“O comrade lustrous with silver face in the night.”

—Walt Whitman

I first heard about “brain freeze” from an amiable fellow who was vending Italian ices.  He pointed out that, if the ices were not consumed carefully, the freeze would penetrate the palate into the brain.  In fact, I did experience brain freeze that way.  But since that unpleasant episode, I have discovered another form of brain freeze, one caused by the act of reading rather than by the consumption of Italian ices.  One such painful case was provoked by an op-ed piece in Newsday (December 1, 2004), in which the former chief judge of the New York Court of Appeals, Sol Wachtler, weighed in to correct some remarks by President George W. Bush.  The President had declared that he would not nominate anyone to the Supreme Court who would have condoned the Dred Scott decision of 1857.  He said that Chief Justice Roger B. Taney’s decision was “a personal opinion.  That’s not what the Constitution says. . . . And so I would pick people that would be strict constructionists.”

The former Judge Wachtler was right to make the point that, far from being a personal opinion, Taney’s decision was against his own instinctive convictions and was rather an affirmation of the meaning of the Constitution as it had been approved.  In other words, Taney was a strict constructionist, and Bush had reversed the facts.  But the former judge went on to declare that the Constitution should be interpreted as a “living document,” and that the Dred Scott case was “an unmitigated disaster for the country, the Supreme Court, and, worst of all, for African-Americans.”  The former judge does not seem to have considered that the Civil War was also an unmitigated disaster, and that it was largely caused by those who rejected the law in favor of a “higher law” that is ineffably indefinable.  Though I could not be surprised that educated Americans cannot interpret their own history or that professors of law cannot see the consequences of the abandonment of precedent and principle, brain freeze was nevertheless advancing.

The icy headlock was upon me—there were so many layers of the Big Chill!  Let’s see, now.  Taney’s legally correct interpretation of the law was a disaster because it did not endorse the politically correct Transcendentalist vision of the radical abolitionists, and his interpretation led to the Civil War, which corrected Taney’s correctness at a cost of over 620,000 dead.  Bush says, nearly a century and a half later, that Taney projected his personal opinion on the law, which is the reverse of the truth, as noted by Wacht-ler, who, though he grasps the facts, can’t handle them.  Add to this that Judge Wachtler, most unfairly, is now the former judge Wachtler because of his own law breaking, threats to his former mistress (the beauteous Joy Silverman, over whose trust fund he had a fiduciary responsibility), mixing prescription drugs irresponsibly and illegally, and denying, as a sitting judge, his own mental illness.  But even after the disgrace and the jail term and his book After the Madness (1997), there is still one thing that Sol Wachtler does not inspire, and that is the imputation of homosexuality.

Yes, there is a connection;  today, homosexuality is a matter of civil rights and constitutional correctness, as we continue to obscure the manifest meaning of that troublesome, even baffling document.  And I must add that today homosexuality is what we read about.  Is there any other subject worthy of discussion?  I had hardly recovered from one Big Chill when I ran into another brain freeze in extended form in the New York Times which made me wish I had the late Dr. Hunter S. Thompson—or, even better, the late Dr. Samuel T. Francis—to help me sort it all out.  On February 12, 2005, the Times ran a front-page headline about a rare strain of H.I.V. that had been detected in a man in his mid-40’s who had engaged in unprotected anal sex with hundreds of other men while under the influence of crystal methamphetamines.  Interestingly enough, the man’s name was not released “to protect his privacy,” though some may have wondered how much privacy he had left to protect.  The New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene was most concerned, though mental hygiene was not apparently an issue at stake.  The following day, the newspaper published a second front-page story, which, in turn, was followed by yet another.  On Valentine’s Day, an article on the same subject appeared on the front page of the Metro section, accompanied by related items on homosexual websites and chat rooms about the reaction of the queer community to the previous reports.  One individual saw a conspiracy on the part of the New York Times to keep the public in fear of sex.

I was, of course, worried that the Times would drop the ball with the story.  Of course, given the Times’ staff and readership, I should have known that they wouldn’t let me down.  By February 16, Dr. Thomas R. Frieden, the head of the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, was calling for more research and more privacy: “Confidentiality is a core and supremely important concept here.”  He rather scanted the mental hygiene aspect of drug-boosted sex marathons, I thought, while seeming a bit confused on the privacy issue.  On February 18, the paper printed another scientific story about the rare mutation of the H.I.V. virus.  Over the next three days, I may have missed some stories before, on February 21, I noted that Dr. Frieden had been attacked for “excessive haste” in sounding the alarm.  In a brain-freezing moment, AIDS activists sensed an attempt to demonize the “gay” lifestyle and compared Dr. Frieden to Nancy Reagan.  By February 25, the scientists had defended themselves against the charge of having gone public with their warning.  On February 26, the Times’ lead editorial was only obliquely related: an attack on the Bush administration’s AIDS policies, particularly in regard to international needle-exchange programs.  Since then, I haven’t noted any further articles on the subject and can only presume that the sanctioned orgies continue while the mayor and others maintain a dialogue about homosexual “marriage.”

