world knows what I'm up to; in March I emailed the article draft to everybody, including Donald (who then promptly died), Douglas Wilson, Michael Burlingame, Allen Guelzo, Joshua Shenk, Matthew Pinsker. They know that I'm defending Tripp via attacking a ridiculous concoction of Lincoln's hetero youth. Hoisting 'em on their own petard. None of them replied with comments. I interpret this to mean that they have no reply, and are unnerved (not Donald; he'd already extricated himself from the Rutledge boondoggle).

All of this is by way of saying: Yes, I'm a Lincoln nerd. And also, this nerd is on to something. The difference between the article now accepted by the JALA and the article I've already published in it, is that I've gone nuclear. I might well be wrong but I do think that it will make a difference.

Subject: Re: JALA Submission


Please accept my hearty congratulations! Well done!! Your logic and evidence are compelling, and the historian and JALA editor must be an honest man, and a competent scholar. He also has balls. Your article will enrage the court historians. It will make you, in my opinion, the leading living authority on Ann Rutledge and Abe, if you have not already won that distinction.

I think you should write a book on the matter. You have enough material, and you know the evidence better than anyone else, both the primary sources, and the reams of paper published on the matter in the last 150 years. You'd be sure to find a publisher. Lincoln books are published every month, almost every week, some of them worthy, some of them junk, and some merely mediocre.

Again, well done!

Michael Chesson

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