Found Historiography

The Bloody Great Emancipator

Or, The Found History of Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter

[NB: updated to remove an egregiously incorrect Confederates in the Attic reference]

Vampires! Slavery! Spoiler Alert!

All part of the second installment of “Found History,” a review of Seth Grahame-Smith’s Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter (New York: Grand Central Publishing, 2010). (1)

So: Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter – worth a read? Indeed; and not only that, but I think it would be worth teaching (at least in some contexts), too. Let me explain…

I really enjoyed this book. Apart from any historical interest it might hold, it’s a solidly written adventure story, with just enough alt history components to keep things interesting. You should know going in that it’s a pastiche of other vampire mythos (paging Joss Whedon, Anne Rice, and the Amazing Screw-On Head), so if you’re looking for a truly new take on vampires qua vampires, this isn’t it. It’s not perfect: there are clichés aplenty (I found the scenes in New Orleans especially tiresome) and some glaring inconsistencies (the twist ending was a both unsurprising, and out of line with the character development) — but overall, a very entertaining read.

Now for all the spoilers (and analysis)…

Aside from the whole “omg vampires!” thing, AL, VP is based on three premises:

  1. Driven out of Europe, vampires became a powerful part of the antebellum American slaveholding class, as Southern plantation life was perfectly suited to vamp easy-living (no need for take out! or hiding); some also lived in non-slave areas, living like normal, taxpaying monsters.
  2. Abraham Lincoln, driven by revenge, hunted these vampires for his entire adult life.
  3. The Civil War was waged primarily to prevent the establishment of a vampire slaveholder republic, where all humans (white and black alike) would be slaves/cattle.

Swirled together, that makes for some interesting narrative chaos. But what does all this have to do with historical thinking?

Well, in addition to its more direct historiographical interventions (more on that later), AL,VP is formally framed as a work of history.

First, the introductory conceit is that the book is a piece of history done on-spec (like this or this). The narrator (like the author, also named Seth Grahame-Smith) is not a professional historian, but rather a frustrated novelist trapped in a dead-end job, but whose writing talents are recognized by (as it turns out) a vampire. The vamp hands the narrator “a bundle of letters held tightly by a red rubber band, and ten leather-bound books,” and asks him to “write a manuscript about them, of, let us say, substantial length.” (Sounds like a romantic way to find a dissertation topic, no?). Subsequently, the narrator charts the writing of the book as an act of historical obsession, complete with moments of archival discovery (“And then I came across the first page of the first book, and those seven absurd words: This is the Journal of Abraham Lincoln.”)

Second, much of the book includes the apparatus of popular history books — prominent photos, scattered footnotes, etc. Neither the research theme nor the apparatus is consistently deployed enough to overtake the tone, but these devices do give AL,VP a significant a faux-documentary sensibility (as opposed to the more novelistic feel of most other historical fiction). The quasi-scholarly tone reminded me a lot of Max Brook’s World War Z.

Looked at from a “historical memory” perspective, AL,VP is a bit more consequential: the book makes a pretty large, and messy, historiographical intervention. As the Wired review puts it:

While you might think that transforming Abraham Lincoln into a vengeful killer of the undead is the biggest risk the author takes with his premise, I’d suggest that turning slavery into a humans versus vampires cause probably treads on more eggshells. The Civil War itself is transformed into a struggle caused by the machinations of two opposing vampire camps.

Indeed. What surprised me most about all this was the portrayal of Jefferson Davis — and through him, the ideological underpinnings of the Confederate cause more generally.

Having constructed this world of antebellum undead, Grahame-Smith chooses to follow the mud-sill theory, espoused by many Confederate leaders, to its logical ends, which leads to this confrontation between Lincoln and Davis:

[Davis] “Mr. Lincoln, vampires are superior to man, just as man is superior to the Negro. It’s the natural order of things, you see. Surely we agree on this much, at least?

[Lincoln] “I agree that some vampires are superior to some men.”

