Vibrant Voices of Public Address–Volume 1, No. 12

December 2012

A Conversation with Charles E. Morris III

In this issue, Public Address Division member Charles E. Morris III discusses his study of Abraham Lincoln’s queer rhetorical pedagogy. He engages a constellation of Lincoln artifacts that might be deployed in K–12 classrooms as queer rhetorical education: narrative fragments of Lincoln’s life, such as his bed sharing with Joshua Speed and David Derickson, his friendship with Elmer Ellsworth and his grief over Ellsworth’s death, and his admiration for Walt Whitman’s poetry; fragments of Lincoln’s texts, such as the “Chronicles of Reuben,” the letters to Joshua Speed (below, right), a condolence letter to the parents of Elmer Ellsworth, the Emancipation Proclamation, the Gettysburg Address, and the Second Inaugural; and texts about Lincoln, including Maira Kalman’s children’s book Looking at Lincoln (2012).

What do you find especially compelling about these artifacts?

For more than a decade I have been interested in competing memory/history discourses about Lincoln’s sexuality. The very notion of Lincoln’s sexual non-normativity has generated copious and diverse apologia, historical argument, ad hominem, and fiction-passing-as-fact by the Lincoln Establishment (defined by sociologist Barry Schwartz in the Journal of the Abraham Lincoln Association in 2003 as “thousands of partisan biographers, historians, antiquarians, organizations, and curators”; in my view, those deeply invested in the perpetuation and circulation of Lincoln’s normative national mythos), and by gay Lincolnists and their allied scholars, journalists, and activists. Lincoln’s sexuality is a textual as much as a political or cultural controversy, and its close reading reveals much about the practices of interpretation, the politics of historiography and hagiography, and the complex relationship between history and memory. In a recent project, I consider the “unfinished work” that may come from these battles over Lincoln. What do we, as rhetorical-historical critics, do with Queer Abe? Put more broadly, for public address research and its practitioners, what is “engaged scholarship”? By producing an interdisciplinary collaboration of LGBTQ educational theory with rhetorical history and rhetorical education, my answer is to consider the prospective queer deployments of Lincoln’s life and words, and words about Lincoln’s life and words, in the K–12 classroom. How might Lincoln’s rhetorically produced, performed, and debated queerness function as a meaningful, perhaps even lifesaving intervention at school, a site that formatively contributes to heteronormativity and homophobia, a key location of devastating bullying in the United States?

What do you believe are the most important contexts for understanding the rhetorical functions of these artifacts?

I am fascinated by context. In teaching courses in rhetorical criticism and public address, I puzzle over the dearth of its meta-engagement in published scholarship: explicit discussions of what constitutes context, where to find it, how to assemble it, how to make sense of its complex relationship to text(s), how to engage modes of inferential reasoning related to it, and how to narrate it.

Multiple animating contexts are at work in this project. Among them, first, are the contexts related to the specific intervention: late twentieth- and early twenty-first-century politics of sexuality/LGBTQ politics; K–12 education; heteronormativity and homophobia in K–12 education; conservative bigoted discourse of “gay recruitment”; and bullying and its individual and collective effects.

Second are the contexts related to Lincoln, then and now, across time, intersectionally: nineteenth-century homosociality and homoeroticism; nineteenth-century politics and culture; nineteenth-century rhetorical culture and genres; the history of homophobia; the genealogy of Lincoln memory and history in U.S. politics and culture; the genealogy of Lincoln’s texts; Lincoln in K–12 education; and public controversy concerning Lincoln’s sexuality.

How would you characterize your critical approach to these artifacts? Why have you chosen this approach?

My critical approach includes the following modalities:

            1) Archival: the “text” for this project, past and present, which continues to grow;

            2) Rhetorical/Critical: intertextual and intersectional close readings in context(s) of Lincoln’s rhetoric and discourse about queer Lincoln;

            3) Critical/Rhetorical: disruptive and self-reflexive readings of the politics of Lincoln historiography and memory, as well as imagined/invented contributions to queering Lincoln discourse; and

            4) Critical/Performative: staged recitations, spoken compositions, and debates of/about Lincoln’s rhetoric and discourse about queer Lincoln.

How would you incorporate these artifacts into a class?

This project specifically focuses on how teachers, aided by inventional resources produced by engaged rhetorical/historical critics (whom I call archival queers), might queer Lincoln for the K–12 classroom. However, similar exercises could provide valuable learning experiences for undergraduates and graduate students as well as a means of exploring the interanimating relationships among history, memory, rhetoric, pedagogy, and world making.

