Category Archives: Random Thoughts

On Being Quoted by the Simpsons

I will always have a soft spot for The Simpsons. Although I no longer watch the show on a regular basis, it was an important part of my childhood, and I paid homage to it one of my first academic journal articles. During its heyday in the mid-90s (when I had to sneak around my parents’ prohibition in order to watch it), the show developed a reputation for unusually intelligent, iconoclastic humor. It offered smart, politically-conscious satire, served up by smart, politically-conscious writers. The Simpsons seems to employ more Harvard graduates than McKinsey & Company – the writer’s room is essentially a jobs program for the Harvard Lampoon. Naturally, therefore, its central villain, the inimitable C. Montgomery Burns, is a Yale man (class of 1914). With his absurd anachronisms and ruthless, mustache-twirling embodiment of corporate capitalism, Burns is easily one my favorite characters. So when I heard that the show put out an episode about his return to campus, I could not resist.

A clip from The Simpsons episode “Caper Chase,” season 28, episode 19.

To my surprise, the episode makes direct reference to an essay I published two years ago, establishing that Elihu Yale was a slave trader. The piece, which I wrote in a few hours in response to a conference, probably receives more attention than all of my more traditional scholarship combined. During the debate over the renaming of Calhoun College, it appeared on reddit and the Wall Street Journal, made its way onto Wikipedia, and was tweeted out by historian colleagues and celebrities such as Ann Coulter (which, I will admit, made me throw up a little in my mouth). In the episode, it forms part of a larger joke about liberalism gone mad at Yale. On a tour of campus, Burns encounters teachers who were fired for celebrating Columbus Day, students who call him “worse than Hitler,” and signs that read: “Shakespeare is murder” and “Eli Yale was a profiteering slave trader.” Aghast, Burns wonders aloud if Yale is “still a coven of capitalism, where evil money can acquire a patina of virtue” – and he gets in a good crack about “ruthless media disruptor Samuel F. B. Morse.”

When Burns attempts to endow a Department of Nuclear Plant Management, he is thwarted by students, who are described as “highly-entitled wusses.” Instead, school administrators point out that they “need to hire more deans to decide which Halloween costumes are appropriate.” The latter refers to an actual incident sparked by a memo about racist/offensive Halloween costumes, which made national news. Although the episode does not mention the recent rebirth of Calhoun College as Hopper College, the subtext is clear. This is neither the time nor the place to rehash those debates. (You can read my thoughts on Grace Hopper here.) But the implication that students seeking redress for social injustice are “wusses” left me feeling deeply uneasy.

Students on campuses across the country face unprecedented economic pressures, shameful levels of sexual assault, and administrators eager to capitalize on “diversity” while doing very little to support underprivileged students. These same students have every right to demand a space free from racism or discrimination, and those of us on faculty and staff have a moral obligation to stand with them. By ridiculing and dismissing student protestors, the writers of The Simpsons are doing exactly the opposite. Instead of using their position of tremendous privilege and authority to question the status quo, they use it to attack a vulnerable population. Instead of speaking truth to power, as in some of the show’s greatest episodes, they seek to undermine the relatively powerless.

Of course, no group or idea should be exempt from parody. The ability to laugh at oneself demonstrates humility, strength, and self-awareness. And to be fair, the episode attempts a muddled critique of Trump University and the for-profit education industry. Yet the whole tone of the campus visit feels hackneyed and mean-spirited rather than fresh or funny. The writers’ clear desire to be the next William F. Buckley results in a ham-fisted diatribe that stands at odds with the show’s subversive tradition. (PCU did a better job with similar material over twenty years ago. David Spade’s tirade at the film’s end about “whiny crybaby minorities” shows that not much has changed.)

I understand the argument of some pundits who think that student protests about costumes and memorials are misguided or absurd. With the Trump administration rolling back protections for disadvantaged groups and the environment at a blistering pace, fussing over the names of buildings seems like rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic. But justice comes in all forms, and our colleges and universities should embody the change that we want to see in the world. As historian Craig Wilder argued recently: “Campuses are not museums for the emotional and psychological bigotries of the alumni.” Reckoning with that truth is an important victory and will set the stage for other victories in the future. That Elihu Yale or Mr. Burns would no longer feel at home on a college campus is a good thing. Although it can be a long and arduous process, successful student movements prove that evil money can indeed become virtuous.

