The Wepner Blog

The blog of the Wepner Program on the Lincoln Legacy at the University of Illinois Springfield. Home to news, links, and commentary related to the legacy of the 16th President of the United States. This blog is maintained by Gene Giannotta, Assistant to the Wepner Professor. Learn more at uis.edu/wepner!

You may have heard of the best-selling novel Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter. Author Seth Grahame-Smith followed up his surprise hit Pride and Prejudice and Zombies with the fictional tale of a secret American history, in which a vampire conspiracy threatened to destroy the Union. Like a 19th century Batman, Lincoln declares war on the entire species after a vampire kills his mother and trains his body and mind in the service of his crusade.

I’m only about a third of the way into the book, but so far it’s a pretty interesting take on Lincoln hero-worship. Grahame-Smith writes from the perspective of an author who stumbles upon a treasure trove: Honest Abe’s secret, long-lost journals. In these, the 16th President detailed his vampire hunting life. Substantial excerpts and illustrations make the book almost seem a work of serious history. But once we get some dramatic tension, Grahame-Smith turns to a more traditional novel style. This unevenness is somewhat jarring, and so far the story can drag when not explicitly weaving the vampire narrative into the facts of early American history.

Still, two years later, it was enough of a financial (if not critical) success to attract major motion picture studios looking for a unique summer blockbuster. Enter Twentieth Century Fox’s adaptation, due June 22 of this year.

The first trailer was just released this morning. The premise is certainly goofy, but the 81-second spot teases an exciting tale of American history as epic fantasy. In this way, as odd as it may be to see an icon like Abraham Lincoln battling vampires, it also fits right into the long tradition of myth-making in American politics. After all, the “rail-splitting” image of Candidate Lincoln was a deliberate attempt at image-making, one intended to connect his background on the then-Western frontier with the experience of regular folks [1]. That may be a more traditional example, but remains myth-making nonetheless [2].

So, vampire hunting could be seen as just the latest manifestation of Lincoln’s heroic image in popular culture and our political memory. I’ll post more reflections on this once I finish the book and we get closer to the film’s release date. In the meantime check out stories from the USA Today and MTV, as well as a report of a special preview event at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum. And last year, the New York Times addressed the filmmakers’ desire for historical accuracy - to the extent possible in a movie about vampires.

(And here’s an interesting post at the ALPLM blog about who “owns” Lincoln when it comes to pop culture interpretations.)

Notes:

[1] See also Michael Burlingame’s chapter on the election of 1860 and the role of the “rail-splitter” image, and Larry Tagg’s fascinating essay on the extreme unpopularity of Lincoln during his campaign and presidency. 

[2] This isn’t the first fictional account of Lincoln’s life, either. Gore Vidal wrote the historical novel, Lincoln, in the 1980s. While there were no vampires in Vidal’s story, it did spark a fair amount of controversy.