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Vampire Lincoln Vs the Texas School Board

vampire_lincoln00HISTORY MATTERS

Extreme history is here. A new literary mash-up is at the top oc the New York Times bestseller list. It features President Abraham Lincoln hunting vampire’s during the Civil War. At the same time, the "real" story of America is being decided by a small collection of conservative educators. Does history stand a chance? (Continued below)

 

Axing American History

Abraham Lincoln is wild-eyed as he grabs an ax from over the fireplace in his White House office. The old rail-splitter makes a mighty swing, but the intruder seems to have superhuman speed and dodges the flying blade. He tosses the six-foot-five-inch president across the room like a ragdoll, then leaps toward him, sharp teeth exposed. But with amazing dexterity, Lincoln flings his mighty ax, embedding it deep in the chest of his attacker, a man who looks not unlike John Wilkes Booth.

"I’ve been a slave to vampires for 30 years," the president hisses, and as he brings the weapon down for one final decapitating blow, the video cuts to black – and the ads come up.

READ ALSO: Lincoln assassin engaged to Seacoast NH woman

This is the dramatic video promotion for the new "true-history" book Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter by Seth Grahame-Smith. That’s right. I said "video". History publishers are finally catching on to the YouTube generation who don’t want to buy the book until after they’ve seen the movie. The two-minute video clip is shot in black and white, except for the red blood, and can be seen in the book section of Amazon.com. There is also a Vampire-Lincoln app for your iPhone and a video game version. The new vampire book inspired one pundit to announce "Now history really sucks."

Historians probably should be horrified by all this. The founding director of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library has called the book "the bastardization of the Lincoln story". This historian, however, is highly amused. Documenting human history is a serious task and scholars need to scrutinize the past with vigor, depth and integrity. But history professors also need to get a life. Vampire Lincoln is a romp, not a threat.

Who defines America?

Generally, we have done a pretty poor job of teaching our kids about the United States. I rarely meet anyone from England or Canada or Asia who doesn’t know more about world history – including our own -- than the average American. School curricula too often focus on dates and names, teaching for the test, and missing the big picture. Despite some excellent and inspiring instructors, many schools continue to "cover" the details and patriotic lessons of the past, rather than "uncovering" what really happened and what that means to us today.

Worse than that, our official textbooks often get the facts wrong, avoid alternative explanations, exhibit "history amnesia", or are hopelessly out of step with the times. Author James W. Loewan has been arguing this point for years in updated editions of his popular book Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong.

History, we know, is written by the victors. American history is also written by committee, especially the Texas school board that heavily determines what millions of students will study. The Texas book buy is so huge and influential that their impact on textbook publishers is felt across the country. What they call history becomes history.

Progressive educators say the standards currently being revised this month are short on diversity and white-wash mistakes that our country has made in the past. Conservatives argue that they are returning to the "facts" of America’s founding as a Christian nation and to the superiority of our free enterprise system. The Texas educators say they are merely emphasizing America’s "exceptionalism" when compared to other countries. In other words, our history is special and theirs is not. From what I’ve seen of the controversial new Texas standards, we might be better off with the vampire version.

CONTINUE WITH EXTREME HISTORY article


Lincoln_Vampire_Cover

Mash-ups and gross-outs

There is hope. I know because I have written three history books for children. These are not textbooks, but the small, colorful volumes that kids pick up in the library when doing research or book reports. I can tell you first hand that these extracurricular books, produced by independent publishers, are scrupulously researched and carefully edited. My editors put me through the wringer, questioning every source. But they also know how to make these books colorful, readable and appealing to kids.

Such books, and there are hundreds published every year, offer widely diverse viewpoints on up-to-the minute topics based on the latest scholarship. They also make history fun. My favorite series from Capstone, new this year for grades 3-5, gets down and dirty about real life in the "olden days". These vividly illustrated books have titles like The Dreadful Smelly Colonies, The Horrible Miserable Middle Ages, and The Foul Filthy American Frontier.

My own interest in history came, not from history classes, but from paperback copies of Ripley’s Believe It or Not. That’s where I first learned about the mummy of John Paul Jones and the Civil War bullets that fused in mid-air. Today, as attendance at history museums and sites are fading, comedy-adventure films like National Treasure and Night at the Museum are sparking renewed interest among young families. Whatever it takes is fine by me.

The new Lincoln fantasy is based on the enormous body of scholarship available about the 16th president. But it is fundamentally just for fun, a "mash-up" of fact and vampire lore. Author Seth Grahame-Smith calls it "absurd premise literature," and he should know. He made a killing last year with his Jane Austen adaptation entitled Pride and Prejudice and Vampires. The author, aged 34, reportedly received $575,000 for a two-book deal. At this writing, his Lincoln adventure is nonfiction book #5 on the New York Times Bestseller List. Internet rumors say director Tim Burton wants to make the film.

Literal vs. absurd

I probably won’t read this book. Vampires don’t interest me and I already know a lot about Abraham Lincoln. But I am interested in the way this book was constructed and why it has such appeal. Grahame-Smith invents a secret journal written by Lincoln. This device allows him to stitch together real events (the death of Lincoln’s mother, slavery, the Civil War, etc.) using threads of vampire lore largely created by Hollywood.

Like Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code franchise, this vampire thriller seeks to blur the line between fact and fiction. The difference is that, while Brown expands wildly on real things – religious iconography, Knights Templar, famous paintings – the reader wonders what elements are true. The Lincoln mash-up is absurd from the start. The author and the audience know that Lincoln did not hunt vampires. They agree that the story is ridiculous, and then carry on as if it is real. The fun is in seeing how cleverly the elements are stitched together. To a generation weaned on Dungeons and Dragons, avatars and alternate reality Internet worlds, it’s not a big leap.

Now and then history hands Grahame-Smith a bloody bone. White abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison, for example, really did say, "If we had any regard for our safety and happiness, we should strive to crush the vampire which is feeding upon our lifeblood." Garrison was talking about slavery. Grahme-Smith simply takes the metaphor literally as "proof" of his theory. Then he pretends to be a narrative historian like Doris Kearns Goodwin or David McCullough, turning proof into "spoof".

It is even true that New Englanders occasionally dug up the bodies of dead relatives, removed the heart of the corpse, burned it, and either consumed the ashes or used them as medicine for the sick. At least that’s what historian Michael E. Bell told me when I interviewed him about his book Food for the Dead many years ago. It’s not exactly Count Dracula material, but our favorite myths are often anchored in fact.

We always see the past through the lens of the present. That is how we make sense of our lives. But it can be dangerous to take history too literally or to assume that the way we see things, is exactly the way our ancestors saw things. What Alexis de Tocqueville meant by "American Exceptionalism" in the early 1800’s is not necessarily what the Texas school board means when they use that term today.

Our nation was conceived in very different times. In the 1600s, Portsmouth area residents testified in court that they saw one of their neighbors transform herself into a cat. You can look it up, but that doesn’t make it true. The Puritans decreed that a child who showed disrespect toward his parents could legally be put to death. You can look it up, but that doesn’t make it right.

Am I worried that our kids might get confused and grow up believing that Lincoln really hunted vampires? I am not. Am I worried that kids in Texas and elsewhere might learn from their textbooks and tests that America is "uniquely virtuous" among all the countries in the world? The idea frightens me to death. Not all mash-ups are benign. Some are scarier than vampires.

 

J. Dennis Robinson is the author of three history books for middle-school students on topics ranging from the life of Jesse James and Lord Baltimore to child labor exploitation in the American workforce. He is the editor and owner of the history web site SeacoastNH.com.

 

 

 

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