- Lincoln’s Queer Hands
Abraham Lincoln, Queer Memory, Lincoln, Tony Kushner, Walt Whitman
Sculptor Leonard Volk, perhaps best remembered for his preserving Abraham Lincoln’s face in life-mask, himself remembered best in an 1881 Century Magazine article a touching encounter with the future president. More than two decades earlier, in the immediate afterglow of Lincoln’s May 1860 nomination for the presidency, Volk, who happened to be in Springfield, visited Mr. Lincoln’s house. “I exclaimed, ‘I am the first man from Chicago, I believe, who has the honor of congratulating you . . .’ Then those two great hands took both of mine with a grasp never to be forgotten. I thought my hands were in a fair way of being crushed.”1 Just days later, Volk would for posterity cast the mold of Mr. Lincoln’s hands, one swollen from the campaign reach that had placed the presidency within his grasp.
While watching Lincoln again in November 2013 (an experience all the more meaningful during the 150th anniversary year of Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation and Gettysburg Address), this time with my undergraduate seminar students after two months of deeply considering together Lincoln as Emancipator, then and now, I was critically preoccupied by absence when taken by surprise in noticing for the first time the presence of Lincoln’s queer hands. In Daniel Day-Lewis’s masterful performance—verisimilitudinous, visceral, enchanting—Lincoln’s hands convey much and perhaps intimate even more. There are haptic inflections in his various [End Page 135] handshakes: warmth and vigor for some politicos; for his son Robert in the icy homecoming scene, a stiff unfatherly civility, not to mention that jarring slap later in the film. For Tad, by contrast, Lincoln’s adoration is expressed in effusive caress; he can’t keep his hands off his beloved boy, and through this, more, his cradling of Willie’s memory. With John Hay, too, there is the remarkable—indeed arguably, for a president, promiscuous—intimacy of hair tousling and a clasp, holding, of hands on the breathtaking verge of the Thirteenth Amendment. How differently, variably, Mr. Lincoln handles his Molly. Does he ever touch Mrs. Keckley or Mr. Slade at all?
In considering further those untouched by the demonstrative Lincoln, we might note that Tony Kushner and Steven Spielberg indulged themselves, us, with a number of anachronistic, presentist allowances. They did so, presumably, for the sake of a good story; for the sake of a familiar mythic aura made all the more believable through their Herndon-esque veritable grit-under-the-nails of Lincoln’s bawdy tales and his calloused dexterity in ushering morally profound legislation through the gutter of congressional political process; for the sake of commenting on dismaying politics in our own time. Kushner and Spielberg needn’t have compromised their story, this historical memory, at all. Rather they might have deepened it had a particular interracial grasp of March 1865 also been depicted. The critique of Lincoln’s racial representation emerged immediately after the film’s release, with Northwestern historian Kate Masur observing in the New York Times, “Meanwhile, perhaps the greatest rhetorician of the 19th century, Frederick Douglass, who in fact attended the White House reception after Lincoln’s Second Inaugural . . . is nowhere to be seen or heard.”2 Nor, we might add, taken in hand. Profound in that scene—actually lived, but lamentably unscripted—are not only Lincoln’s publicly uttered words, “Here comes my friend. I am glad to see you . . . there is no man in the country whose opinion I value more than yours,”3 but also the public embodiment of that moving exchange, “Taking me by the hand, he said . . .”4 Who among that white throng, of all stations, felt a vicarious twinge of envy, longing, in bearing witness to that amalgamated embrace?
Fewer critics mention sexuality.5 Perhaps here you experience your own historical purity or limit on intersectionality? Early on in the film’s writing, Kushner and author/activist Larry Kramer spat publicly over Kushner’s refusal to represent Lincoln’s mysterious and contested non-normative sexuality.6 In an interview shortly after the film’s release in 2012, [End Page 136] Kushner...