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Mary Todd Lincoln, the most criticized and misunderstood first lady, experienced more than her share of tragedy during her lifetime.


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For more information, read Michigan Publishing's access and usage policy. New York: Free Press, Boston: Houghton Mifflin, Since a distinguished collection of insightful and sensitive writers has tried to recapture the essence of America's strangest, most beguiling president. That, in spite of their efforts, there remains something profoundly elusive about Abraham Lincoln, cannot be put down to a lack of evidence, for, considering the nature of his early life, there is a relatively rich record on which to draw. Rather, the analytical problem lies in the character of the man himself. Lincoln's friends and contemporaries were also unable to pin him down, in part because he combined such sharply contrasting qualities: humor and solemnity, confidence and insecurity, hope and despair.

His compassion for soldiers sentenced to death for desertion or cowardice was combined with his self-imposed isolation from his family.

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The president who broke down in tears in front of a press reporter and a senator after hearing that the dashing young Elmer Ellsworth had been shot by a rebel sympathiser in Maywas also the man who refused to go to his own father's funeral. To the poet-biographer Carl Sandburg, Lincoln's contrasting qualities made him "steel and velvet Lincoln's iconic status in American culture rests not just on what he did, or even what he said, but on what he seemed to be. For much of the first century after his death, the deification of Lincoln as a quasi-mythical savior of the Union was intertwined in popular culture with a hyper-realist celebration of Lincoln the man, whose homeliness and humor, as well as his determination to succeed, embodied "American values.

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Sandburg, who barely disguised his disdain for the scholarly apparatus of footnotes and exhaustively checked quotations, had relied heavily for his portrait of Lincoln's antebellum life on the one-man oral history project conducted after by Lincoln's indefatigable law partner William Herndon. Herndon was determined to write an of Lincoln "j ust as he lived, breathed. A staple part of Lincoln lore in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century was the story of Lincoln's love for Ann Rutledge and his near-suicidal despair after her untimely death, which had first been aired by Herndon.

Sandburg—with his description of Rutledge as a "quiet soft bud of a woman"—had dwelt tenderly on every imagined detail. In the first two volumes of James G. Randall's Lincoln the President were published, inaugurating a new era of professional Lincoln scholarship that sought to rescue the sixteenth president from the clutches of the poets and romantics.

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Herndon and his collection of the reminiscences of New Salem old-timers seemed to this new generation of professional historians to embody everything that they disliked and distrusted about amateur history. To Randall, reports of Lincoln's suicidal tendencies as a young man were mere gossip. As Joshua Wolf Shenk reminds us, for a generation afterthe troubled and elusive Lincoln of Herndon's record, especially the story of his love for Rutledge, was categorically rejected by Lincoln scholars.

Much was gained of course, by the professionalization of Lincoln studies and the focus on politics and ideology. But the elusiveness of Lincoln's character was flattened out in the Lincoln. By rejecting Herndon's sources, historians cut themselves off from a rich seam of material. Randall's student, David Herbert Donald, wrote a biography of Herndon that implicitly helped discredit him as a historian by portraying him as an alcoholic and fantasist.

Now the tide has turned again. A renewed interest in psychology in the broader culture, the rise of cultural history, and the new respectability of oral history, have all encouraged scholars to turn once again to the study of Lincoln's personality.

The turning point was the publication in of Michael Burlingame's The Inner World of Abraham Lincolnwhich broke new ground dating its sensitive reading of Lincoln's character and relationships. The publication for the first time in of the Herndon material, carefully edited and annotated by Rodney O.

Davis and Douglas L. Wilson, not only made it far more accessible than ever before but also gave it a scholarly imprimatur. Wilson also published Honor's Voicewhich, drawing largely on Herndon's material, presented a richly textured portrait of the struggles of Lincoln's early life. The two books under consideration here exemplify this shift in the currents of Male scholarship. The seek to understand aspects of Lincoln's private character, in part because it may have some bearing on our understanding of Lincoln's public self, but mainly because he is such an inherently fascinating subject.

Both look to Lincoln to learn lessons about humankind. Both rituals are also based in large part on Herndon's informants.

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Joshua Wolf Shenk's Lincoln's Melancholy explores the meaning and implications of Lincoln's well-documented depression, while C. As examples of this new Lincoln scholarship, these two books illustrate the advantages and disadvantages of relying on Herndon's oral history and, more generally, the pitfalls and possibilities of exploring the inner life of this most inscrutable of men. One oft-repeated vignette from Lincoln's early life occurred, apparently, on April 15, Lincoln was twenty-eight years old, a Whig state legislator and an aspiring self-taught lawyer.

In debt from a failed business venture in New Salem, he had resolved on a new start in life in Springfield. After journeying into the town on a borrowed horse Lincoln was never in want of generous friends ready to lend him a helping hand and with all he owned in a couple of saddlebags, he appeared in the doorway of Joshua F.

Speed's general store. According to Speed'srecorded thirty years later in conversation with Herndon, Lincoln set his saddlebags on the counter and asked the price of "furniture for a single bedstead. But if you will credit me until Christmas, and my experiment here as a lawyer is a success, I will pay you then. If I fail in that I will probably never be able to pay you at all.

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I have a very large room, and a very large double-bed in it; which you are perfectly welcome to share with me if you choose. Without saying a word, he took his saddle-bags on his arm, went up stairs, set them down on the floor, came down again, and with a face beaming with pleasure and smiles exclaimed 'Well Speed I'm moved.

