Thursday, January 27, 2011

So what's this about "new men" then?

I've started reading Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, which traces the careers of four ambitious young legislators who all ended up in Lincoln's cabinet during the American Civil War. I'm already struck by the fact that if we're to believe this book close friendships between educated, straight males in the 19th century were much tenderer and more intimate than even the newest of today's new men would be happy to allow. This seems at odds with our image of the Victorian era as a time when people kept their emotions as firmly buttoned as their shirt fronts.

One writes to another: "It shames my manhood that I am so attached to you. It is a foolish fondness from which no good can come. I have suffered a womanish longing to see you."

When the young Lincoln arrived in Springfield intent on starting to practice law he had nowhere to stay and no money. He went into the general store and asked the young owner if he could be given "the furniture for a single bed" on account. He planned to pay the store back if he made a success of his legal career. The man behind the counter took pity on him and said: "I have a large room upstairs with a double bed and you are very welcome to share with me." Lincoln shared that bed for four years.

At this point the contemporary eyebrow can't help but lift and speculate about the pair's sexuality. Which just shows how far we've come.


  1. I wonder if we raised a contemporary eyebrow at this? Apparently they weren't too happy about doing these sketches until it was pointed out by their writers that Stan and Ollie had utilised it to great effect many years later. We don't know if Abe Lincoln's roomie used to wax lyrical about the play wot he wrote, but it was probably the making of him.

  2. Typo. For later, read earlier. Sorry David.

  3. I certainly wouldn't wonder about their sexuality. They were just sharing - its what people did. They often grew up with 12 people sharing a single room in some places, sometimes several families shared the same room. It is only very recently that people got funny about men sharing rooms - note that if women do it these days nobody bats an eyelid. Double standard?

  4. Saw an exmaple of this effusive some might say gushing mode of address/male friendship watching the film of "Gettysburg" (which is based on letters etc from the time). There's a long passage where a confederate general speaks in this effusive way about his friend a Northern general across the lines. It's all done in this flowery language . I assuming this is similar to the white house group in your book.

  5. Wikipedia has a surprisingly long page on Lincoln's sexuality. Reading it draws no particular conclusions either way.

  6. I enjoy your blog David but feel moved to question your use of "contemporary" meaning "modern" especially in this context. Just one of my little bugbears.

    *must get out more*