Literacy & "Keeping Lincoln's Secrets"
A Commentary on the Changing Media Landscape
In my “Keeping Lincoln’s Secrets” series, I made several comments along these lines:
…what’s obvious is that many people in Kentucky were gossiping about Lincoln, and that some seemed a little confused, and also on the garrulous/playful side. This did not mix well with national press coverage, which tended to distort the context, creating annoying controversies like this one. Once the war began, the addition of politically-motivated malice made it much worse.
The story is odd enough in its details and heavy-handed enough in its implications that it was probably intended to stir up negative emotional associations in those hostile to Lincoln. It’s hard to see people inclined to vote for Lincoln changing their mind on the basis of this “factual account.” But it had a surprisingly strong effect on those who ran into similar allegations from more respectable sources, even if they were close associates of Lincoln himself. These associates had met Lincoln in adulthood, when he had moved away from his father’s home, and did not know enough about his childhood to vet the claims. Given the social environment in which Lincoln spent his early years, and the fact that his family periodically relocated, and that the names of locations had changed, there was not much of a paper trail to check. It’s quite possible that obtaining a marriage license was not the norm; certainly birth certificates were not yet a thing in that region. This would have been strange to those who grew up in more developed areas, or in higher social classes. Lincoln’s parents were illiterate, and his biological mother, Nancy Hanks, had been dead so long that it’s unlikely Lincoln himself had all the details.
Inexplicably, Swett took it at face value, and responded by making the factual point that Lincoln did not have a brother!
Some historians have proposed that Herndon misunderstood one of Lincoln’s much-discussed but little-preserved off-color stories, some of which may have been told in the first person. Telling entertaining, often bawdy stories was then a competitive sport among men, and Lincoln reigned supreme in that area. But the stories were more reminiscent of a stand-up routine (“one time I dated this girl . . .”) than an autobiography. I think this there is probably some truth to this when it comes to things others told Herndon and which he wrote down, which Dall might have taken at face value, as his warning to her indicates.
“It's written/print culture that's the recent historical anomaly…”
The dynamic I was trying to get at in those quotes was brilliantly articulated this week by Zeynep Tufekci, a sociologist and writer, in “The Clubhouse App and the Rise of Oral Psychodynamics.” This piece is excellent context for understanding both the Lincoln paternity rumors and our current media environment.
I suspect we’re in the process of transitioning to something closer to the 19c media model than to the 20c one. I think it will be okay, once the transition is complete. Until then, buckle up!
This theory came from recognizing social media-like communication patterns in my 19c primary source research. It seemed like the true anomaly was the 20c mass media model, which is now on its way out. This has caused a panic about “misinformation” and other issues, but there’s just nothing new about that. The problem is that we don’t understand what we’re dealing with, and don’t react sensibly. This is also not a new issue.
We saw it with Herndon and Dall, both extremely avid readers and analytical thinkers, struggling to grapple with the stories coming out of Kentucky. They, the press, and people like Leonard Swett, often took things too seriously or literally when engaging with the still primarily oral culture of the region of Kentucky in which Lincoln was born. While there certainly were many literate people in the region by 1860, the local court clerks retained many of the behaviors associated with oral cultures. The freewheeling way in which they passed on bizarre, sensitive gossip comes across as inexplicably poor judgment or even malice. Maybe some of it was, but there was a definite cultural disconnect. Herndon was not unfamiliar with this, given his time riding the circuit, but he was so naturally intellectual that he tended to over-complicate things. In taking everything at face value, particularly the war-time taunts, and trying to pin down the facts, people like Herndon inadvertently made things worse, blowing things out of proportion, becoming paranoid and fixated.
Tufekci argues that the new app Clubhouse is “the latest encroachment of oral culture back into the public sphere.” She also argues that “Twitter, despite being written, has been primarily dominated by oral psychodynamics,” and that “ the podcast model (two speakers/large audience)…despite being spoken, is actually written or print culture.” She explains the key difference between primary orality (found cultures which are untouched by writing) and “cultures like ours where writing dominates even our speaking.” Emphases mine.
