Tag Archives: Catherine Clinton

Lincoln 2012: Vampire Hunter and (international) Box Office Slayer

By Catherine Clinton

My obsession with action adventure films and my status as a Lincoln scholar, I decided, would make me a perfect candidate to enjoy Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter.

The fractional truth — a concept Lincoln alludes to in the film’s voiceover — can become a dangerous thing, but it also allows for complex, entertaining eccentricities. Especially in this souped-up digital age, it’s nice to have a nod to the past: like the animated television series Clone High (2002) as the teenaged Lincoln struggles with his rival JFK for the attentions of Cleopatra, and more recently the 2010 Drunk History episode on YouTube with Will Ferrell and Don Cheadle. I had my heart set on loving this new high concept mash-up of the slasher-horror with a true red, white and blue biopic. Yet I was somewhat disappointed, especially as a fan of the book.

I found Seth Graham-Smith’s vampire hunter volume an engaging tongue-in-cheek novel cleverly exploiting Lincoln’s mythic status, revisionist views on race and slavery, not to mention the current craze for vampires. For Lincolnistas the volume presents a parlor game of catching the errors or sorting out the real from fake quotes. The film is even more mind blowing, and for the uninitiated, a fairly unbelievable introduction. But from his law partner William Herndon forward, Lincoln has been a commodity — thus liberties will be taken and outrageous claims made. It would’ve been nicer for Graham-Smith to have been more faithful to his own text with his screenplay adaptation, but as any member of the Screenwriter’s Guild knows, being faithful to the text is a fantasy no producer will buy.

Aficionados of horror films revel in the cheesy comfort of the fantastic directly competing with the familiar which produces hairs rising on the back of the neck. The book and film both raise a series of improbable questions, even if you believe in these fanged creatures of the night.

Like what if Lincoln’s mother died at the hands of some dastardly vampire rather than the milk sickness to which her death has been attributed for a century and a half? What if Abraham Lincoln had used his skills as an axman to kill these monsters in a campaign of just revenge? (But the film seems to miss a trick to not have him whittle some stakes!) What if slaves shipped downriver are being consumed literally, rather than just being worked to death in the fields?

But questions and dialogue aside, this is a dazzling spectacle with epic and operatic features.
The balletic slo-mo special effects of the strapping railsplitter being trained as a vampire hunter attract a special crowd of filmgoers; not just the fans of Tim Burton  (producer) or Timur Bekmametov (director, whose 2008 Wanted, was a critical and box-office hit), but also legions within the newly emerging youth market seeking 3-D action adventure. Viewers get a screen soaked in blood and irony. My favorite cynicism was the vampire leader Adam’s plea that his people be allowed their own nation. Thus paving the way for a sequel: Vampire Nation — back to the “what if the Confederates had won” parlor game of the Civil War centennial era!

An appealing contemporary “what if” is posed with slavery in league with the darkest of horrors, vampirism. Bondage is portrayed with striking imagery; gore and bloodlust dominate in scenes where slavery appears, with the tip of the lash extending itself 3D nearly to the viewer’s own goose-bumped flesh. Most weirdly apt within this sectional fantasia: Jefferson Davis calling on Adam for military assistance from vampire troops!  How the Lincolns plot and prevail to defeat Confederate vampires at Gettysburg forms the movie’s dramatic and sensational climax.
Hats off to the sexy youthful actors who provide viewers with more than just pretty faces. Dominic Cooper’s Henry–a man with a secret, who’s also a man with a mission–provides an interesting foil for the young man from Pigeon Creek. This tension between means, desires and a higher morality has a spiritual dimension which at times lifts the script out of its blood-soaked, grimy depths. But the higher ground is too seldom sought and even more rarely reached.

At times the continuity coordinator seems to have lost the thread – as do some of the viewers – but what the hell was Harrison Ford trying to find/accused of/ running from in The Fugitive? Thus often it’s not about the plot — and in this film, the moralistic streak for Lincoln comes shining through, manufactured by 150 years of scholarly hagiography, iconic cultural motifs, and just plain pop fiction. Babraham– as he has been affectionately labeled–comes off as an “aw shucks” superhuman figure in Bakmametov’s twisted tribute.

The filmmakers demonize racism, championing the heroics of abolitionism, giving Lincoln an African-American ally to fight bloodsucking bats on a train! At least the auteurs have given this central black character (William Johnson) agency, as well as the name of an African-American servant who accompanied the Lincolns from Springfield to Washington.  Anthony Mackie provides a charismatic performance, which detracts from his role in plot absurdity. Harriet Tubman is also provided a cameo–in yet another portrait with 99% inaccuracy (similar to Stephen Douglas & Joshua Speed). Yet Tubman’s genuine one percent also triumphs as a plot device–power to the Underground Railroad and who has the final taste of victory and freedom.

Lincoln’s life and legendary status makes him a perfect star–to promote his own destiny, as he clearly does in this offbeat film epic. Benjamin Walker (so effective on Broadway in the role of Andrew Jackson in the musical “Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson” that he may want to specialize in playing Presidents!) is relatively unknown to film audiences– which gives him an advantage. Who is this, if not our man Lincoln?

