The Clare Spark Blog

October 19, 2011

Sex Without Freud

    I have been trying to estimate when the “dumbing down” of America began. I asked my Facebook friends to guess when it started. One denies that it ever happened; another blames it on the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the lowering of standards to accommodate affirmative action, another on television, yet another on the transformation of American history from a positive to a negative view of American “identity.”  My own concern as a historian is the attention now given to sexuality as a major engine of history. I first noticed this in graduate school, as the followers of Michel Foucault were the hippest of academics, and for Foucault, anything goes or went. Yesterday I was queried by a twenties-something (wrong! see comment below) scion of an old American family if I did not think that Abraham Lincoln’s recently discovered [or alleged] gay sexuality was not a major discovery. I asked him how sex could have affected Lincoln’s governing of America during the Civil War, and the answer agreed with my own opinion that it was irrelevant.  Yet this young man, very bright, and a published author, was stoked about what was for him a major change in the historiography on Lincoln.

Feminists in the late 1960s and 1970s fervently believed that we were in the midst of a gender revolution and nothing would ever be the same. We all objected to the reduction of girls and women to sexual objects. Yet we find ourselves in the year 2011 in a society where sex and sexual appeal, featuring the objectification of both women and men, to be more overt than ever, worse than even the supposed flaming 1920s.* And yet feminist artists often explored sexuality as a way of appealing to the art-buying public, while indulging their narcissism. Was it not interesting that many bonded with left-wing men, notorious for their womanizing?

Some 1970s feminist theorists also rejected Freud as a traitor to his early female ‘hysterical’ patients, who, it was alleged, were really abused by fathers and uncles, and not themselves the initiators or willing collaborators with dirty old men.  So the Oedipus complex was considered not only wrong, but a travesty. In graduate school, I was told to revere a book that said psychoanalysis was a Jewish invention of use solely to [typically carnal] New York Jews (see Berger and Luckmann, The Social Construction of Reality.)

While conducting my dissertation research into the construction of the humanities curriculum in America and England, especially during the interwar period, I noted that Freud was even more disreputable than Marx (though both, unlike Carl Jung, were verboten. See This is an intellectual calamity, for Freud, who wrote about the horrors of civilized countries at war with each other in 1915, did not elevate sexual acting-out as many of his upper-class followers believed. Rather, he emphasized the study of libido as a life force and, like aggression, a motive that often went unexamined as the source of psychogenic illness. Neo-Freudians appealing to the counter-culture  might celebrate Eros (like Wilhelm Reich or Herbert Marcuse, see, or, in my view, they might have more fruitfully focused on the mother-child attachment and issues such as object constancy (like John Bowlby, or Winnicott or Mahler). But such a focus on separation from the mother and the importance of managing that crucial event in maturation, was not sexy enough, and perhaps could not be co-opted into the subject of popular culture growing ever more primitivist, crude, and aggressively nihilistic.

Ironically, it was Herman Melville’s first modern biographer, the overtly gay Raymond M. Weaver, who was impressed by Freud (as interpreted by A. A. Brill), and who spotted the intense and troubled attachment of Herman to his mother, Maria Gansevoort Melville. Weaver has yet to be forgiven for his insightful efforts at understanding the ever mysterious “greatest American writer.” (For more on the 1920s reception to Freud, see

*Cf. E. Digby Baltzell on the sex and booze-crazed 1920s (, the decade that witnessed the beginning of “the Melville revival.” Yet if we consult Hemingway’s short novel The Sun also Rises (1926), the characters are indeed a lost, vicariously shell-shocked generation, reduced by the recent slaughter to meaningless wandering about France and Spain, promiscuous coupling, a fascination with violence (the bull-fight),  and regression to conversation at about the level of young children (though Hemingway probably saw his style as natural and purified).  Has our literature and/or popular culture ever recovered?

[Illustrated, Marie Stopes, author of Married Love, eugenicist, and later admirer of Hitler. See, and]


  1. […] a recent blog (, I have noted that the “Jew” Freud was more controversial than the “Jew” Marx as I […]

    Pingback by Moral atheists? « YDS: The Clare Spark Blog — February 25, 2012 @ 9:36 pm | Reply

  2. Hi Clare, I find your questions about “dumbing down” interesting. I am a non-US citizen and, as you probably know, there are very strong perceptions held outside of the US about Americans and the dumbing down phenomenon. However, I often wonder to what extent the same dumbing down has occurred in other Western countries. Have you formed your own view in relation to the US yet, in terms of when this began (or why)?

    Comment by Sheeple Liberator — November 2, 2011 @ 5:05 pm | Reply

    • I don’t have a well-formed opinion yet, but am guessing that the U.S. has little if any recollection of the first world war, and that the fashionable primitivism and nihilism that followed, had something to do with it. When I read works of scholarship written by persons born in the 19th century, I find much better work. But this is only tentative. It is not something that can be easily measured.
      Also, the success of the Bolshevik coup tended to substitute schematic thinking and easy to remember slogans on behalf of the left for a more empirical examination of capitalism as it actually worked. One cannot say too much about this ongoing phenomenon, so that today’s liberals are equally simple-minded and incurious.

      Comment by clarespark — November 2, 2011 @ 5:10 pm | Reply

  3. I’m the writer to whom Clare referred with regard to Lincoln’s sexuality. My name is Lewis Gannett. First of all I should clarify something: I just turned 59. Scarcely a twenty-something, unfortunately. Ah, even to be forty again!

    Now, as to being stoked. The most interesting thing about Lincoln’s sexuality is not that he probably had sex with men. By far the most interesting thing, if the bisexual hypothesis is true (I think it is), is why historians missed it, or perhaps consciously chose to miss it. The question of how history is done. The blinders that almost inevitably come into play. Carl Sandburg wrote a celebrated and also vilified multi-volume bio of Lincoln, published in the ’20s. In it he dropped a great big fat unmistakable hint that he believed and Lincoln and a man named Joshua Speed were lovers; it’s germane to point out, even if it drives authorities on 19th-century sexuality and sleeping arrangements crazy, that the two men shared a bed for four years. Ever since Sandburg, Lincolnists have been sensitive about Lincoln’s sex life, an anxiety that L.’s extremely well-documented avoidance of available girls and women did nothing to allay (he had close friendships with married women). He married Mary Todd with considerable trepidation at the somewhat late age of 33. Up until that time he had only one alleged serious romance with a woman, Ann Rutledge. Almost all Lincoln scholars of a certain age buy the Rutledge story; younger Lincolnists tend to avoid the subject, and here’s why. With C. A. Tripp, my deceased mentor, whose Lincoln book I helped him prepare, and in two articles I’ve published in the premier Lincoln journal, Journal of the A. L. Association, the Rutledge story has been thoroughly discredited. And in fact it had been tossed out of the academy 1944, on the grounds that the evidence was too cute and way too flimsy. But in 1990, it had a revival. All of this is very odd, and worthy of study. Even scholars at the highest levels of the most distinguished universities accept a bogus, blatantly sentimental hetero romance for which there is not a shred of contemporary documentary evidence. The evidence consists of testimony based on 30-year-old memories, and it’s highly contradictory. In short, many scholars simply can’t stand the idea of Lincoln in love with another man, and will go to extraordinary lengths to affirm his love for women. Here’s my point. Yes, it does make a difference if Lincoln had romances with men. Not because it changed the Civil War, but because it’s a classic case history of flawed and biased historiography. Anyone who cares about history, should care about the bisexual hypothesis.

    Comment by Lewis Gannett — October 19, 2011 @ 9:12 pm | Reply

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