10 April 2010

Day 14: Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter

Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter by Seth Grahame-Smith.  ISBN: 9780446563086.

Abraham Lincoln by himself is a fascinating person; or rather I should say character. At this point he isn't much more than a character, a figure, in our national history. He is almost the perfect pre-formed character to be inserted into a crazy whirlwind adventure of vampire slaying.

I have to say I've enjoyed the depth this book gives Lincoln as a character. I'm not sure how much research Grahame-Smith gave this novel, and since he thanks Google and Starbucks in his Acknowledgements with no mention of a librarian or even a serious research assistant... Well, let's just say I'm taking almost everything as fiction, although many of the "journal passages" do sound like direct quotes from Abraham Lincoln, however out of context they may be. In any case, I still found similarities between Grahame-Smith's work and the work of historians.

No, I'm not hinting that there were actually vampires and that they instigated the Civil War. I am hinting that as much as historians like to pretend they know every single detail of famous lives, it's just not true. There's a little bit of fiction wrapped up in the hi-stories we tell, a little bit of guesswork and conjecture. We think certain things influenced certain people to think and act in a certain way, but since we can't go back and ask anyone we'll never know. Not that they would necessarily tell us the truth about their lives to begin with. I have another historians' secret for you: All history is revisionist history.

History is a messy, dirty business that involves plowing through gossip, scandals, contradicting facts, strong opinions, inane details, misconceptions, and downright lies. And, oh-my-god, do I love it. Researching papers for my history degree was one of the most pleasurable experiences I've ever had, not just because I was able to pull all of these strings from hundreds of different sources into a compact eight to ten page paper, but also because I came across facts of life from a time period I knew nothing about, and would have known nothing about had I not been doing research. I'll share one with you: in the 1850's, they put opium in everything (and if I remember correctly this lasted up until the 1910's). And I do mean everything. Chances are you had a great-grandparent who was weaned off of breast milk with Opium-tastic Baby Formula.*

There's another secret pleasure that I've experienced as a historian: my long lasting love of microfilm and research. Having someone with a background in history go to library school is like giving an angry cat with sharp claws spiked armor (I smell another t-shirt idea here). I loved the fact that my major required more research than most at Antioch; I loved being the only one to spend time in the microfilm room, with the faint smell of vinegar and the soft glow of the reader. I prided myself on learning how to load a film in less than five seconds and using print indexes because the Apple iMacs running OS10 were prohibitively slow and crashy. Apples can't get viruses my ass.

Basically what I'm saying is that history is an exciting, adventurous profession. And I don't mean profession as in a career, because unless you have a real drive to be poor but possessed, it's not something I would recommend people pursue as a livelihood. I mean profession in the way that religious people have a profession of faith. There has to be a certain calling and a certain love, a willingness to set aside the cleanliness and barrenness of the computer and handle the documents that were touched and soiled by the hands of the people you're studying. That's what history is. It is dusty documents and forgotten people, but it's also the drive to bring those things to light for a generation that needs to stop and slow down for a moment and remember what ocean they crawled out of, and look back at how long it took them to get there.

*Not an actual brand.

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