Reviews:Rejected “Afterword” By Charley Shively
Rejected “Afterword” to C.A. Tripp’s The Intimate World of Abraham Lincoln
By Charley Shively
My first introduction to C.A. Tripp’s work came through his quite comprehensive Homosexual Matrix (1975—“a multi-disciplinary perspective that owes much to the work of Alfred C. Kinsey.”) Boston’s Gay Male Liberation Study Group immediately acquired all ten copies stocked in the Harvard Cooperative Bookstore. We also had connected with Harry Hay in 1972, after he had moved to the Arizona Desert and developed a gay liberation outpost there. Later when Harry returned to the Los Angeles area, he introduced me to Jim Kepner and Don Slater, who served us bourbon straight on the rocks in recycled mayonnaise jars. At the One Institute in LA, Dorr Legg entertained several of my lectures, including one that examined Abraham Lincoln’s homosexuality. This later appeared in the Gay Community News and then in Walt Whitman’s Civil War (Gay Sunshine Press, 1989].
On December 28, 1990, the Lesbian and Gay Caucus of the American Historical Association presented a panel on gay presidents, chaired by Professors Michael Chesson and William A. Percy, the then-current chair of the Caucus who outed Buchanan and Garfield. My own contribution was titled "George Washington, Abraham Lincoln & Appalachian Sexuality." That was perhaps my first meeting with Tripp, who was as engaging in person as in his writings. Subsequently we spent many hours on the telephone talking about Lincoln. He kindly gave me all the Whitman-Mexico references to Mexico in the Library of America edition of Walt Whitman.
Now we have before us Tripp’s The Intimate World of Abraham Lincoln, a wonderful book, saved by his survivors from the destruction/oblivion that befell the ancient Alexandrian Library. Among several other researchers, writers, heirs and friends, Lewis Gannett has labored to bring this comprehensive work into print. We must all be grateful for the results, although some “professional” Lincoln scholars may grit their teeth at the results. In a recent review of several current Lincoln books, James M. McPherson, a dean of Civil War scholars and Professor at Princeton University, writes in his review, “Of the making of many books about Abraham Lincoln there is no end. But the rest of this updated proverb from Ecclesiastes may be inapplicable. Much study of these books is not necessarily a weariness of the flesh.” (The Nation, 14 June 2004) Tripp documents with notable clarity some remarkable aspects of Lincoln’s flesh.
No one ever understands another person completely; only parts can be understood. Some figures, however, are particularly enigmatic and complex. Certainly, Lincoln has never been completely transparent—-never at any time during his life or subsequently. Two among many attempts to address this issue are Richard N. Current, The Lincoln Nobody Knows (1958) or Stephen B. Oates, Abraham Lincoln, The Man Behind the Myths (1984). They say little about his sexuality and nothing about his homosexuality, but they make clear that there’s more to Lincoln than meets the eye. Now C.A.Tripp’s work carefully documents what Carl Sandburg had earlier alluded to as Lincoln’s “Lavender Streak,” something an early Gay Activist Jim Kepner picked up on immediately.
Tripp has a special license to understand Lincoln through Alfred Kinsey. Kinsey (working in Muncie Indiana) seems to have been surprised at what he found in the Midwest. His landmark Sexual Behavior in the Human Male (1948) and Sexual Behavior in the Human Female (1953) documented behaviors such as fellatio or cunnilingus that had once been considered Greek, Roman or Parisian deviations were in fact widespread, alive and well, florid and thriving even in Indiana.
The geography/ topography of the Lincoln/Kinsey landscape took its present shape from several glaciers that essentially flattened northern Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois. Near Middletown, Ohio, a highway sign marks where the last glacier stopped. North of that line the New England/New York influences have prevailed, while south of the line, the hillbillies have had their fun. William B. Hesseltine (Civil War expert), who examined me at the University of Wisconsin) called it the Appalachian “Lap-over.” Hesseltine may have had an inkling that Sandburg’s “Lavender Streak” was on mark, since he called the Hoosier poet a “guitar strumming son-of-a-bitch.”
Lincoln’s birthplace, childhood home and early career certainly bear an indelible Appalachian mark. Born in a Kentucky log cabin, he soon moved with his family to southern Indiana, and later to the Whitehouse, where another Southerner shot and killed him. His gifts and place in history may be unique, but Lincoln shared what Carl Sandburg identified as his “Lavender Streak” with Walt Whitman, the Log Cabin Club, Vice President Dick Cheney’s daughter and many others.
Most writing about homosexuality has centered on the great cities such as Athens, Rome, London, Paris, Berlin, New York or San Francisco. The hinterlands, however, may be much richer in the life of the “flesh,” than people think. My own experience began in the Southern Ohio lapover in Afton, Ohio. At three I ran away from home to join an older man who lived down Percy’s Lane near a railroad track; later I played in a corn shock with my Uncle Roy James who gave me love and Vienna sausages. At twelve I caroused in the corncrib and fields with Virgil Jesse and Bobby Bond. The taste of semen in my prepubescent mouth was very interesting. Later my family moved to Hamilton, Ohio, on the Little Miami River. We lived outside the city in a rural slum called “Gobbler’s Knob,” a hillbilly enclave. There I practiced jerking off in a pasture field with a neighboring boy; he wanted me to fuck a nearby cow, but I found him more enticing. Later a next-door neighbor piano player and holyroller evangelist fucked me and soon Earl Ivy became a regular lover, after first fucking me in a pigpen. The piano player was later born-again while Earl went off to prison and I went to Harvard.