What is Digital History?

Chalkboard - What is Digital HistoryOne thing professional scholars everywhere love to do is to categorize, define, and explain, to erect borders and boundaries and partitions. There is a good reason the word “discipline” is at the heart of the academic industrial complex. It is discipline in both the good, self-control, zen sense and the bad, Michel Foucault sense of the word. There has been much debate over the past several years about whether Digital Humanities, and its subset Digital History, constitutes its own discipline, or whether it is fundamentally trans-disciplinary at its core. And what academic discipline worthy of the name is not essentially trans-disciplinary, anyway? Try as we might to impose categories on living reality, to sort into neat boxes of genus, species, and phylum, reality is not that static. It is constantly evolving, always in motion, always transitioning from one thing to the next.

There are a great many extremely interesting documents and manifestos floating around the web attempting to draw boundaries around the digital humanities, to tie it down, to reign it in and discipline it (in the Foucauldian sense). Jason Heppler’s approach to this problem, which presents a different definition each time the page is refreshed, continually remixing them into infinite combinations, is one of the best I have seen. Digital History, like the Digital Humanities, is a broad camp, capable of accommodating everything from the whimsical Serendip-o-matic to the brutal historiographical battles erupting on the back end of prominent Wikipedia pages. The Promise of Digital History, a Journal of American History roundtable discussion from way back in 2008, is a fair introduction to this particular genre of the digital. A breakdown of the document using Voyant reveals, among other things, a strong emphasis on open access. Together, these two words appear a total of 97 times. Ironically, and perhaps appropriately, the exchange itself is a daunting and hopelessly difficult-to-digest wall of text.

At the heart of this definitional battle is a fundamental status anxiety. Is Digital History just regular old history plus expensive computers? Is it, as Adam Kirsch argues about digital literary studies, just “fancy reiterations of conventional wisdom?” Or does it represent something new and qualitatively different? When I posed this question to my students this year, it produced some fascinating results.

Being one of those definition-obsessed academics, I always ask my students to unpack what may seem like everyday or familiar terms. What is freedom? What is slavery? What is civil war? What is Africa? What is America? So when tasked with teaching Digital History to a group of undergraduates, I naturally asked them to define what exactly that means. Actually, I first asked them to define History proper, and then we tried to figure out what makes it so different when done digitally. Of course, we were not alone in this endeavor. It is deeply interesting to observe different classes in different parts of the country generate different responses to similar prompts. Our answers, some of which you can see if you click on the chalkboard above, ranged from Cervantes and Foucault to the practical and the public. I suspect that if I had asked my students at the end of the class, after they submitted their final project, they would have added that Digital History is also really hard work. It requires discipline.

The $14 Million Question

Yesterday a copy of the Bay Psalm Book, the first book composed and printed in British North America, sold at auction for a record-breaking $14.16 million. Members of Boston’s Old South Church decided to sell one of their two copies to help fund their cash-strapped congregation, and while the amount fell short of the auction house estimate of $15-30 million, it is certainly enough to buy a whole lot of snazzy sermons, baptismal fonts, and really uncomfortable pews. A number of talented and distinguished historians, including Jill Lepore and David Spadafora, have weighed in on the broader context and significance of this standard devotional text, printed in the fledgling Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1640. Amid all of the excellent scholarly analysis and public humanities work, however, no one seems to be asking the big question: why is someone willing to pay millions of dollars for a book that anyone with an internet connection can get for free? In an age of increasingly universal digitization, when nearly every major print publication prior to 1923 is available online, why do some public domain printed books sell for princely sums?

In 1947, when the last Bay Psalm Book sold at auction for $151,000, a researcher needed to physically travel to a major library in order to view an original copy. In the Northeast, there were plenty of optionsYale, Harvard, Brown, the Boston Public Library, the New York Public Library, the American Antiquarian Society. South of New York City, there was nothing. West of the Appalachians, the only choice was the private Huntington Library in California – and their copy was missing seven pages, including the title page. The only copy available to researchers outside of the United States was at the Bodleian Library at the University of Oxford. Bibliophiles published facsimile editions as early as 1862, but their production and circulation were limited. Depending on how far one had to travel, and factoring in layover times, scheduling, family and work obligations, and local arrangements, the onetime cost of consulting this small piece of religious history could be enormous. Gripes about the digital divide notwithstanding, the analog divide was and is much worse.

