Getting in Touch with the Inner Abe

The Washington Times (Washington, DC), January 13, 2006 | Go to article overview

Getting in Touch with the Inner Abe


Byline: Scott Galupo, THE WASHINGTON TIMES

When the young circuit lawyer Abraham Lincoln crawled into bed next to his best pal Joshua Speed, he couldn't have known what kind of speculation such sleeping habits, unremarkable in the era before Holiday Inn, would lead to.

The possibility, however remote, that Lincoln was homosexual was a brief rage last year thanks to C.A. Tripp's posthumous book "The Intimate World of Abraham Lincoln."

It's under the lights again in "Lincoln," an intriguing if somewhat excitable documentary that airs Monday night at 8 on the History Channel.

While not overly concerned with Lincoln's sexuality, "Lincoln" is consumed by suppositions about the Civil War president's inner life - his bouts of depression and shyness toward women, his unhappy marriage and seemingly mystical foreknowledge of premature death.

A daytime-TV kind of Lincoln, in other words.

Michael Lind, who last year published the provocative "What Lincoln Believed: The Values and Convictions of America's Greatest President," says Lincoln has long been putty in the hands of various political factions, co-opted by communist sympathizers, civil rights activists and conservative intellectuals alike.

Now it appears he's being molded to suit the needs of modern soap-opera culture.

"If I were to write the book today, I would add the Therapeutic Lincoln," he says. "In the age of the baby boomers, it's Lincoln in therapy that seems to be the most appealing."

Frank Williams, the chief justice of the Rhode Island Supreme Court and the founding chairman of the Lincoln Forum, a group that meets annually in Gettysburg to discuss all manner of Lincolniana, is compiling an annotated Lincoln bibliography. The literature is astonishingly vast.

"The only person who's been written about more than Lincoln is Jesus," Mr. Williams says. "I've identified 16,000 books, pamphlets and articles about Lincoln."

Floating in this sea of ink is the risk that, rather like Jesus, Lincoln will become a bendable, personally customizable icon - all things to all people, in a phrase.

The late Mr. Tripp, as many critics noted at the time, was homosexual, and an aide to controversial sex researcher Alfred Kinsey. This at least implied an internal bias that drove the conclusions of his research, they said.

Similarly, perhaps, Joshua Wolf Shenk discussed his own struggle with depression in his book "Lincoln's Melancholy: How Depression Challenged a President and Fueled His Greatness," which was featured on the cover of Time magazine.

Several prominent Lincoln historians don't seem dismayed by this trend.

"Each generation has to find the Lincoln with which it's comfortable," says Harold Holzer, co-chairman of the Abraham Lincoln Bicentennial Commission, the federally appointed group that is planning national observances of the bicentennial of Lincoln's birth for 2009.

Historians who put a personal stamp on their studies of Lincoln expand the range of people who can be inspired by the 16th president, according to Mr. Holzer.

"C.A. Tripp was not 'outing' Lincoln in a malicious way," he says. …

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