At Muncie, Indiana, Alfred Kinsey seems to have been surprised at the country sexuality, which he had at first thought occurred only in Chicago and other large cities. Tripp quotes Kinsey’s observation: that the “highest frequencies of the homosexual which we have ever secured anywhere have been in particular rural communities in some of the more remote sections of the country.” En route to New Harmony, Indiana, Mike Riegle and I received a happy welcome in Tierrahaute for the Fag Rag and our gay erotic poetry. Of course, Lincoln also knew more than the backcountry, but the local saying has been that “you can take the boy out of the country, but you can’t take the country out of the boy.”
A friend in New Salem, Indiana, Denton Offutt was attracted to the youngster Abe Lincoln, and invited him to share a raft to New Orleans in 1831. The two carried crops south, sold them and the raft; then they walked back to Illinois, camping out on the way. Lincoln himself later recalled that during this “boat enterprise,” Offutt first “conceived a liking” for him. Lincoln also expressed shock at the sight of the slave auctions in New Orleans, but left little account of the relatively open sexuality there.
Another traveler to New Orleans had been Walt Whitman in 1848. The poet may have picked up the Spanish word camerada--which he heard or himself masculinized as camarado)--the military term among Spanish soldiers for a bedmate. On his Springfield office desk, Lincoln himself kept a copy of the second edition of Leaves of Grass (1856), which he sometimes read to his sidekick Billy Herndon or other guests. That edition contains Whitman’s first use of the word camerado (Spell Check suggests changing it to “camera do”!). The poet probably picked up on the word in the streets of New Orleans, which have long been filled with sailors and back country boys like Lincoln.
Francis Grierson (1848-1927) witnessed the Lincoln/Douglas debates (1858 in Illinois), which he later described in his Valley of the Shadows (1909). Jesse served another Republican presidential candidate John Fremont in Missouri, where he served as the General/Governor’s secretary when he was only a teenager. Later the Grierson family moved to Niagara Falls where the youth learned to play the piano and soon began a successful tour along the Atlantic Coat where he met Walt Whitman. The two became life-long friends. On tour in Paris he visited Paul Verlaine and thought that two lines of the French poet were worth more than the whole of Milton’s Paradise Lost.
During the 1860’s when both Whitman and Lincoln were in Washington D.C., they had at least a nodding acquaintance. Both spent time at night in the Smithsonian Institute grounds, which then and for many years after provided opportunities for men to rendezvous at their own risk. Lafayette Park (just across the street from the White House) also had had a long reputation as a meeting place for male homosexuals. During the 1950s the urinals became more risky after the D.C. police installed a one-way mirror, behind which they crouched to witness various “crimes against chastity.”
One additional note on Speed: Lincoln did appoint Joshua’s brother to his Cabinent. After the 1860 election, Joshua and Lincoln had met in a Chicago hotel room with the president-elect en route to Washington—-sprawled out on the bed. Lincoln offered Joshua any office he might want in the new administration. While Joshua turned down this generous offer, Speed’s brother did receive a cabinet appointment, and Whitman received a clerkship in the Justice Department. When the Methodist Attorney General searched Whitman’s desk there, he found revisions for the third edition of Leaves of Grass which contained what he thought were “smutty passages.” He fired Whitman on the spot. Secretary Speed then offered Whitman a job in his own department, where the poet continued to draw a salary even after he had gone on sick leave to his mother’s house on Long Island, where he wrote perhaps the greatest eulogy in American English, “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloomed.”
Tripp has demonstrated beyond a reasonable doubt that Lincoln had an important “lavender streak” as Carl Sandburg so appropriately called it. So what? People have come to grips with Thomas Jefferson’s intimate friendship with his slave Sally Hemings. He largely wrote the “Declaration of Independence,” while he loved his slave. Lincoln wrote the forever-memorable “Gettysburg Address,” which marked the end of slavery, while he invited one of the Pennysalvia Bucks to sleep with him during his wife’s shopping trips to New York City. Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” defined one memorable goal of the Civil Rights movement, while he carried on an active heterosexual life beyond his marriage. They shot Lincoln, they shot Martin Luther King, but their dreams live on.
Alexander the Great lamented that he had no Homer to remember his deeds; Abraham Lincoln has been more fortunate in having a perrineal group of poets and scholars to celebrate his life. Among them, Tripp has now illuminated Lincoln’s “lavender streak” more brilliantly and thoroughly than any previous Lincoln scholar.
Charley Shively has written two books on Walt Whitman, and is working on a third volume: Walt Whitman and the World, Whitman’s echoes in Mexico, Ecuador, the Southern Cone, Vietnam, Senegal, Ghana, and elsewhere. - Posted 10-29-05