In 2013, copies of the the Bay Psalm Book are everywhere – the Library of Congress, the World Digital Library, even the Old South Church. In fact, almost every single book, pamphlet, and broadside published in colonial America is available for free online or at a participating library through Readex’s Early American Imprints series. Yale’s copy of the Bay Psalm Book, which, coincidentally, was the one purchased at the aforementioned auction in 1947, is available in full here. That book sold for the equivalent of about $1.5 million in present-day terms. No copies of this august tome have been discovered or destroyed since 1947. So why is the same book worth over $14 million today? What accounts for this tenfold increase in value?

I can think of several reasons why someone would pay so much for a book that is available to everyone for free. If there are significant deviations or marginalia between and among different copies or editions, each copy is more or less unique and thus uniquely valuable. Yet the differences among the various Bay Psalm Books are fairly well documented by this point and are not that extreme. Another reason might be personal profit or prestige. To his credit, David Rubenstein, the billionaire investor who purchased the book at yesterday’s auction, plans to loan it out to libraries around the country and to place it on deposit with a public institution. Although he may derive a good deal of personal satisfaction from this arrangement, I do not think that private gain is his primary goal. That leaves one more motive – the simple pleasure of the physical artifact.

The Early Dawn - rarer than the Bay Psalm Book and just as significant, but considerably less expensive. Courtesy of Special Collections, Yale Divinity School Library.
The Early Dawn – rarer than the Bay Psalm Book and just as significant, but considerably less expensive. Courtesy of Special Collections, Yale Divinity School Library.

Perhaps one reason why the value of the Bay Psalm Book has increased ten times over the past 60 years is that paper, photographic, and digital reproductions have increased exponentially over the same period. In an era of digital alienation, there is greater romance in the physical object. To touch, to feel, to smell, even to be in the near presence of a famous text creates a kind of living connection with history. Such documents become, as Jill Lepore writes of the United States Constitution, “a talisman held up against the uncertainties and abstractions of a meaningless, changeable, paperless age.”

This is nothing new, of course. Since the days when early Christians passed around the head of Saint Paul or the foreskin of Jesus, and probably long before that, people have always been fascinated by sacred relics. Presumably, this is why so many tourists flock to see the original Declaration of Independence or the Wright Flyer in Washington D.C. One can read almost everything there is to know about the Declaration or the Wright brothers on an iPad while waiting in line at Stop & Shop, but there is something ineffably special about being in the presence of the real thing.

Even so, what justifies such an outrageous price tag? There are almost a dozen copies of the Bay Psalm Book, all available, to some extent, to the public. And there are plenty of rare and valuable historical documents that seldom see the light of day. A few years ago, I found an 1864 edition of the Early Dawn for sale online for less than $200. Published by American abolitionists at the Mendi Mission in West Africa starting in 1861, it is a periodical that ties together the struggles against slavery and racism across two continents. It is invaluable to our understanding of global politics, history, religion, and the state of our world today. In this sense, it is just as significant as the Bay Psalm Book. It is also extremely rare. As far as I know, there is only one other extant issue from the same time period. Fortunately, I was able to convince my colleagues at the Yale Divinity School to purchase and properly preserve this one-of-a-kind artifact so that it would be available for future researchers (click the image above for a full scan of the paper). I am sure that every historian who has worked on a major project has a story similar to this. If not an online purchase, then it is a special document found in an archive, or an especially moving oral history.

There are countless unique and historically significant documents and manuscripts moldering in libraries and repositories around the world. Some of them are true gems, just waiting to be discovered. Most of them remain unavailable and unknown. And yet our society sees nothing wrong with a private citizen spending a small fortune to acquire a copy of the the Bay Psalm Book. There is no question that the venerable Old South Church deserves our support, and I have no doubt that its congregants do important work in their community and abroad. But how many lost treasures could have been brought to the world for the first time for the cost of this single public domain text? How much digitization, transcription, or innovation could $14.16 million buy?

