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Posted at 08:14 PM ET, 06/22/2012

Abraham Lincoln — vampire hunter? The lessons of historical fiction.


You slay that vampire! (Alan Markfield - AP)
Abraham Lincoln was a busy man. Scratching out speeches on the backs of envelopes. Hiring and firing generals. Dashing off witticisms. ( “If I had two faces, would I be wearing this one?”) Slaying vampires.

Why not?

Ah, historical inaccuracy.

The main trouble with history, as “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter” author Seth Grahame-Smith knew long before the rest of us, is that there are not nearly enough vampires in it. Just as the main trouble with literature was its lack of zombies — but that is a different story.

“I found the history lesson were Abraham Lincoln was a Vampire Hunter,” quipped someone on Twitter. “It's before MLK slayed dragons & after Thomas Jefferson killed zombies.”

But it’s a good point. History would be more fun to read if you did not already know how everything was going to turn out.

The scope of historical fiction ranges from the alteration of a few minor details (Ignore how awful everyone in the Georgian era surely smelled! Let’s set a romance novel there! Rip bodices!) to the fairly major (What’s that vampire doing battling Abe Lincoln on top of a train?).

Those who don’t learn history are doomed to repeat it. And those who do learn history are doomed to rewrite it, often with better hair and makeup and more dynamic fight scenes. There is always appetite for new biographies. But the lives of legends like Abraham Lincoln and John Adams have an unfortunate tendency to stay put. Where’s the suspense?

Why not insert vampires?

If there’s one thing we can agree on as a culture, it’s this: We love Abraham Lincoln, and we hate vampires. Why not combine the two?

“But wait,” someone says. “What about the people on Team Edward?”

You’re right. “If there is one thing we can agree on as a culture, it’s this: We love Abraham Lincoln, and we hate the people on Team Edward.”

And we really do love Abraham Lincoln.

Jefferson we despise. Madison we ignore. Washington we exalt. But Lincoln we like. He’s in our wallets, in our home decor, on our T-shirts, sometimes riding a bear. Splitting rails, proclaiming emancipation, taking part in a series of multi-hour Lincoln-Douglas-style debates, he’s the president everyone loves to love. If presidents were athletes, we’d all be walking around with No. 16 on our backs.

You do not find people strolling around with tattoos of Millard Fillmore.

Want to buy a T-shirt with Lincoln shooting lasers from his eyes? You can.

Lincoln remains extremely present for a president who’s been dead for nearly 150 years. You know that this is one of the rare corners of history that people still recollect when one of the film’s stars gets into a discussion with Doris Kearns Goodwin, author of the famed Lincoln biography “Team of Rivals,” and actually seems to know what he is talking about.

But this can be a pitfall of historical fiction. The theory that history would be more fun if you did not already know how it would end is premised on the idea that you know how things will turn out in the first place. Sometimes you don’t. No doubt after the movie hits theaters this weekend, Twitter will be awash with people commenting, quite seriously, that they had no idea Lincoln killed so many vampires.

I would worry if this were, say, “Franklin Pierce: Werewolf.” But if it were Franklin Pierce, the movie would never have made it to theaters. It is a strange testimony to how much we know about Lincoln, how instantly recognizable and familiar he remains, that we are able to indulge in such willful fantasies about him.

The flip side of the Pride and Prejudice and Zombies and Abe Lincoln Minus Vampires and Wise Men With Or Without Something Or Other trend has been that it reveals exactly what cultural touchstones are still, well, cultural touchstones. Jane Austen. Lincoln. The Magi. It’s not much of an inheritance, but it’s better than nothing.

The director of “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter” told USA Today that a year from now, “when you stop a boy on the street and ask him who Lincoln was, he will answer 'vampire hunter.’”

Probably not. Lincoln is too ingrained. That’s why we’re seeing the movie in the first place.

By  |  08:14 PM ET, 06/22/2012

 
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