03.03.10

The Battle for Abe Lincoln's Soul

A new vampire novel has excited—and divided—scholars of the 16th president. Samuel P. Jacobs on Lincoln’s ghoulish memorabilia, and a brewing civil war.

A new vampire novel has excited—and dividedscholars of the 16th president. Samuel P. Jacobs on Lincoln’s ghoulish memorabilia, and a brewing civil war.

On Saturday night, an overflow crowd of more than 250 will gather in Springfield, Illinois, at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum to hear from the author of the season’s hottest read on our nation’s 16th president.

Little do they know, but they will be arriving on the frontlines of a skirmish promising to divide the ranks of Lincoln faithful. The reader will be Seth Grahame-Smith, and his book is called Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter. Its publication has the founding director of the museum, Richard Norton Smith, appearing a little miffed.

Smith said he found Vampire Hunter’s main thrust, that Honest Abe was in fact a hunter of vampires, to be “the most inane idea imaginable.”

Reached by email this week, Smith said he found Vampire Hunter’s main thrust, that Honest Abe was in fact a hunter of vampires, to be “the most inane idea imaginable.”

He called it, “a true bastardization of the Lincoln story.”

Elsewhere, Vampire Hunter is already getting some heady reviews. There’s a movie in the works, produced by Tim Burton no less. Time magazine is praising the author’s narrative gifts (“He’s a lively, fluent writer with a sharp sense of tone and pace,” critic Lev Grossman writes.)

One of the most popular Lincoln historians, Doris Kearns Goodwin, whose Team of Rivals added a new phrase to Washington’s lexicon, is said to be a fan.

“I spoke to Doris,” author Seth Grahame-Smith said this week an hour after the two had appeared on an NPR radio show together. “She loved the book. She thought it was smart. She thought it was fun.”

The vampire book is hardly the first volume to split Lincoln scholars. The Intimate World of Abraham Lincoln was released in 2004 by a sex researcher detailing Honest Abe’s supposed bisexuality. Joshua Wolf Shenk’s Lincoln’s Melancholy: How Depression Challenged a President and Fueled His Greatness came as part of a raft of work seeking to open a channel into Lincoln’s mystery via modern psychiatry.

book-cover---vampire-hunter
Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter. By Seth Grahame-Smith. 352 Pages. Grand Central Publishing. $21.99. ()

Grahame-Smith’s potboiler arrives from the mind behind bestseller Pride and Prejudice and Zombies and re-imagines the many tragedies of Lincoln’s life through the Great Emancipator’s battles with the undead. The Civil War, the fight against slavery, all the personal dramas that plagued Lincoln are envisioned as a clash between the better angels of our nature and, well, vampires.

The opposition from the likes of Richard Norton Smith surprises Grahame-Smith, a 34-year-old freelancer and television writer.

“What tickles me about that is that he takes it so seriously. There seems to be this rage,” he said.

Smith declined to discuss the book further, but he is not alone in taking the throwback Gothic tale seriously. His former colleagues in Springfield are welcoming the book, hoping to make a buck but also taking this mashup of Lincoln’s biography and Twilight mania to display the president’s real-life interest in the macabre.

“He had a real darkness,” Grahame-Smith said of Lincoln. “He struggled with that, but he also embraced it to a degree. It makes him the ideal hero.”

Indeed, the introduction of vampires to Lincoln’s story actually jibes with mainstream scholarship. For one thing, the bloodiness and grotesquery of Grahame-Smith’s telling follows on the heels of Drew Faust’s The Republic of Suffering, which also took the ghastliness of Lincoln’s time and war as its theme. Similarly, portraying slaveholders as vampires is part of a long tradition. Leading abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison himself once proclaimed, “I despair of the republic while slavery exists therein… If we had any regard for our safety and happiness, we should strive to crush the vampire which is feeding upon our lifeblood.”

Lincoln groupies could be forgiven for wanting a break from the limelight, especially after last year’s bicentennial orgy (Abe was born in 1809). But the folks in Springfield refuse to sit this one out. For $19.99, they will sell you an Abe Lincoln Vampire Hunter T-shirt featuring Lincoln’s signature, his trademark stovepipe hat, and a bat.

Indeed, the Lincoln museum is embracing the book’s mission—going so far as to dig up any artifacts that might reasonably buttress its themes.

Curator James Cornelius is assembling a collection of artifacts which present Lincoln’s Gothic side. “He had a little bit of that taste for the morbid or the Gothic,” Cornelius said, noting that the loss of his mother, sister, and a woman who may have been his fiancée gave the future president a morose outlook early in life.

According to Cornelius, Lincoln was an “early and warm fan” of Edgar Allan Poe, the author of “The Raven.” Abe had memorized parts of the poem and would recite it to fellow lawyers. Lincoln was known to carry around a copy of the book. Appropriately, Poe appears as a character in Vampire Hunter. In fact, Lincoln published his own murder-mystery story, “The Trailor Murder Case” in 1846. Its denouement takes after Poe’s famous story, “The Tell-Tale Heart,” which was published three years earlier.

Lincoln and his law partner William Herndon subscribed to the Southern Literary Messenger, where Poe published some of his poems. Among the copies that belonged to Lincoln and Herndon, now in the possession of the museum, is a version of the poem, “Dies Irae.” Set to music, the funeral song is now famous as the theme of Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining.

Ten years before publishing Dracula, in 1897, Bram Stoker traveled the United States delivering a lecture on Lincoln and the abolition of slavery. A manuscript from the talk will be on display in Springfield this weekend. Cornelius couldn’t stop himself from pointing out that just the Dracula author himself shares the name Abraham and so did the original vampire hunter, Abraham van Helsing.

Most impressive of all, the museum has the last axe that Lincoln ever swung, one given to him the day before Robert E. Lee surrendered to the Union Army. In Grahame-Smith’s telling, the axe is a pivotal character: the weapon of choice for a president who declared as a child, “I hereby resolve to kill every vampire in America.”

Samuel P. Jacobs is a staff reporter at The Daily Beast. He has also written for The Boston Globe, The New York Observer, and The New Republic Online.