Abraham Lincoln and his good friend Joshua Fry Speed slept in a bed together. This was in Lincoln’s early years as a lawyer in Illinois, when he and Speed “rode the circuit” from courthouse to courthouse, staying in inns and sharing a bed. When the two were apart for a long time they’d write warmly intimate letters to each other. None of this was considered “romantic” in any way–in fact, it looks as though the details of their friendship were rather common for male friendships of the time.
I know of no men who have such a friendship today. The closest I can think of are two male roommates I know that spend a lot of time together. Their relationship is nowhere near as intimate as Lincoln and Speed’s. And yet, it has frequently and comically been referred to as a “bromance”: an almost-romantic male friendship.
This is a strange word. In these guys’ “bromance” there really is nothing terribly romantic. They’re just good friends. And from a broad historical perspective, their friendship is quite tame. So it’s odd to me that it even occurs to us to parallel it to a romance. Why do we do this?
I think it’s because we’ve lost some of our concept of male friendship. In that absence, we’ve put “male friendship” and “romantic relationship” oddly close together.
We’ve not done this with our concept of female friendship. In fact, just like Lincoln and Speed, women today still sleep in beds together. They still write each other intimate letters. Sometimes they hold hands in public. But we almost never joke that such women are romantically involved. The thought rarely occurs to anyone. We expect such closeness between women–but not between men.
Our culture has lost something here. Where once men could openly and comfortably confide in each other they now risk doing so on pain of looking like a romantic couple. We’ve swapped “friendships” for “bromances,” and I think we’ve been gypped.
Regardless of whether it looks like Lincoln and Speed’s, a close male friendship is a good thing. This is true because close friendships in general are good things. So it is sad that we can only make sense of one by paralleling it to a romance.
Many people feel that we live in a lonely culture. Maybe this is one of the reasons why.
Source: Doris Kearns Goodwin, “Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln”