I recently began reading Doris Kearns Goodwin’s monumental biography of Abraham Lincoln, Team of Rivals, and within the first couple chapters, noticed a theme which kept popping up.
Goodwin begins by giving a thorough background to each of Lincoln’s rivals for the presidential seat, and nearly every description at some point mentioned a close male friend of theirs. Writes Goodwin:
Such intimate male attachments, as Seward’s with Berdan, or, as we shall see, Lincoln’s with Joshua Speed and Chase’s with Edwin Stanton, were a common feature of the social landscape in nineteenth-century America… In the absence of parents and siblings, they turned to one another for support, sharing thoughts and emotions so completely that their intimate friendships developed the qualities of passionate romances.
To highlight the extremity of these relationships, Goodwin recounts the story of William Henry Seward who met a young man named David Berdan while they were both in school together. They shared everything together, including theater, books, songs and vocational aspirations. Tragically, Berdan contracted tuberculosis while traveling overseas and died on the ship back to America. “Seward was devastated,” writes Goodwin, “later telling his wife that he had loved Berdan as ‘never again’ could he ‘love in this world.’”
Let’s just take in the obvious fact that that’s not something you say to your wife.
Pondering Male Loneliness
That aside, I’ve been wondering why these deep male-to-male friendships seem so odd to me as a 21st-century reader. I think the idea is related to a previous post of mine regarding men and their lack of physical touch, but it’s also a different issue. I mean, guys don’t necessarily have to touch in order to be close and brotherly.
Personally, I feel like I have been blessed to have known (and to continue to know) a slew of really, really great men. The first being my father, which the older I get, the more rare I realize this is. Growing up, my best friend for as long as I can remember was Dave, and he is still my best friend to this day. In college and my travels abroad and my intermittent seasons of homelessness and vagabonding, I have always come across men with whom I can share everything.
I can’t help but wonder if many heterosexual men veer away from such relationships as they may be perceived as homosexual or weird in some way. What this leads to is an abundance of loneliness, causing men to satiate their loneliness with more insidious salves.
How many fathers have been caught in a pornography or alcohol addiction, despite having a relatively enviable, stable life? This is conjecture, but I can’t help but wonder if addictions like these arise because men think that their wives and kids should be enough human connection to satisfy them, never thinking their souls may be craving more male friend connections. How many men feel this loneliness but feel weird about seeking out male friends, so they settle for the false intimacy of porn or the artificial ecstasy of substances?
I know men who—like Paul Rudd’s character in I Love You, Man—prefer the company of female friends, because they may be intimidated by other men. Others find themselves a girlfriend and cut off communication with all other friends indefinitely. I also know those who simply opt for very few or no friends at all, believing any sort of vulnerability or emotional nearness to other men to be un-masculine.
I would argue that the opposite is true.
Take a look at King David from the Bible. This is a dude who killed lions and bears with his bare hands while growing up as a shepherd. This is a dude who lusted after and married several women (not a GOOD thing, but it proves that he was very straight…). This is a masculine dude that any man would be wise to look up to.