A lifetime of lazy reading as an effective strategy to avoid work had come back to bite me.  Even though there was nothing to read, I was still hooked.  An atavistic thought dimly crept into my frozen cerebellum, whispering luridly, “How about a Civil War book, big boy!  You always like those.”  I thought back bitterly to those moments in a long life when someone had addressed me as follows: “You’re not doing anything.  Put down that book, and come over here and help me with this stuff.”  But even this humiliation had not deterred me, years later, from still referring to reading as “studying” and “work” and usually getting away with it.  I had to feed the monkey, but what I wanted to know was, how could I connect my interest in the Civil War with my newly addictive commitment to “gay” studies and queer theory, as acquired from the nation’s newspaper of record?

And just at that tense moment, snap my thong if my problems weren’t completely solved in one too-divinely unbelievable synthesis of advanced consciousness!  C.A. Tripp’s book on the homosexual threads in the Lincoln legend suited my every need, as I hope a fair description will demonstrate.  First, we have to know at least something about the author, as biography explains much about the book.  Dr. Tripp died in May 2003, just after finishing the first draft of The Intimate World of Abraham Lincoln, which means that the book is something of an unfinished work.  He might have made some changes and improved the work if he had lived, but the book itself suggests that he also might have made it worse.  Even so, the text has been edited by Lewis Gannett.  Furthermore, the book comes to us in a form that is distinctly offbeat, with a remarkable Introduction by Jean Baker of Goucher College, author of a biography of Mary Todd Lincoln, and an Afterword consisting of three responses: one historian’s dissent, another’s endorsement, and a psychologist’s perspective.  Such a structure of presentation suggests some anxiety on the part of the publishers, and, indeed, Philip Nobile, writing in the January 17, 2005, Weekly Standard has pointed to a history of problems with the project.  Nobile had once been part of this project, had drafted parts of the manuscript, and uses such words as hoax, fraud, and plagiarism to describe the work as we have it.  Nobile quotes a phone call from the AIDS activist and author Larry Kramer, who said, “If you don’t stop making a stink about Tripp’s book, I’m going to expose you as an enormous homophobe. . . . For the sake of humanity, please, gays need a role model.”  Kramer’s involvement with the “gay”-Lincoln thesis has also been noted by Tripp himself, as have previous assertions (in 1971) by the homosexual liberationist James Kepner and by Prof. Charles Shively in his book on Whitman, Drum Beats (1989), published by the Gay Sunshine Press.  So there can be no question that a homosexual agenda, rather than a biographical or historical one, played a significant part in the genesis of The Intimate World of Abraham Lincoln.

We should add that C.A. Tripp was a disciple of Alfred Kinsey, a practicing psychologist, and the author in 1975 of the best-selling Homosexual Matrix.  The ten years that he put in as a “sex researcher” working on the Lincoln project have resulted in what I can describe either as the worst nonfiction book I have ever read, or, alternatively, as the best book I have ever read about the homosexuality of Abraham Lincoln.  The book isn’t much, and the evidence is underwhelming, but the question remains open whether Lincoln may just possibly have engaged in homosexual practices—yet such thoughts do not really touch the heart of the matter that we have before us.

Thinking of the history and images of the war, I did say to myself as I began the book, “Zouaves!”  The flamboyant uniforms that aped the Algerian style of the French army of the Crimean War were nothing if not swishy.  And, sure enough, Tripp’s Chapter Six is all about Col. Elmer Ellsworth and his Zouaves, and Lincoln’s solicitation of the young officer and the extended grief that he later expressed for him.  Of course, this proves nothing and only goes to show what damage a predetermined conclusion can do to historical investigation.  It also occurred to me, however, that, in fictional—though not historical—discourse, there is an element of déjà vu in the proposition of a homosexual Lincoln.  No one has remarked, as far as I know, that we have been here before, at least in the imagination of Ernest Hemingway.  In perhaps the best chapter of his best novel, Chapter XII of The Sun Also Rises (1926), the narrator, Jacob Barnes, banters with Bill Gorton just before they begin to fish.  Bill riffs on a Civil War fantasy that actually is related to the sexual chaos of the novel:

Listen.  You’re a hell of a good guy, and I’m fonder of you than anybody on earth.  I couldn’t tell you that in New York.  It’d mean I was a faggot.  That was what the Civil War was about.  Abraham Lincoln was a faggot.  He was in love with General Grant.  So was Jefferson Davis.  Lincoln just freed the slaves on a bet.  The Dred Scott case was framed by the Anti-Saloon League.  Sex explains it all.  The Colonel’s Lady and Judy O’Grady are Lesbians under their skin.

The vision of Hemingway, responding to that of T.S. Eliot in The Waste Land, provides mythological perspectives for framing the sexual chaos, as through the myth of the wounded Fisher King.  But we must add that Hemingway, like Herman Melville, Henry James, and Mark Twain, has also been the object of the queer-theory treatment, and that Abraham Lincoln has no special claim to an exemption.

