Lincoln’s “Literary Low Road”

by dustylittlefascinations

Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln (based on Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals) has been screening for a while now at a theater near you, and a few red words have left some reviewers all ablush. Writers are discussing whether Lincoln and his associates actually had the potty mouths attributed to them in the film. From The Hollywood Reporter:

Movieguide, which reviews films from a Christian perspective, says there are about 40 obscenities in the PG-13 Lincoln,including 10 uses of “goddamn.” Similarly, the Dove Foundation laments that “the language they feature in the film … does not line up with the morals and language of the time period.”

But Doris Kearns Goodwin, author of the source book Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, begs to differ. “I saw pretty much every draft of the script and never had a problem with the language,” she tells THR. In fact, she recalls advising screenwriter Tony Kushner to include Lincoln telling a favorite story that includes the word “shit.”

Still, while Lincoln was known to relate off-color anecdotes, it’s unlikely he cussed as much as in Lincoln, says James McPherson, a Lincoln biographer and consultant on the film, who adds that the portrayal of profanity used around Lincoln — such as when lobbyist W.N. Bilbo (James Spader) says “f—” when meeting him — also is unrealistic.

I wanted to hold off on writing about this until I had seen the film. Now I have. The language seemed mild to me (those reviews “from a Christian perspective” are worth what you pay for them), but that’s relative to a standard coarsened by contemporary English. We’re always swearing, and the leveling spirit of our age perhaps drives us to believe that past generations did the same – even among the powerful, the literate, the well-educated. Accurate or not, it’s an understandable humanizing tactic.

I don’t pretend to know whether Lincoln and his associates swore much in private, and I don’t think it’s an important question. It does, however, get at a larger point about the coarseness of Lincoln’s time and place and a seedy, lesser-known aspect of his personality. Even when popular histories emphasize his folksy western wisdom, they rarely capture just how ribald and crude Lincoln could be. He was the product of a rough-hewn historical moment in which sex, the body, and the profane in general were common topics of conversation. We’re talking about stuff that makes the occasional F-bombs in Lincoln seem, if anything, like a bowdlerization of the facts.

Here’s Fred Kaplan, in Lincoln: The Biography of a Writer:

The humor of [a poem Lincoln wrote in 1829] was profane and obscene, a semi-doggerel version of the barnyard anecdotes that became a staple of Lincoln’s storytelling. From the start, he was attracted to off-color jokes. Earthy, naturalistic, and frank, he told stories and used language considered appropriate only for male ears. His comic depictions of what happens when two people of the same sex are bedded has a heterodox clarity that reveals his familiarity with bodily realities and a subversive edge that provides a touch of titillation. John Romaine recalled one verse: “Reuben and Charles have married 2 girls / But Billy has married a boy … Billy and natty agree very well / Mamma is pleased with the match. / The Egg is laid but won’t hatch.” And Billy, another Grigsby son, is told by the woman who has rejected his marriage proposal, “you Cursed ball head / My Suitor you never can be / besides your low Croch proclaims you a botch / and that never can anser for me.” [all sic]

Sterility, impotence, and physical inadequacy, subjects rarely discussed in the Victorian parlor, were suitable but scandalous ploys in the kind of rough satire that Lincoln wrote, and jokes about such subjects were part of the usual repartee of male frontier life. There was nothing pure, let alone refined, about the young writer. He took great pleasure in the literary low road. It suited the time, the situation, and the audience. As part of its appeal, the “Chronicles” flouted decorum in the tradition of Carnival, when license is granted to speak and act transgressively. Mock marriages were a staple of the discourse, and Lincoln apparently enjoyed the widely expressed frontier humor about same-sex relationships. […]

There was now no doubt that they had a prodigy among them, and one with a talent for the literary low road, for common speech and down-to-earth language, for obscenity and comic frankness, as well as for intellectual intensity and Enlightenment rationality.

How much of this was the expression of a permanently warped, wild mind and how much of it was just the product of testosterone-addled adolescence is hard to say. Lincoln wasn’t writing much doggerel in White House, but old habits do die hard.