Setting Lincoln straight, by Arthur Eaton (with Charles Strozier)

credit-donnelly-marksMost biographers make psychological judgments about their subjects all the time – they simply don’t recognize them as such. Not psychohistorian Charles Strozier. A conversation.

by Arthur Eaton


Essay from dBNg 2016#6

  • Charles B. Strozier, Your Friend Forever, A. Lincoln (Columbia University Press 2016), 352 blz. (bestel)

img_9202Charles B. Strozier – Chuck – lives on a leafy street in Brooklyn, New York City. My girlfriend and I visited him on a sunny morning in October. I agreed to speak with him about his latest book on the friendship between Abraham Lincoln and Joshua Speed – Your Friend Forever. Strozier is a psychohistorian, which means that he writes history using insights from psychology. He has written about a wide range of topics, such as Christian fundamentalism in the United States, and survivors of the 9/11 attacks. His first book, Lincoln’s Quest for Union, was an acclaimed analysis of Abraham Lincoln’s inner life. And his work has been nominated for a Pulitzer Prize on two occasions. Strozier practices psychoanalysis in a second office downtown, but here in Brooklyn is “where the magic happens”. A portrait of his late father, also a well-known academic, looks out for him – and possibly down on him – from one of the walls of his otherwise book-lined study. Surrounding his father are five poster-size reproductions of the covers of his books. Whenever he mentions one of them during our conversation, he proudly points at the cover.

abraham-lincoln joshua-speed

Psychohistory has been a contested field for as long as it has existed. Historians are skeptical because psychohistorians focus on topics and questions that they consider unknowable – the subjectivity of historical figures; psychologists, in turn, have questioned the possibilities of applying psychological theories to people who cannot speak back, who are often, in fact, dead. But psychohistory has produced a number of very beautiful and sensitive works of scholarship, and Chuck is one of its greatest living representatives. By empathically engaging with his subjects, as he does with his patients in Manhattan, Strozier brings his characters to life – gives them texture and psychological depth. Strozier’s latest book, Your Friend Forever, looks into the much discussed relationship between Abraham Lincoln and his best friend, the businessman Joshua Speed. In a difficult period of his life – when he was young, poor and mourning the death of his first love, the future President spent four years of his life living in a room with Speed. This fact has spurred the imagination of many students of Lincoln’s life. Strozier’s latest book looks into this relationship closely. The following interview is a condensed version of a heavily caffeinated discussion about Abraham Lincoln, biography and psychoanalysis.

[Arthur Eaton] You describe your work as psychohistorical. What does that mean?

[Charles Strozier] I like to think of psychohistory as an exploration of history from a psychological point of view. It is still history, but it asks psychological questions. Who was Lincoln? Why did he act in the way that he did? Historians have generally been very skeptical about this project. Oddly enough, because most of them make psychological judgments about their subjects all the time – they simply don’t recognize them as such. If you talk to psychologists, although they might disagree with what you say, they see that the basic ideas of psychohistory are valid. They see that it is only natural to want to look at historical figures from a psychological perspective. You see it now with Trump. It’s only natural to want to know: what kind of man is this? It is no different for people who lived in the past. I write a fair amount for the Huffington Post, and I was thinking of doing a short piece about Trump. I think he is deliberately defeating himself. He is scared to death. I thought that would make an interesting article. In the end I decided against it. Psychological professionals should not engage in analyses of living figures. It’s tempting, but irresponsible.

[AE] Let’s talk about Lincoln. In recent years there has been a lot of scholarly and not-so-scholarly debate about the question whether or not Lincoln was gay. Why is it important?

[CS] Lincoln is the most important political figure in American history. When you make claims about him, the stakes are very high. You are striking at the heart of American identity. It raises questions such as: who are we as Americans? Who do we want to be? Paradoxically, the idea that Lincoln might have been gay originated with my work. While I was doing research for my first book on Lincoln, I stumbled onto the topic of his intense friendship with Joshua Speed. Speed and Lincoln wrote very intimate letters to each other, and for years slept in the same bed. At the time I wrote only a chapter about it; I didn’t go into it in great detail. But my first book got a lot of attention in the media and many reviewers picked up on that part of the story. It set off a storm in the Lincoln field, which was also around the time of the outbreak of AIDS. Homosexuality was still a very sensitive topic in the United States. Reviewers of my book wondered: was Lincoln gay? In retrospect, my treatment of the relationship between Lincoln and Speed was abbreviated; that’s why I returned to the topic many years later.

In the meantime, the myth that Lincoln was gay had taken on ridiculous proportions. ‘Gay Lincoln’ was a hot topic. It stimulated a lot of new research, much of it questionable in nature. I saw plays on Broadway where it was taken as a matter of fact that Lincoln was gay. The most extreme proponent of the Lincoln-was-gay myth was Larry Kramer, a playwright who claimed some years ago to have found Speed’s diary in the floorboards of the room above Speed’s store that Lincoln and Speed lived in together. Kramer claimed that the diary said things like: “Abe came home last night and fucked me in the ass!” Kramer never produced the diary, so most scholars have assumed the diary was a hoax. No one, however, did any research to prove it. I went back and discovered that the building they had lived in together burned down in 1855. [Laughs] That problematized Kramer’s claim somewhat.