The oral world is ephemeral, exists only suspended in time, supported primarily through interpersonal connections, survives only on memory, and rather than building final, cumulative works, it is aimed at conversation and remembering knowledge by rendering it memorable, which can often mean snarky, witty, rhythmic and rhyming. (Think poet slams rather than essays).
In oral psychodynamics, the conversational, formulaic styling dominates (which aides memory) as well as back-and-forth, redundancy, an emphasis on being less analytic and more aggregative, being more additive rather than developing complex and subordinate clauses (classic example is the Genesis which, like Homer’s Odyssey, is indeed an oral work which was later written down). Oral pschodynamics also tend to be more antagonistic, interpersonal and participatory.
This is the behavior you see all through Herndon’s papers. Stories designed to be memorable, witty, conversational, redundant, and personal—not objective and precisely accurate. Many of his “informants” were basically free-associating, speculating, teasing, thinking out loud. The resulting material has to be handled with that in mind—something Herndon recognized in his warnings to Dall about not believing everything she read. The mere existence of this nonsense was not a crisis then, and it is not a crisis now, as long as influential people learn to recognize it for what it is and move on. It was far more of a problem in the hands of an influential person like Dall than it was in rural Kentucky. But it’s not like outsiders to that culture can’t understand it. Someone Jesse Weik had little trouble putting the matter into context. The collaboration of people with different thinking styles seems to be the most stable arrangement. Geographically separated from his correspondent, Herndon was oblivious to Dall’s fixation with “profligacy,” and she was apparently oblivious to his fixation with the “little black notebooks.” Media consolidation means the fixations converge.
This is a difficult point to understand, usually, for people deeply steeped in print and written culture—as most of our chattering classes, academics and journalists are. It’s our water, and we are the fish. Print culture is a way of thinking and knowing and holding power…some spoken forms (like news anchors) are actually products of print culture: they speak in a way nobody speaks. What most TV anchors are doing is reading writing out loud. That’s print psychodynamics, not orality.
From an earlier post by Tufekci, emphases mine:
Writing, especially writing at length is a different modality of thought than talking and it also allows a different kind of exchange and discourse. (I refer specially to the scholarship of Neil Postman and Walter Ong.) As Postman argues, writing and the spread of the printed word through literacy and the printing press created a culture in which it is possible to debate ideas at length and produce analytic thought which can be produced, advanced, discussed, refuted, rejected, improved and otherwise churned through the public sphere. As Postman writes in Amusing Ourselves to Death: “almost all of the characteristics we associate with the mature discourse were amplified by typography, which has the strongest possible bias toward exposition: a sophisticated ability to think conceptually, deductively, and sequentially; a high valuation of reason and order; and abhorrence of contradiction; a large capacity for detachment and objectivity; and a tolerance for delayed response.” (p.63).
And this is exactly what is absent from many of Herndon’s papers. The accounts were just all over-the-place, because “the oral world is ephemeral …supported primarily through interpersonal connections, survives only on memory,... rather than building final, cumulative works.” In other words, it is simply is not the kind of information that can be the basis of a serious, book-length biography. It’s the kind of information that helps you navigate the local landscape and keep track of the major players in the area. That the Hanks family had some daughters whose character was questionable was socially important information. Less so was the exact actions of each particular daughter, especially given how long it took for Lincoln to become a public figure, so of course there was going to be erroneous gossip about Nancy Hanks. Someone with the right instincts can sift out some usable information, but it requires a real vetting process and ability to put things in context. When encountering such information, the default setting cannot be “take it at face value.”
Increasingly, there’s a weird inability to recognize playfulness or figurative language, which is certainly part of a healthy print culture as well. But our print culture seems to insist that every statement is of equal seriousness. And under that assumption, every stupid remark becomes a problem to be solved.
This is not primarily an issue of intelligence or character. We’re returning to a point in which print culture and oral culture conspicuously coexist, even among the powerful. We find that hard to imagine now, but when Lincoln was a child, illiteracy was common in large parts of America. The most obnoxious part of Twitter is that the media insists on covering tweets as if they were part of its own print culture. This always sounds petty, because tweets are not meant to be read to be treated like press releases, let alone read in a serious newscaster voice. This has become known as “context collapse,” and it was the same thing that happened when Lincoln’s joke to Haycraft was printed in the New York Herald.