What are we to make of this story? It has been used by countless Lincoln biographers over the years to illustrate their subject's humble origins, his honest dislike of debt, and, because the figure who appeared in Speed's doorway seems such a lonely but also a warm and likable man, to give a sense of Lincoln's personality. To Shenk, it is interesting because it illustrates the sympathy that Lincoln's overt sensitivity, sadness, and anxiety prompted in other people.

Tripp, on the other hand, sees a quite different dynamic at work between the two men. It is "clear enough," writes Tripp, that "within moments of Lincoln arriving on that borrowed horse Joshua Speed evidently targeted him as a desirable bed partner.

Surely, what really happened, Tripp speculates, is that Speed invited Lincoln up to his room, but fearing that might sound suspicious, recast himself in a more passive role. Speed "was clearly an expert" at this kind of "rapid sexual conquest," writes Tripp.

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As for Lincoln, since he had, in Tripp's opinion, at least two homosexual relationships behind him, he "was alert enough to know the score as he flew into Speed's web" Tripp, who died before his book was published, was a sex researcher who cut his teeth on the Kinsey Report. Those hoping that this long-awaited book would reveal some startling new evidence that would clinch the case for Lincoln's homosexuality will be disappointed.

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Tripp's point is not that generations of Lincoln scholars have overlooked some crucial evidence, but that they have been so blinded by "heterosexual bias" that they have failed to spot what was staring them in the face. Re-reading the Herndon oral testimony and other similar sources with the trained eye of one "alert to homosexual propositions," Tripp is convinced that Lincoln was "predominantly homosexual. The Speed case is especially compelling, Tripp argues, because it is part of a pattern.

For example, six years before he walked into that Springfield general store and began what Tripp thinks was " the major event in Lincoln's private life: an intense and ongoing homosexual relationship with Speed," he met Billy Greene in New Salem.

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The evidence for what Tripp is convinced was a homosexual relationship between Lincoln and Greene is based entirely on Greene's later recollection to Herndon of his first sight of Lincoln: "He had on a pair of mixed blue jean pant—a hickory shirt and a Common Chip hat. He was at that time well and firmly built: his thighs were as perfect as a human being Could be. The mention of "thighs," he explains, "strongly suggests a sexual practice later named 'femoral intercourse' penis between tightly clasped femoraLatin for thighs " As Jean H.

Baker delicately puts it in her introduction, Tripp's "notion of factual verification defied the cannons of the discipline of history" xiv. Tripp is convinced that Lincoln was gay, but all he can demonstrate is that Lincoln was more comfortable in male company and often shared beds with men, on which basis most nineteenth-century American men could also be called homosexual. The result is a curious, contradictory, rambling book, even if it is written in an rituals, informal style.

Tripp comes across as an amiable, knowledgeable enthusiast, and it is a great shame that he was unable to dating a better case. So glaring are the weaknesses of his argument and so over-hyped his conclusions that this book has the rare the of having been rebutted by the reigning high priest of Lincoln scholarship, David Herbert Donald, two years before it was published.

Fox, recorded some juicy gossip in her diary. Her friend Leticia McKean had informed her that "'there is a Bucktail soldier here devoted to the President, drives with him, and when Mrs L. Lincoln, who spent considerable time living at the Soldiers' Home just outside Washington, became very fond of the Pennsylvania soldiers, and other s also recall his particular friendship with Captain Derickson.

What amazing stuff! On this narrow issue of the likely meaning of "what Lincoln But even if Fox was mildly scandalized by the gossip she had heard, that would male mean that she had made the same assumptions as Tripp. Is it not more likely that she was titillated by the impropriety, in her view, of a president striking up a friendship with a mere captain?

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Tripp has added an extra little titbit from a regimental history written in by Thomas Chamberlain, who was Derickson's commanding officer, which inadvertedly reinforces this impression. For Tripp, that they probably shared a bed on occasion is enough to prove that they had "mutually and repeatedly satisfying" sex In spite of his often ingenious reading of the sources, Tripp's own evidence makes it abundantly clear that no one in the nineteenth century made any such assumptions.

And to be fair to Tripp, this book, unlike the sensational "revelations" of the playwright Larry Kramer, is much more than mere propaganda.

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At the other extreme, Donald, is overly defensive in his dismissal of any reading of Lincoln other than that he was vigorously and exclusively heterosexual. If Tripp is sometimes too eager to see a sexual dimension even in such an apparently unlikely place as a letter from Derickson about the president's political prospects in the election, Donald's "We Are Lincoln Men" does not do justice to the intensity and complexity of the feelings revealed, for example, in Lincoln's intimate letters to Speed.

In so many ways Lincoln was the embodiment of Victorian rectitude. Yet he had a well-documented other side that mirrored the schematic Christian division between mind and body and the Victorian distinction between the pure and the profane. As Henry Whitney agreed, Lincoln had a "great ideality and also a view of grossness which displaced the ideality.

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At the very least, Tripp is surely right that if historians don't even consider the possibility that Lincoln had homosexual relationships, they are certain not to find any. The problem with Tripp's book is not that it is implausible to wonder whether Lincoln's close male friendships had a sexual dimension, but that the evidence does not bare the weight of Tripp's convictions.

Tripp fails to make a sustained effort to reconstruct the place of sex, and specifically sex between men, in mid-nineteenth-century culture.