Gallery Books. $21.95, ISBN 0-671-02721-2
Historical Fiction, 2000 (Reissue)
This review originally appeared on The Naughty Bits, which is sadly no longer around. It’s now here with Teddypig’s permission.
I was just reading several extremely scathing and down right nasty Amazon.com reviews of the current historical exposé The Intimate World of Abraham Lincoln by CA Tripp. It seems that several close male friends and confidants of Mr Lincoln left some pretty interesting letters behind detailing their fairly intimate knowledge and enjoyment of his physique and his bed. Most notably one young man, Billy Greene who coached Lincoln in grammar, wrote a letter glowingly describing his wonderful thighs.
Now this of course seems to trip (CA Tripp that is, heh) some people up in our current ways of thinking how manly men should act towards their close friends. I mean good lord, Abraham Lincoln? That stalwart family man and all around nice guy who freed all those slaves liked to play footsies in bed with several close male buddies? Despite these letters though I, unlike the author, refuse to simply tack a sign over poor Mr Lincoln’s head labeling him a closeted queen and then go about framing every issue in his life around just that single facet. That in my opinion would be the easy thing to do, though overly simplistic in response and way too highly convenient for everybody entrenched in the stereotyping of male morality and normalcy or those stalwart purveyors of decency complaining of hidden gay agendas and historical re-visioning. I also just get highly uncomfortable with people who need to continually place everyone in little boxes with clearly defined lines of classification.
When I look at books like Affectionate Men by Russell Bush, a wonderful collection of pictures which provide a visual record and a great contextual way of seeing how male friends (sexuality unknown) behaved with each other back in the good old days, it sure does seem to me that great-grandpa was a lot less hung up on how he acted with his “straight” buddies than the current uptight, paranoid, and ulcer-ridden crop of hetero men I deal with these days. In fact thinking it through for my own twisted self after being in contact with what I consider to be some of the great gray areas of male sexuality, namely military life, assorted friends with prison time and the slap and tickle goings on in the locker room, I have no problems in thinking that maybe we should consider in cases like Lincoln’s that this type of intimate friendship based “bisexual” behavior should be considered normal for the time it took place in.
Maybe we should accept a context that considers normal everyday straight male behavior back then with occasional dalliances, that includes men being men with men in the comfort of their discreetly shared manly beds (for four years Mr. Lincoln, four years!), and then going on to get married, have a mistress and have kids even while making sure to have your “good buddy” (or in Lincolns case, “personal body guard”) sleep with you but only when the wife is out of town. Maybe we could accept more shades other than the strict black or white or in this case gay or straight and admit that bisexuality might be more prevalent than we might want to believe which of course would mess up those nice labels we tend to use.
Despite the present day recognition of sexual minorities and the ongoing debates about equality and who was and who was not hot-to-trot in history, people seemed simply a lot less hung up about the scandal of “personal” sexuality even as recent as 200 years ago. We may know more about ourselves today, but the reward for all this acquired knowledge seems to be we cannot allow ourselves as much leeway to express it anymore. I don’t think these people in the past were more open minded, although maybe more likely to mess around with anyone willing to share their bed might be accurate, but my guess is that just the struggle to survive the general rigors and all around nastiness of their “sudden death” era on the American frontier was pretty much all they could keep up with.
There’s the crux of the matter that reminded me of the issues I have with this particular gay historical fiction book Frontiers written by Michael Jensen and published April 1, 1999.
The story is based on the folklore hero Johnny Appleseed otherwise known as John Chapman. Now Johnny though well known and well liked in his time, never got married, liked animals and beyond the whole apple thing not much is known about his background, at least nothing verifiable that is. So in Frontiers Michael Jensen sets out to construct an explanation for these lack of facts by making John Chapman gay and then framing the rest of the story around his fleeing civilization and eventually leading to his life in the wilds of the new frontier.
In essence Johnny Appleseed becomes the ever-victimized Harlequin Romance femme fatale, and every chapter tends to begin and end with the next great tragic event. As an added bonus, interspersed at the start of each tragic chapter you get the obligatory traumatic abused childhood with the drunken father flash back.
To summarize, Johnny has eye-opening fling with frigid older English military scoundrel. Flees angry townsfolk who kill the scoundrel. Gets rescued by wild moody hairy frontiersman and has great sex. Flees wild moody hairy frontiersman after supposedly killing him. Gets rescued by wise and amazingly liberated Native Indian woman and discovers apples. Meets conservative stupid settlers who threaten to marry him off to ugly women folk who need liberating and finds virgin sexy farm boy. Has meaningful sex and finally has adventures concerning supposedly killed wild jealous hairy frontiersman and no-longer-virgin sexy farm boy. Deep breath… what you need more clichés?
If you took one of the flamboyant characters from Queer Eye for the Straight Guy and forced him to wear buckskin britches while living in the colonial days and then took down every whiny comment, every jittery concern, and every trembling surprised discovery he makes about himself, his surroundings, the people he meets and the things they do you might possibly end up close to the grating tone used to tell this whole story.
This book would be hilarious if it did not point out the same simple problem found in the CA Tripp’s nonfiction book. In my opinion you cannot measure and describe people from another time even from our same country based on the values and morals or Kinsey inspired stats and graphs we have today. It not only shortchanges the people and the world they lived in, but it over simplifies the very complex and very real lives these people lead.
All I kept thinking while reading Frontiers was that here was a chance to explore these fascinating frontiersmen that had rich and often seemingly contradictory views and actions, men who could have these wild and passionate romances with another man that go on for years and yet balance that with marrying the girl next door and having kids while living sometimes very public lives… but instead the author is giving me this passive, overly self-analyzing, hairdresser from LA running around in an early episode of Little House on the Prairie.
So much for the “new gay literary genre” proclaimed so boldly on the cover by someone who has obviously never read Song of the Loon and as such has no clue what they are talking about. It’s not like women have not been reading and writing this stuff in the romance section for years now either. Here’s hoping the guy will eventually figure out how to write believable historical characters that come off as men living harsh lives in a dangerous frontier, instead of damsels in distress, because I have to admit he can write better man on man sex scenes.