Cross-posted at HASTAC

The Assassination of Zachary Taylor

oswald2Today marks the fiftieth anniversary of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, and the internet and airwaves are awash in an orgy of commentaries and memorials. What can a digital humanist add to this conversation? Well, for starters, one could ask what the assassination of President Kennedy would look like in the age of social networks, smart phones, and instantaneous communication (bigbopper69: JFK shot in dallas OMG!!! 2 soon 2 no who #grassyknoll). NPR’s Today in 1963 project, which is tweeting out the events of the assassination as they occurred, day-by-day, hour-by-hour, may actually provide a good sense of what it was like to be there in real time. For those of us born decades after the fact, the deluge of digitized photos, videos, documents, and other artifacts enables a kind of full historical immersion that is not quite the same as time travel but close enough to be educationally useful.

One of the more interesting statistics to come out of this year’s commemoration is that “a clear majority of Americans (61%) still believe others besides Lee Harvey Oswald were involved” in a conspiracy to kill President Kennedy. Indeed, historical data show that a majority of Americans have suspected a conspiracy since 1963, at times reaching as high as 81 percent of respondents. This raises all sorts of interesting questions for our current moment, when rumor and misinformation spread as easily as the truth and technophiles celebrate the wisdom of the crowd while solemnly proclaiming the death of the expert. Especially after the recent revelations of unprecedented government spying, including secret courts and secret backdoors built into consumer software, Americans seem to have little reason to trust authority. So what is the role of popular knowledge in the age of digital history?

It would be easy to dismiss the various JFK assassination theories as just another example of what Richard Hofstadter called “The Paranoid Style in American Politics.” Yet to do so would ignore the important function of rumor, gossip, conspiracy theories, and other forms of popular wisdom as material forces in the shaping of our world. 1 Getting at the truth behind major events is, of course, the prime directive of all good history, digital or otherwise. A certain degree of analytical distance, strict rules of evidence, and overt argumentation are what separate professional historiography from simple nostalgia. But what counts as truth can sometimes be just as revealing as the truth itself. The alleged assassination of President Zachary Taylor is a case in point.

When Taylor, the twelfth president, died suddenly of an unidentified gastrointestinal illness just sixteen months into his first term in office, rumors spread that he had been eliminated by political rivals. Taylor’s death, in July 1850, came at a time of heightened tension between supporters and opponents of slavery. Although a slaveholder himself and the hero of an expansionist war against Mexico, Taylor took a moderate position on the slavery question and appeared to oppose its extension into the western territories. His actions may have troubled some of the more ardent southern politicians, including Senator – and future Confederate President – Jefferson Davis. Not long after his predecessor’s tragic demise, newly-minted President Millard Fillmore signed the Compromise of 1850, which had stalled under Taylor’s administration. The legislation included territorial divisions and an aggressive fugitive slave law that helped to set the stage for the looming Civil War.

I will not rehash the specific circumstances of Taylor’s illness, which is conventionally ascribed to a tainted batch of cherries and milk. Suffice it to say that the rapid and inexplicable nature of his death, which fit the profile for acute arsenic poisoning, coupled with the laughably inept state of professional medicine, left plenty of room for speculation. 2 Members of the rising antislavery coalition, soon to be called the Republican Party, were suspicious that the President had met with foul play. Nor were their suspicions limited to Taylor. Over time, the list of alleged assassination victims grew to include Andrew Jackson, William Henry Harrison, and James Buchanan, among others.

Republicans worried that Abraham Lincoln would meet a similar fate after the contentious presidential election of 1860. Even before the election, letters poured in warning the candidate about attempts to poison his food and begging him to keep a close eye on his personal staff. I counted at least fourteen warning notes in a very cursory search of the Lincoln Papers at the Library of Congress. Many of them mention President Taylor by name. “Taylor was a vigorous man, of good habits and accustomed to active life and trying duties,” wrote a supporter from Ohio, “and that he should fall a solitary victim to cholera, in a time of health, after eating a little ice cream is quite unsatisfactory.” After carefully studying the circumstances of Taylor’s death, another concluded that “the Borgias were about.” Yet another consulted a clairvoyant who warned of an active conspiracy to poison the President. In a speech responding to Lincoln’s assassination five years later, railroad magnate and women’s rights advocate George Francis Train mentioned in passing that slaveholders had “poisoned Zachary Taylor,” as if it were a matter of fact. 3

