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Vampire Lincoln Vs the Texas School Board

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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