As I’ve mentioned, Caroline Healey Dall’s diary contains reconstructed entries with clearly erroneous information. Most of it must have been that her memories had grown hazy in the years since she wrote the original entries, and she mixed in jumbled impressions, and probably some stuff she got from press accounts, with the initial content.
Given all her fixation on “profligacy,” however, there is one thing she wrote down that is interesting. Her feelings toward Mary Lincoln were quite negative, and this pre-dated her glimpse at Herndon’s papers.1 But she wrote that Herndon “considers [Mary Lincoln] the most sensual woman he has ever known--but cold--could not be hurried into vice.”
“The most sensual woman he has ever known,” is quite a statement. It may be nonsense like much of the rest of the entry, but most of the bizarre remarks can be attributed to mixing up information. This statement would be an odd one to get misremember. Not only that, it implies that Mary was not one of the many western women victimized by the pioneers’ excessive love of women. Dall’s notes do not indicate she had any doubts about Mary’s behavior on this point, despite having heard Herndon’s complaints and read the papers.
I point this out because in the original “Keeping Lincoln’s Secrets,” The Atlantic piece by Douglas L. Wilson, he wrote “if Dall may be believed, [Herndon] had collected stories about Mary Lincoln's own infidelity, which he also presumably suppressed.” He appears to be referring to Dall’s diary entries, and I cannot find anything in them that supports this claim.
The only other possibly relevant remark is this one:
[Mary Lincoln] used when boarding with Mrs. D. Early to entertain gentlemen in her bedroom--with locked doors. Browning, for one. No one imagines anything [?] was done. Her object was to irritate her husband. In Washington she tried it with Rosencrans and Halleck.
The Lincolns boarded with Mrs. Early for a few months, starting sometime after their marriage and ending shortly after Robert was born nine months later. She was probably confined to her room due to pregnancy-related social norms during that time. O. H. Browning, who was married, was a close friend of Lincoln, and of Mary herself. I can’t make out the bracketed word, but it sounds like no one had any fears that she was engaging in inappropriate relationships. It’s considerably more amusing if she actually tried this same attention-getting ploy on Rosencrans and Halleck! But it doesn’t sound like anyone believed there was misconduct there, either, whatever “she tried it” means.
Here’s something that is a little bizarre though, and I wonder if it is the source of this rumor. On July 18, 1863, the Cleveland Plain Dealer joked (?) that “The latest bit of scandal is that Halleck sleeps with Father Abraham at the White House.” Mary was then recovering from a carriage accident at the Soldiers’ Home, but Lincoln was reported to be going home every night to see her. I offered a plausible explanation for the Halleck allegation in an earlier post.
After Halleck had been withdrawn from the field he was kept at Washington by Mr. Lincoln, and was in and around the White House all the time. “He was,” said Judge Usher, “a great, big, clever, intelligent clerk.” Somebody asked Lincoln what he had Halleck around so much for, and he answered that, as there were no military men in the Cabinet, it was handy to have somebody around who could explain the movements of the troops in the field when the despatches came in. Halleck was, in short, a sort of Presidential explainer.2
And finally, from that same post, here is a quote from an 1899 Joseph Howard, Jr. column that still puzzles me:
On my desk has for many years rested a human skull. In the stirring days, of which I speak above, it was the head of a man whose forceful nature gave him prominence among his fellows, and made him a factor in wide horizoned affairs. He knew Mrs Lincoln, and admired her long silken hair, praised her beautiful shoulders, and guided her through the mazes of an etiquette to which she was an utter and absolute stranger. He knew all these men of whom I speak, shook hands with the suave Yulee, tasted the liquid ambrosia with Mason, played poker with Schenck, discussed finance with Chase, and almost equaled Buchanan in deportment. If that skull could speak, it would charm New England with its memories, as it often delighted gay parties with its pleasantries and enlivened the halls of legislation with its bright and witty powers of debate.3
Does anyone have any ideas as to whose skull this might be?
Dall had little to say about the Lincoln marriage, relative to other subjects. She preferred the more romantic Rutledge story.
John P. Usher, interview with George Alfred Townsend, The Boston Sunday Budget, May 14, 1882.
Boston Sunday Globe, July 16, 1899