[Davis] “Am I wrong, therefore, to recognize the inevitability of their rule? Am I wrong to side with the greater power in the coming war? Sir, it brings me no pleasure to think of white men in cages. But if it must come to pass–if vampires are to be the kinds of men–then let us work with them while time remains. …”

~AL,VP, pp. 251-252

Jefferson Davis has been called many, many things, but until now, I don’t think Quisling has ever been one of them. This is tantamount to equating Confederates to that other stock set of horror/sci-fi fiction villains who collaborate with the undead, the Nazis. (2) I would submit that while, yes, this is a gross historical inaccuracy in many ways, it is nice to see some historical fiction push back against the idea that the Civil War was not a noble fight over state’s rights.

But even if we inch back from the reductio ad Hitlerum, I think Grahame-Smith has provided a fantastic dramatization of the antebellum politics of slavery, in at least two ways.

The first has to do with the stakes of the Civil War itself. Contemporaries on both sides thought the very essence of the republic — political freedom — was at issue. In the antebellum era this not primarily about the freedom of African Americans — though certainly that was a significant concern, particularly for the enslaved — but rather about the freedom of white men. That is, which section of the country, and which way of organizing life and politics, would rule the other? North or South? Free or slave?

This conflict played when it did because everyone was thinking three steps ahead — to what the final balance of slave state vs. free state would be once the territories were populated, and federal law on the issue settled. It was in many ways a replication of the “slippery slope” logic that led to the American Revolution.

That logic, and the immediacy of the fear of tyranny — well before actual tyranny (for whites) had arrived — can be a bit abstruse. Bringing beings that will kill and eat you in to the picture? Well, that gives it some bite, no? So here I think telling a vampire story is a neat way to make the alien familiar again.

Second, I think the book does a nice job illustrating how whites, especially white men, used slaves to “make” themselves. In Walter Johnson’s phrase, slaveholders were “men made out of slaves.” Now, Johnson’s point is that actual and aspiring slaveholders used the exploitation of slave bodies and labor to raise their political, cultural and economic standing, not actually eating them — but reframing it as a literal bodily incorporation does a lot to make that argument a bit less abstract.

Finally, I should add that Southern vampire slaveholders aren’t the only evil vamps that appear in the book. But even above the Mason-Dixon line, the metaphor of exploitation-as-bloodsucking continues; in the North, evil vampires appear as loan-sharks, litigious property-owners, and mad scientists.

As the Daily Beast has reported, opinion among professional historians over AL, VP has been divided.

On the one hand you have what I will kindly call fuddy-duddy buzz-kills, like the founding director of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum, who only prove they’ve missed the boat entirely by squawking about what how “inane” the book is and how it’s “a true bastardization of the Lincoln story.” Le sigh.

On the other, you have folks who know that playing with history and pop culture can be fun, and that sacred cows are boring, especially those worshipped by PBS talking heads (see also). I’m far more sympathetic to the latter, obviously, and this is perhaps where my geek/academic historian overlap shows a bit too much. (3)

Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter will be mistaken by no one (save Richard Norton Smith) for a serious work of history. But as a novel that astutely thinks historically? Or as a parable about the real stakes of the Civil War, and the urgent need to break the hold of slaveholders on the American republic? Well, then it works quite well. And it’s a damn good read.

(1.) This is a book so big it already has both a trailer and a (separate) movie deal. While I love the trailer, I don’t have high hopes for the movie. Even aside from my fading interest in Tim Burton’s aesthetic, Presidential hilarity in moving pictures really seems to have an upper limit of about YouTube-length clips. Also, Jesus Christ, Vampire Hunter was the worst movie I have ever seen (well, the worst fifteen minutes of movie I’ve ever seen‚ as I only made it through that much).

(2.) and Ding! goes the Godwin’s Law counter.

(3.) The geek historian is a much rarer bird than you might expect — my colleagues are shockingly un-neerdy, well-adjusted people for the most part, much to my disappointment.