John Armor Bingham, one of the three lawyers tasked with prosecuting the Lincoln assassination conspiracy and the primary author of the fourteenth amendment to the Constitution, reportedly spent some time investigating Taylor’s death. His research, presumably conducted during or shortly after the Lincoln trial in 1865, led him to believe that Taylor had been poisoned and that Jefferson Davis had helped to precipitate the plot. 4 It is a striking claim, if true. Davis was Taylor’s son-in-law by an earlier marriage, and the two were known to be friends. Indeed Taylor uttered his final words to Davis, who stood vigil at his deathbed. Bingham also suspected that Davis was involved in Lincoln’s death, which is unlikely, though not impossible, since there is evidence to suggest that Lincoln’s assassin had contact with Confederate spies in the period leading up to the attack. 5 Whatever the case, Davis was decidedly ambivalent about the effect of the President’s removal on the flagging war effort in the South.

Although historians have shown sporadic interest in Bingham – he was an early antislavery politician and U.S. Ambassador to Japan in addition to his important legal and constitutional roles – I could find no substantial information about his investigation into a conspiracy to murder Zachary Taylor. 6 The finding aids for Bingham’s manuscripts at the Ohio Historical Society and the Library of Congress did not reveal anything related to Taylor. A superficial perusal of similar material at the Pierpont Morgan Library in New York, which holds some of Bingham’s records pertaining to the Lincoln Assassination, also failed to turn up anything significant. Still, my search was limited to document titles and finding aids and did not dig very deep into the actual content of his papers. Perhaps some enterprising digital historian could investigate further?

Uncertainly about Taylor’s death continued to smolder until the early 1990s, when an assiduous biographer managed to secure permission to exhume his body and run scientific tests on the remains. Early results showed no evidence of arsenic poisoning, though later research concluded that those results were unreliable. According to presidential assassination experts Nancy Marion and Willard Oliver, there is no definitive proof either way, and thus the ultimate cause of Taylor’s death remains a mystery. 7 While I think the evidence for natural causes is persuasive, the assorted circumstantial and physical evidence for poisoning is certainly intriguing. More intriguing still is the fact that so many contemporaries, including major political figures, were convinced that Taylor had been intentionally targeted.

The confusion surrounding Taylor’s death speaks to the awesome influence of the “Slave Power Conspiracy” that gripped the nation for much of the nineteenth century. Aspects of this conspiracy theory could be extreme, but as the historian Leonard Richards has shown in great detail, the Slave Power was a quantitative reality that could be measured in votes, laws, institutions, and individuals. 8 Although historians can debate the extent to which it was a self-conscious or internally unified collusion, thanks to the three-fifths clause, the spread of the cotton gin, and other peculiarities of antebellum development, there really was a Slave Power in early American politics. Bingham may have been overzealous when it came to the sinister machinations of Jefferson Davis, but there is no question that Davis and his ilk shared a broadly similar agenda. Popular knowledge about the death of Zachary Taylor, whatever its veracity, reflected a real concern about the grip of a small group of wealthy aristocrats over the social, economic, and political life of the country, just as theories about the death of JFK reflect a real concern about the exponential growth of the U.S. national security state.

A few days ago, Americans celebrated the 150th anniversary of the Gettysburg Address, another epochal moment in their national history. Unlike the sadness and uncertainly surrounding the JFK assassination, this was a moment of optimism and unity, typified by the filmmaker Ken Burns, who solicited readings of the Address from everyone from Uma Thurman to Bill O’Reilly, including all five extant U.S. Presidents. Lost in patriotic reverie, it is easy to lose sight of the bitter, divisive, and bloody conflict that formed the broader context for that document. It is no accident, perhaps, that the recently unmasked espionage programs developed by the United States and Great Britain were named after civil war battles – Manassas and Bullrun for the NSA, Edgehill for the GCHQ. The choice of names appears to be intentional. Both battles were pivotal moments, the first major engagements in a long and destructive war that would result in the birth of a modern nation. Likewise, these surveillance systems appear to be the first step in a prolonged global war for digital intelligence. Is this evidence of a conspiracy? Or is it yet more evidence of the extent to which conspiratorial thinking has infiltrated modern political culture – just another example of the new paranoid style?

