THE INTIMATE WORLD of Abraham Lincoln is a set of essays about different aspects of Lincoln’s personality and sexuality. It is not a biography. Its account of Lincoln is not even chronological. I mention this because some readers of the manuscript complained that the non-linear sequence of the chapters confused them. It became apparent that these readers had expected a work of history. Of course, given the subject, it is about history. But the framework within which Tripp assessed Lincoln’s life is very different from that of historiography: Tripp drew on the tradition of sex research pioneered by Alfred C. Kinsey.
Neither should Tripp’s approach be confused with the field of “psychohistory,” which produced a major book on Lincoln, Lincoln’s Quest for Union, published in 1982 by Charles B. Strozier. Tripp’s method differs from Strozier’s because psychohistory, as usually defined, is heavily imbued with Freudianism. Tripp, like Kinsey, entirely rejected Freud’s views on sexuality in general and homosexuality in particular. For example, Freud held that homosexuality is a developmental failure to achieve heterosexuality—that, in other words, gays are wrecks on the highway to straightdom. This preposterous notion is still alive and kicking today, despite its definitive refutation in Tripp’s groundbreaking The Homosexual Matrix, published thirty years ago. It even surfaces in the most recent book by the eminent Lincolnist David Herbert Donald, We Are Lincoln Men. Donald, who for some years regularly corresponded with Tripp, discusses Tripp’s contention that Joshua Speed and Lincoln were lovers. He cites Strozier on the subject: “[M]y judgment is strongly influenced by the opinion of Charles Strozier, the psychoanalyst and historian, who concludes that if the friendship [between Lincoln and Speed]had been sexual Lincoln would have become a different man. He would, Dr. Strozier writes me, have been ‘a bisexual at best, torn between worlds, full of shame, confused, and hardly likely to end up in politics.’” How I wish that Tripp were still alive to hear this outrageous opinion and proceed, in his inimitable style, to slash it to shreds!
Tripp was, however, a psychologist, and he certainly delved deeply into history. His first exposure to academic work on Lincoln’s sexuality came in New York City in 1990, when he attended an American Historical Association symposium on “Gay American Presidents.” Charley Shively, also celebrated as the pioneer of the Walt Whitman-as-gay thesis, presented his findings on Lincoln. What Shively had to say galvanized Tripp. He commissioned a company in India (outsourcing!) to digitize important Lincoln texts. A vast database resulted. Tripp also cultivated dialogue with a number of key Lincolnists, the aforementioned David Herbert Donald and also Thomas F. Schwartz, the state historian of Illinois and perhaps the preeminent Lincoln archivist. Tripp was friendly with Michael Burlingame, who contributed one of the afterwords to Intimate World. None of these three scholars agrees with Tripp about Lincoln’s homosexuality. How could they? If Tripp is right, they are wrong in a very big way. Donald’s stature in Lincolnology is such that, if there were a Mt. Rushmore commemorating the all-time great Lincoln scholars, he and his mentor, the superb James G. Randall, would without question gaze god-like from it. Tripp’s book threatens to trigger a landslide that will bring them down.
Nonetheless, Donald, Schwartz, Burlingame, and others actively helped Tripp’s research. Tripp had a beguiling charm. He was witty, knew how to make people laugh, and was excellent company. And he knew how to motivate people. His main passport into the highest reaches of Lincoln studies was the database. Scholars who got a copy were instantly hooked. But the price for a copy usually was a reciprocal gesture: in return, scholars would agree to have their own work entered into the database. For this reason it contains such treasures as the 14,000+ pages of David Donald’s Private Collection of Lincoln Notes and Michael Burlingame’s Ida Tarbell: Notes and Letters, also an unpublished collection. One of Tripp’s most wonderful legacies is that his database now anchors the one at the new Lincoln Presidential Library in Springfield, Illinois.
At any rate, psychologist Tripp did most vigorously barge into the realm of history. What the historians didn’t fully grasp, I think, is that Tripp was barging in with the sex-research perspective front and center. They must have known to some degree, because, after all, Tripp had published Matrix and had worked for Kinsey. But they didn’t know that the result, Intimate World, would speak a language so radically different from their own.
It’s already evident that many historians are baffled by some of Tripp’s sex-research discussions. Case in point: Tripp’s findings on Lincoln’s early puberty. This issue, especially in the wake of Gore Vidal’s comments about it on the website of the magazine Vanity Fair, may well prompt a national snort of derision. So be it. Down the road, what Tripp has to say about this topic will hold up.
Lewis Gannett is the editor of The Intimate World of Abraham Lincoln, and worked closely on the manuscript with the author in the two years before Tripp’s death in 2003.