Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, Don’t Publish: Homophobia in Lincoln Studies?


Mr. Nobile is the author of Intellectual Skywriting: Literary Politics and the New York Review of Books and editor of Judgment at the Smithsonian, which reprinted the banned script of the Smithsonian's 50th anniversary exhibit of the Enola Gay.

Ever since talk about Lincoln's possible bisexuality crept into the mainstream circa 1995--it was déjà vu for gay historians--Lincoln scholars have been unanimously skeptical and sometimes even hostile to the idea. Perhaps the best word to describe their reaction is homophobic, that is, fear of a lavender Lincoln. While there is plenty of material on Lincoln's sex life and his bonding with men more than women, biographers have never written about the intellectually tempting homosexual angle. Thus, there is no literature on the boy-marries-boy imagery in the poem attached to the Reuben Chronicles satire (1829) or on Carl Sandburg's suggestive lines in The Prairie Years about Lincoln and Joshua Speed's having"spots soft as may violets" and"a streak of lavender." (Even Sandburg did not elaborate on this clear homosexual allusion, nor did he hint that Lincoln's attachment to Speed indicated a general preference for"the love of comrades.")

Gabor Boritt, a renowned Lincolnist and director of the Civil War Institute at Gettysburg College, has made the most direct refutation of the gay theory in a new anthology titled The Lincoln Enigma. In the introduction, Boritt devotes a little more than a page to the matter. Significantly, he cites long ignored evidence of Lincoln's same-sex interest in the person of Captain David V. Derickson, the President's bodyguard and intimate companion between September 1862 and April 1863. Nevertheless, Boritt's treatment of the Derickson affair, based on an 1895 regimental history by Derickson's commanding officer, whose credentials Boritt fails to identify, is not rigorous.

I tried to point out some problems in Boritt's introduction in a detailed email dated March 2, 2001. Also, I asked him to read a chapter on Derickson from my book-in-progress, A Harp of a Thousand Strings: The Queer Lincoln Theory . Incidentally, I do not argue that Lincoln was bisexual, but rather that bi-sexuality is a better explanation than the standard all-heterosexual one. In addition, I offered to submit my partial manuscript to his publisher, Oxford University Press. As the following correspondence reveals, Boritt and his editor, Peter Ginna, were less than receptive, confirming my point that homophobia is not alien to the land of Lincolnania.


[3-2-01] Dear Professor Boritt:

Congratulations on the publication of"The Lincoln Enigma."

Since I am currently writing a book on the theory behind Lincoln's homosexuality, I was fascinated by your introductory remarks on same. I have four comments.

First, Lincoln's sleeping arrangement with Captain David V. Derickson was covered briefly in"Reveille in Washington," a 1941 Pulitzer Prize book by Margaret Leech. Although Leech neither quoted nor footnoted Thomas Chamberlin's"History of the One-Hundred-and-Fiftieth Regiment, Pennsylvania Volunteers," she paraphrased his revelation in her text and listed his regimental history in her biliography."Reveille" remains in print with an introduction by James McPherson. A half-century earlier, Ida Tarbell's biography reported on the special friendship between the President and his bodyguard, citing Derickson's 1888 newspaper article and Lincoln's November 1862 letter that saved the favored officer from transfer. Tarbell did not use Chamberlin as a source. Yet she appeared skittish about the degree of intimacy between AL and DD. She strategically ellipsized certain passages in her long excerpt from Derickson's memoir, passages indicating a profound attraction on Lincoln's part. In other words, the suggestive material on Derickson was available to Lincoln scholars for decades, long before Gabriel Pinkser.

Second, you wrote:"Lincoln's male bonding went beyond what circumstances dictated," meaning that he surreptitiously slept with his bodyguard in a comfortable mansion in 1862 when his wife was out of town. Yet a few sentences later, you seemed to retract your point about Lincoln's transgression of the mores. You wrote:"what may suggest homosexuality in our time most likely did not so much as occur to most people in his time." This statement is certainly true vis-a-vis the rude frontier of Lincoln's youth, but not cosmopolitan Washington of his middle age. If Lincoln went"beyond what circumstances dictated" in 1862 by taking his bodyguard to bed, why would Lincoln's contemporaries not wonder about the sexual implications? Of course, it is impossible to know what"most people" in Lincoln's day might have thought about this matter. In any case, popular perception is irrelevant to historical truth, whatever it turns out to be. Fortunately, we know exactly how one Lincoln insider reacted when she heard the Derickson rumor."What stuff!," exclaimed Elizabeth Woodbury Fox, wife of Lincoln's naval aide, in her diary of November 16, 1862.