At the elementary grade level, this project imagines queer supplements to Maira Kalman’s book Looking at Lincoln (2012), written for children aged four to eight. Any number of Lincoln books from children’s and young adult literature would also work well. Which words from Lincoln might be linked in age-appropriate ways to words and illustrations about Lincoln that could be added to the book as a means of orienting students to LGBTQ social justice? In Kalman’s book, the themes of love and freedom, punctuated by personal pleasure and collective commitment, effortlessly could accommodate queer content and inflection. An illustration of Lincoln and Speed’s “sleepovers” in Springfield could illustrate the love of his best friend that so centrally shaped who he would become. Along with images of Sojourner Truth and Frederick Douglass, an included image of Walt Whitman, whom Mr. Lincoln admired so, could illustrate that loving all people means loving gay people too. On the page depicting Elmer Ellsworth’s uniform, Kalman might have said, in addition to “Here is a bullet hole at the point of his heart,” that Lincoln had long loved the handsome and dashing young soldier and cried and cried at his death. This could be accompanied by a line or two from Lincoln’s poignant condolence letter to Ellsworth’s parents. Such modest changes answer education theorist Arthur Lipkin’s call in Understanding Homosexuality, Changing Schools (1999): “The earlier children’s contact with difference is initiated, the more certain the inhibition of prejudice.” Efforts to create points of contact with difference fit quite well in an age of bullying alongside Lincoln’s words of December 1862, anticipating the Emancipation Proclamation, which Kalman quotes elsewhere: “The occasion is piled high with difficulty. . . . As our case is new, so we must think anew, and act anew. We must disenthrall our selves, and then we shall save our country.”

At the high school level, I take as a useful inventional, pedagogical resource an adaptation of an in-class exercise that Sam Wineburg, Daisy Martin, and Chauncey Monte-Sano describe in their book Reading Like a Historian (2011): students analyze a documentary dossier containing Lincoln’s words and discourse about Lincoln, and then they stake multiple positions in public presentations on the question “Was Lincoln a Racist?” In this case, the question would be “Was Lincoln Gay?” I also adapt Stephen Hartnett’s prison pedagogy, which he characterized in an essay in the May 1998 issue of the Journal of Applied Communication Research. Hartnett had students engage, debate, and role-play Lincoln, Stephen Douglas, and David Walker intertextually on issues of race, slavery, and the prison-industrial complex. Again, in an adaptation of this activity, the issues and figures would concern sexuality, homophobia, and bullying—a queer variation on “What would Lincoln do, who makes him do it, and why (and why do we care)?”

Where can interested readers find additional information?

Biegel, Stuart. The Right to Be Out: Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity in America’s Public Schools. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2010.

Kumashiro, Kevin K. Troubling Education: Queer Activism and Antioppressive Pedagogy. New York: RoutledgeFarmer, 2002.

Morris, Charles E., III. “Abraham Lincoln, Larry Kramer, and the Politics of Queer Memory.” In Queering Public Address: Sexualities in American Historical Discourse, ed. Charles E. Morris III, 93–120. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2007.

Morris, Charles E., III. “Hard Evidence: The Vexations of Lincoln’s Queer Corpus.” In Rhetoric, Materiality, and Politics, ed. Barbara Biesecker and John Louis Lucaites, 185–214. New York: Peter Lang, 2009.

Tripp, C. A. The Intimate World of Abraham Lincoln. Ed. Lewis Gannett. New York: Free Press, 2005.

Contributor: Charles E. Morris III is Professor of Communication and Rhetorical Studies and LGBT Studies at Syracuse University. He is an archival queer whose research concerns the politics and performance of LGBTQ history and memory. His edited volumes are Queering Public Address: Sexualities in American Historical Discourse (2007), Remembering the AIDS Quilt (2011), and, with Jason Edward Black, An Archive of Hope: Harvey Milk’s Speeches and Writings (forthcoming). Morris’s scholarship has also appeared in Communication and Critical/Cultural Studies, the Quarterly Journal of Speech, Rhetoric and Public Affairs, the Southern Communication Journal, the Western Journal of Communication, and Women’s Studies in Communication. He is a two-time winner of NCA’s Golden Monograph Award.

Editor: Angela G. Ray, Associate Professor of Communication Studies at Northwestern University, is chair of NCA’s Public Address Division for 2012.