Tripp’s first chapter sketches Lincoln’s friendship with Captain Derickson of Company K of the Pennsylvania Bucktails, with whom Lincoln sometimes slept when his wife was away from the White House.  Lincoln’s obvious emotional isolation may explain his affection for the captain better than Tripp’s heavy-handed, reductionist, and unwarranted conclusions, and, since the hot stuff seems routine, the book is tripped up at the beginning.  The second chapter argues without much evidence that Lincoln went through an early puberty and was therefore more likely to have been a homosexual than if he had come to pubescence later.  Add to this that the young Lincoln wrote a smutty poem about a male/male marriage, and we sense that, somehow, a pattern is beginning to emerge.  The third chapter about the early years continues on the same level of monomaniacal extrapolation of unremarkable data, mixed with an abstract thesis-grinding that clashes with the homely micro-history.  By page 66, Tripp’s work on Lincoln is essentially over, and what is bad gets worse.

The tedium becomes exquisite as Tripp trashes the Ann Rutledge myth in Chapter Four, finally referring to the legend of romance as “high camp”—surely a revealing mistake by the author, and one of many that escaped the editor.  Tripp shows what can only be called homosexual indignation as he angrily rejects the tale of romance.  Historically, he is right; emotionally, he is all wrong.  No girls, please—and let’s maintain the semblance of continuity into the fifth chapter about Mary Owens and Lincoln’s unkind remarks about her, which are a form of “wit.”  The case of that attractive officer of alluring Zouaves, Elmer Ellsworth, we have already noted, so we are ready for a seventh chapter on the well-known case of Lincoln’s long friendship with Joshua Speed of Kentucky.  Disagreeing about politics, these two must have had a special bond indeed to hold them together in those contentious years, but what might be a wild surmise for some is certainty for the intrepid Tripp.  The eighth chapter, on “Marriage and Mary Todd,” is all too predictable, and the rage with which Tripp dismisses Lincoln’s wife is the most disgraceful thing in the book—so indefensible, indeed, that Jean Baker, in her Introduction, calls it “misogyny.”

But now we transcend the paranoid manipulation of decontextualized detail to paint with a broader brush.  The ninth chapter, on “Lincoln, Sex, and Religion,” begins with the following sentence: “Lincoln’s honesty was such that he was never known to have lied or misrepresented himself about anything, yet even this is an understatement.”  The claim speaks for itself and must be received strictly as a statement of “gay” pride.  Tripp’s mystic exposition begins to swell into a rapturous anthem of celebration: Lincoln’s most famous pronouncements and religious eccentricity are grounded in his sexuality, which redeemed our country.  The incoherent tenth chapter defies comment, but not a quotation of the first sentence: “Lincoln led his entire life without a single known example of any violation of ethics.”  The concluding chapter, “On Lincoln’s Sexuality, with Extensions,” does not claim that Lincoln had sex with extensions but that Tripp has a right as expositor to inscribe an absurd digression about Alan Turing, the homosexual code breaker who aided British intelligence in World War II.  Rife with logical fallacies, The Intimate World of Abraham Lincoln is unconstrained by any concern for coherence.

Tripping on the light fantastic toe rather like a member of the Ballet Trockadero de Monte Carlo, the author may have yet, paradoxically enough, performed a service.  Though he has not proved his case, he has shown something of Lincoln’s essential weirdness; and this alone may cause an unvarnished reconsideration of Honest Abe.  A review of the “august baboon’s” most famous words is long overdue, as the stupefying drug mislabeled as “American history” prevents our access to what lies hidden in plain sight.  The First Inaugural Address, besides being embarrassingly disingenuous, seeks union, or actually reunion, with slavery.  The Emancipation Proclamation not only freed no slaves but played a card that is listed as a reason for the founding secession in the Declaration of Independence.  The Gettysburg Address outrageously misreads that secessionist document, the Declaration of Independence, and ignores the Constitution, which did not forbid secession and provided for slavery.  The Second Inaugural Address attributes to a mysterious God the willful deeds of men, as though the speaker had not been a blundering but a powerful actor in those chosen actions.  “With malice toward none” does not exactly square with the butcher’s bill and the burning buildings, and “With charity for all” rings a bit hollow, considering the rampant corruption; but with all the Wagnerian groundswell and pseudobiblical sanctimony, we may just need a moment to dab our eyes and wipe our noses with clean little handkerchiefs.  The rhetorical and logical damage to the American mind that is the Lincolnian legacy may be a potent form of political hocus-pocus even today, as it is so often exploited, but that does not mean it wasn’t flimflam then or isn’t now.  Compare, if you like, the late Sen. Everett Dirksen’s rhapsodies about marigolds, and you have a demythologized example of the rhetorical bait-and-switch that was Lincoln’s forte.

The late Dr. Tripp, apparently seeing Lincoln as a man with a difference because he was a homosexual, set out to claim a special political insight for homosexuals, because Lincoln was one.  It is at least possible, however, that such an exploitative association is of as little credit to homosexuals as it is to Republicans, neoconservatives, or even Americans generally.  Meanwhile, the fate of reading drives us, brain-frozen, back to the New York Times and perhaps a night with a Pennsylvania Bucktail. 


[The Intimate World of Abraham Lincoln, by C.A. Tripp (New York: Free Press) 343 pp., $27.00]