Notes:

  1. Clare Birchall, Knowledge Goes Pop: From Conspiracy Theory to Gossip (New York: Berg, 2006); Jesse Walker, The United States of Paranoia: A Conspiracy Theory (New York: HarperCollins, 2013).
  2.  K. Jack Bauer, Zachary Taylor: Soldier, Planter, Statesman of the Old Southwest (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1985), 314-328; Michael Parenti, History as Mystery (San Fransisco: City Lights, 1999), 209-239; Willard Oliver and Nancy Marion, Killing the President: Assassinations, Attempts, and Rumored Attempts on U.S. Commanders-in-Chief (Santa Barbara: Praeger, 2010), 181-189.
  3. “Geo. Francis Train,” Philadelphia Inquirer, May 13, 1865.
  4. “Assassination of Presidents,” New York Times, Aug. 29, 1881.
  5. William A. Tidwell, April ’65: Confederate Covert Action in the American Civil War (Kent, OH: Kent State University Press, 1995).
  6. C. Russell Riggs, “The Ante-Bellum Career of John A. Bingham: A Case Study in the Coming of the Civil War” (PhD Thesis, New York University, 1958); Erving E. Beauregard, Bingham of the Hills: Politician and Diplomat Extraordinary (New York: P. Lang, 1989); Gerard N. Magliocca, American Founding Son: John Bingham and the Invention of the Fourteenth Amendment (New York: New York University Press, 2013).
  7. Oliver and Marion, Killing the President, 181-189.
  8. David Brion Davis, The Slave Power Conspiracy and the Paranoid Style (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1969); Leonard L. Richards, The Slave Power: The Free North and Southern Domination, 1780-1860 (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2000).

The Rail Splitter Awakes

I wonder what bell hooks would say about Michonne’s “oppositional gaze?”

Longtime readers will remember that last year I pondered the connection between zombies and the slave trade. So it was pleasing to see the New York Times following a similar thread this week. As the author points out, though rooted in African tradition, zombies are a distinctly New World development, and the relationship between the undead and the enslaved is almost too obvious to mention. The evidence is ubiquitous, lurking just below the surface of our mass cultural consciousness. The wildly popular TV adaptation of The Walking Dead now stars Michonne, a ninja warrior who, among other things, sports her own zombie slave coffle. The two black men she pulls behind her are defanged and controlled by large metal collars and long metal chains that clank and clatter as they stumble along. Whether intentional or not, the echoes of racial slavery are conspicuous and searing – the show itself takes place in the Deep South. And the image of a powerful black woman dragging docile, neutered, and chained zombies across the southern landscape is stunningly poetic.

The living dead are more than just a metaphor for slavery and alienation. As I tried to suggest in my earlier post, they are an enduring artifact of the slave trade, a trade steeped in violence and death, whose legacies continue to haunt us to this day. Zombie folklore is complex and malleable. The ghostly return of the “Zombi” terrified New World slave societies as early as the eighteenth-century. As Francine Saillant and Ana Araujo show, the zombie myth can even serve as a form of empowerment. The seventeenth-century maroon warrior Zumbi is remembered in modern Brazil as a hero, a figure whose quest for autonomy transcends death itself. I’m still waiting for a long form treatment of this pressing and endlessly fascinating topic. In the meantime, the undead continue to beckon.

The 2012 blockbuster Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, based on the equally-popular mashup novel by Seth Grahame-Smith, does not attempt to present itself as serious history, which is probably a good thing. Like the forthcoming Tarantino flick Django Unchained, it eschews documentary realism in favor of highly stylized violence (Vampire Hunter director Timur Bekmambetov also directed the underrated minor masterpiece Night Watch). Still, there is something oddly compelling about the film’s portrayal of southern slaveholders as voracious vampires who literally drain the life force from their human property. As W. Scott Poole points out in his delightful review, there was “at least one case in Louisiana [in] which newly imported slaves became convinced that [their purported] masters were witches and vampires (after watching them drink red wine).” Although the real Lincoln was hardly a staunch egalitarian, the film offers up a more soothing alternate reality in which (SPOILER ALERT) Harriet Tubman rescues an axe-wielding Abe on the Underground Railroad and the two work together to save the entire Union cause. Despite her pivotal role in the story I would have liked to see more of Tubman, who was among the first American action heroes (just compare this sketch of her in battle fatigues to this image of Michonne). But I guess Harriet Tubman: Vampire Hunter would have been a little too transgressive.