[AE] Did you ever think that Lincoln might have been gay?

[CS] I spent ten years of my life working on Lincoln. After I published my first book in 1982, I kept up with the literature. I wasn’t writing anything new, but I kept reading books in the field. What I found astonished me. On the one hand was a group of writers who held an increasingly orthodox view that Lincoln was gay, like Kramer; then there was a reaction against that position of scholars who wanted to create a high-testosterone, extremely heterosexual Abraham Lincoln. These writers based their picture of Lincoln on rumours that he had slept with prostitutes and broke off his marriage because he fell in love with a young girl. These views are also based on highly problematic evidence. So the question whether or not Lincoln was gay is the last major area of disagreement in the Lincoln field – and both sides are wrong. I felt there was a need for a correction. That’s why I wrote this book. I never believed Lincoln was gay – there is no evidence for it. Any claim that Lincoln was gay is based on the fact that he slept in the same bed with his best friend for four years. Today, if you sleep with another man in the same bed, you are most likely saying to yourself and the world that you are gay. On the one hand, men are much more expressive with each other; thank goodness, almost everyone in the United States accepts homosexuality nowadays. In the nineteenth century the boundaries were very different. In Lincoln’s day there was not even a word for homosexuality. For one thing: it was illegal, and they spoke about it in legal terms as ‘buggery’ and ‘sodomy’. Sodomy is oral sex; buggery is anal sex. Those terms are ambiguous. Heterosexuals engage in those activities. In the nineteenth century, if you were gay, you kept it totally secret. That doesn’t mean that Lincoln wasn’t gay. But I think it would have revealed itself over the years. At the time, Lincoln talked openly about his friendship with Speed. Even Lincoln’s worst enemies, and he had some powerful enemies, never even mention the possibility that he was gay. They call him a thief and a drunkard and a traitor. It never occurred to them to accuse him of being a homosexual – even though the facts of his friendship with Speed were well known. Lincoln talked openly about sleeping next to Speed. It was simply no big deal. On the other hand, it is very important that in the period of his greatest vulnerability, when he was twice suicidal, he slept next to his best friend and opened up to him completely. If you ignore the importance of Speed, you’re missing the only person with whom he was intimate all of his life. The friendship between Lincoln and Speed was extremely important to Lincoln. Just not for the reasons that an average twenty-first century reader might suppose.

[AE] I read your book as a warning against projecting values and assumptions derived from the present onto the past.

[CS] Exactly. As a historian you have to reorient yourself. You have to put your mind in the time and suspend your present values. It is important to remember how radically different things are even now from, say, thirty-five years ago. I can’t imagine having this conversation with you around the time that I published my first book. It was all so tabooed. Even since then, things have drastically changed.

[AE] You first wrote about a young Lincoln when you were a young man yourself. Was it different to revisit Lincoln now that you are an older man?

[CS] That’s an interesting question. There are certainly differences. I was very young when my first book came out. I was living in Springfield, Illinois, and I had no training in American history. I had studied European history and back in those days the two were kept strictly apart. I came at Lincoln cold. But in a way that was good. I was fresh. Lincoln was terra incognita for me. When I wrote my first book, I was not seeing patients yet. Psychohistory was a new field. I had not yet begun my clinical training. By the time I started Your Friend Forever, I was an experienced clinician. That deepened my understanding of Lincoln and his tendencies towards depression. Before, I did not fully understand the difference between clinical depression and regular depression. Lincoln was clinically depressed after the death of his first love, Ann Rutledge. His friends were on suicide watch around the clock. A few years ago a good book came out by a historian called Joshua Wolf Shenk, Lincoln’s Melancholy. He makes the case that one cannot understand Lincoln’s greatness without understanding his depression. I think that’s true. It’s a good book, but Shenk didn’t understand anything about the nature of depression. That’s where psychohistory comes in. From my clinical practice, I know that there is nothing creative in clinical depression. It’s a dark hole that always involves suicidal ideation. It’s a profound sense of despair and hopelessness. But on the other hand it is probably true that it is hard to conceive of someone as being profound if he has not experienced some form of depression. Lincoln is the epitomy of that idea. Part of the glory of his personality was that he was able to share a piece of sadness and meaning and always find hope and move forward. There is a strong link between melancholy and greatness. I believe it is in this context that Speed was important in Lincoln’s life. The relationship between Lincoln and Speed, in all its openness and honesty, helped Lincoln to transcend his own darkness.

[AE] It was a therapeutic relationship.

[CS] That’s right. After his intense relationship with Speed, Lincoln was still depressed at times, but he was never clinically depressed. Joshua Speed played an important role in so far as he allowed Lincoln to move towards sanity and grounding and health, and by helping him to become the man that he was destined to become. And he truly was a great man. It’s great to spend your life working on Lincoln. The more you get to know him, the more wonderful he becomes. It’s not like you get to uncover dark secrets and therefore you dislike him more and more. It’s really the opposite. The seedier American politics gets, the more Lincoln becomes important in his integrity and fallibility and trustworthiness and empathy.