Third, referring to Lincoln's subjective state of mind regarding the possible homosexual nature of the overnights with Derickson, you wrote:"There is no evidence that it did to Lincoln." This observation is true, but beside the point. At issue is not whether Lincoln perceived his feelings as homosexual, but whether he had such feelings and may have acted on them. The midnight rendezvous with Derickson are the best evidence that he did.

Fourth, you wrote:"Context is all important, and the first duty of the historian is to understand the past in terms understood by the people who lived in that past." I doubt that many of your peers would agree. Isn't the first duty of the historian to relate the basic facts of history and only secondarily to deal with context? For example, St. Thomas More blessed the torture and execution of heretics. That is a fact. But, in context, he probably did not consider himself a sadist and killer. Nonetheless, his interior feelings would not change the facts. As for Lincoln, as previously stated, either he had sex with men or he did not. Context comes later.

Granted your interest in the homosexual question, perhaps you would be kind enough to read and comment on my manuscript, which will be mailed to you forthwith. The first chapter (of three) is on the Lincoln-Derickson affair.

I look forward to your response.

Thank you.

[4-30-01] Dear Mr. Nobile,

Please ask your readers to read what I say on the subject in the text of The Lincoln Enigma.

Sincerely, Gabor Boritt

[4-30-01] Dear Prof. Boritt,

Thanks for your email of April 30. I have read what you wrote about Lincoln's alleged homosexuality in"The Lincoln Engima" and have pointed out some serious objections. Historian to historian, would you please respond? Otherwise my readers and I may presume that you cannot overcome the criticism and that your explanation of Lincoln's purported"love of comrades" is not only inadequate but intellectually dishonest.

Thanks for your consideration.

Philip Nobile


[2-23-01] Dear Mr. Ginna,

I note that Gabor Boritt dismissed the claim of Lincoln's bedroom association with Captain David V. Derickson in his new book. Actually, I have done much work on Derickson. He is the subject of the first chapter of my manuscript in progress--A Harp of a Thousand Strings: The Queer Theory of Lincoln.

I am neither gay nor an advocate of Lincoln's homosexuality. But I do believe that bisexuality (he was bisexual by definition) is the best explanation for Lincoln's sex life.

I would like to submit the preface and first three chapters of my manuscript to Oxford. What's my next move?

Thank you.

Philip Nobile

[2-23-01] Dear Mr. Nobile,

Thanks for your query. I have to confess I doubt the MS you describe would be suitable for my list, not because I object to the subject but because any discussion of it seems too speculative to sustain a whole book. And even if you were to demonstrate that Lincoln were bisexual, I'm not sure that that would enlighten us in any important way. So I don't think it would be worthwhile for me to invite you to send the manuscript.

Thanks for your interest in OUP; I hope you enjoy the other essays in Gabor Boritt's book.

Yours sincerely,

Peter Ginna

[2-23-01] Dear Mr. Ginna,

Thanks for your swift reply. If you don't mind my wondering, without reading my chapters or outline, why would you speculate that my subject could not"sustain a whole book"? And second, how can a total revision of Lincoln's sex life be"unimportant"? If I am right, all of Lincoln biography is wrong and all of Lincoln's biographers were blind. My book is just as much about Lincoln experts as well as Lincoln himself.

In particular, Boritt has done a disservice to Lincoln scholarship by dismissing Thomas Chamberlin's"History of the 150th Regiment" without telling the readers more about the author and his work. For example, Chamberlin was Derickson's commanding officer and an eyewitness to the close relationship with between Lincoln and Derickson. Chamberlin was also a college graduate who furthered his studies in law and philosophy in Germany. In short, he was a serious historian unlikely to sully his regiment with pure gossip implicating his commander-in-chief and a fellow officer in immoral and illegal behavior. Boritt seems to be following the het line of all Lincoln scholars, with the exception of Thomas Lowry, who refuse to examine Lincoln's passionate preference for male company (though Sandburg referred to Lincoln's"streak of lavender and spots soft as May violets" in connection with Joshua Speed).

Incidentally, did you know that Lincoln wrote a boy-sex poem when he was 20?

Philip Nobile

[2-23-01] Dear Mr. Nobile,

I won't get into a debate with you over Lincoln's sexuality or whether it was important. If you believe your outline and chapters can persuade me that your book would be worth publishing, you're welcome to send them to me. I thought it only fair to tell you that I think for my list the project is a long shot.


Peter Ginna

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Helpful Reader - 10/1/2003

i do hope that you hear the hostility in your voice in these letters and understand the responses it occasions. these people are not homophobes--and if you hear anything hostile in their voices it's because of the way in which you address them. and i do mean this helpfully. being right--and i have absolutely no idea if you are or not--does not give you license to be rude.