There have been a spate of Lincoln-related movies lately, including The Conspirator, Saving Lincoln, and the forthcoming Spielberg epic Lincoln, which is based in part on Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals. It will be interesting to see how the emotionally earnest realism of the Spielberg film compares with Django, a spaghetti-western-inspired revenge story with shades of the Murrell Conspiracy. Grahame-Smith’s interpretation of the Civil War era offers something different insofar as it openly parodies Lincoln’s heroic mythology. At the same time, it could be read as reinforcing the image of the sainted leader. Whether slaying vampires or emancipating slaves, Honest Abe is always at the center of the action.

“The Great Man,” wrote historian Thomas Carlyle, “is a Force of Nature.” Caryle probably hated Lincoln. The only thing he despised more than elective democracy was slave emancipation, and he was a Confederate partisan. Even so, the nature analogy may be apt.  Abraham Lincoln is something like the black hole of nineteenth-century American history, an irresistible gravitational force pulling in anything and everything around it. Once you cross the event horizon of 1861, the beginning of the United States Civil War, it is nearly impossible to escape. Many of the giants in my field began their careers studying slaveholders or abolitionists and ended up writing Big Books on Lincoln and/or the Civil War. While these are certainly worthy topics, I have never found them particularly enthralling. The real war, I would argue, began in the 1770s and seethed for nearly a century, sometimes expressing itself culturally, sometimes politically, sometimes breaking out into open violence. The events of 1861-65 were important, but they were also the manifest symptom of a more extensive conflict, the final breaking out into the open of an ongoing, decades-long war over slavery.

The cult of Lincoln conceals the extent to which he was controlled by events running much deeper in the national and international political landscape and how his own deft strategizing intersected with those events to shape the outcome of the struggle. Although politicians and generals played a crucial role in the Civil War, there is plenty of evidence to suggest that grassroots developments were just as significant in determining the logic and pace of the radical changes sweeping the country. Data from the Visualizing Emancipation project, for example, clearly show that emancipation events – especially events classified as “African Americans Helping the Union” and “Fugitive Slaves/Runaways” – drastically increased in the ten months prior to the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation. The proclamation cemented this momentum and allowed it to expand. Lincoln’s fictional alliance with Tubman in Vampire Hunter hints at this dynamic. Ultimately, however, the depiction of the sixteenth president as a flawless force of nature, almost single-handedly responsible for the Union victory, obscures a lot more than it reveals.

Abraham Lincoln as the Rail Splitter, a campaign newspaper published in Cincinnati, Ohio, October 3, 1860.

The larger-than-life image of Lincoln as a world-historical figure, as the “Great Emancipator,”as the free laboring “Rail Splitter,” which provides the grist for Grahame-Smith’s revision, did not just appear out of thin air following his martyrdom. It was actively disseminated during his lifetime by editors, politicians, and paramilitary organizations such as the Wide Awakes. The latter group, which numbered in the hundreds of thousands, saturated the northern and border states with Lincoln’s image and served as shock troops for the Union cause. In other words, Lincoln had a pretty efficient public relations machine. And this brings me to the digital humanities (how’s that for an overwrought segue?)

In a classic post on the Social Contract of Scholarly Publishing, Dan Cohen argues, among other things, that academic authors need to do a better job cultivating an audience for their work. This can be done in the digital realm, he suggests, by pioneering new curatorial frameworks, by developing new ways to disseminate, promote, and review scholarship online. Common-Place, Digital Humanities Now, and the American Historical Review prize for Best Digital Article represent promising steps in this direction. The last of these seems especially significant, since it will only accept work that is “impossible in print.” But offering up innovative work in a trusted and easily accessible format, carving out new spaces for the play of ideas, is only half the battle. As any Hollywood producer will tell you, films like Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, Lincoln, and Django Unchained are only as successful as their attempts to present a recognizable brand, stimulate public interest, and build an audience. Hollywood marketing is notoriously bloated and avaricious – sometimes far exceeding the size of a film’s actual budget. So I do not think academics would benefit from this model. But I wonder what would happen if professional historians had that kind of publicity? It might make the inevitable sequel, in which Frederick Douglass teams up with Frankenstein’s Monster to fight the Wolf Man, somewhat more palatable.