The general public’s ignorance about Mary Lincoln– played by the fetching Mary Elizabeth Winstead, allows viewers to shoehorn the Lincoln-Todd romance into a formulaic cliché about boy meeting girl. The writer and director throw in enough authentic emotive touches to create chemistry on screen. But I recognize that only Mary Lincoln biographers will be satisfied by this saccharine rendition of Lincoln’s romance and marriage. And even I wouldn’t try to sell an audience on such an heroic Mrs. Lincoln…who leans toward anti-slavery and braves the open road at night with a black woman. The audience is roused nearly to applause when Mary avenges her child’s death, and puts an end to the phantasmagoric creature played by Erin Wasson–a female vampire with such slither and style that she conjures up Nicole Kidman in Cold Mountain crossed with Catwoman. Although most cinematic vampires have been men–and the sexualized undertones are far from subtle in these portraits–perhaps the most effective vampire within this saga is the enigmatic Vadoma–who struts and connives until she meets her match (no spoilers). Her voracious demonization of womanhood harks back to Philip Burne- Jones’ painting of a female leaning over a supine man, which scandalized London when exhibited in the 1890s. In a film dominated by male fantasy, women do not fare as poorly as your average Hollywood vehicle.

When Mary, in a witch-like fury, pummels her husband’s chest angrily after the death of their son, Willie, Graham-Smith may or may not be aware of the historical debate surrounding Abe’s marriage. One prominent Lincoln historian has labeled him an “abused spouse,” claiming Abraham was a victim of Mary’s domestic violence. In any case, intellectual malapropos abound and overshadow the earnestness with which these filmmakers pursue their political message about Lincoln’s “magical properties.” But this nevertheless may work magic globally, as Lincoln the Vampire Hunter topped the charts during its opening summer weekend in the U.K.

And by the film’s end the weight of the evils of vampires, not to mention his secret life as a vampire hunter, mark Lincoln’s face and seal his fate. Anything that awakens curiosity about the Civil War during this sesquicentennial era must be applauded, even if we wince through fiction and pop projects. My only reservation is if the Vampire Hunter image spawns other less intentional horror depictions; with the announcement of a documentary adaptation of Bill O’Reilly’s Killing Lincoln, I shudder. But clearly, Americans hunger for Lincoln, and filmmakers will slake this thirst for a new generation, as well as that of their parents and grandparents. Lincoln’s star power goes 3D, vampires and all!

**

Catherine Clinton holds a chair in U.S. history at Queen’s University Belfast and
is the author of Mrs. Lincoln: A Life (2009) and Harriet Tubman: The Road to
Freedom
(2004). She serves as a member of President Lincoln’s Cottage Scholarly Advisor Group.

Leave a comment

Filed under History

Visitor’s Top 10 Book Selections at President Lincoln’s Cottage

By President Lincoln’s Cottage Staff

As we noted in our first President Lincoln’s Cottage Book List, so many new books have come out the Lincoln bicentennial year.  We keep on top of the latest for staff reference and to select items for the Museum Store, but visitors are as interested in the new as they are in the classics.  In this third installment of the Book List, we look at our visitor’s top 10 picks for books, determined by the top 10 sellers since opening the site, omitting children’s books.  (For children’s books, look for the fourth installment of the Book List coming soon).

Please note that the publication date is for the edition ranked as a top seller at President Lincoln’s Cottage and may be different from the date of original publication.
  1. Lincoln’s Sanctuary, Matthew Pinsker (Oxford University Press, 2005)
  2. Abraham Lincoln Wisdom and Wit, Louise Bachelder (Peter Pauper Press, 1998)
  3. Abraham Lincoln: Great Speeches, Roy P. Basler, ed. (Dover Publications, 1991)
  4. Quotations of Abraham Lincoln, U-Inspire Inc., (Applewood Books, 2004)
  5. Lincoln and Whitman: Parallel Lives in Civil War Washington, Daniel Mark Epstein (Random House, 2005)
  6. Behind the Scenes: or Thirty Years a Slave, and Four Years in the White House, Elizabeth Keckley (University of Illinois Press, 2001)
  7. Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, Doris Kearns Goodwin (Simon & Schuster, 2006)
  8. Mrs. Lincoln and Mrs. Keckly, Jennifer Fleischner (Broadway, 2004)
  9. Lincoln, David Herbert Donald, (Simon & Schuster, 1996)
  10. Mrs. Lincoln: A Life, Catherine Clinton (Harper, 2009)

View these past President Lincoln’s Cottage Book Lists:

Check back soon for these President Lincoln’s Cottage Book Lists:

  • Children’s Lincoln Reading List
  • Lincoln’s Own Summer Reading List

Leave a comment

Filed under Education, History, Museum Store

Global Perspectives on Lincoln

By Frank Milligan

From July 3-5 I had the pleasure of participating in a unique conference held at St.Catherine’s College in Oxford, England. “The Global Lincoln” was organized by Lincoln scholar Professor Richard Carwardine, the Rhodes Professor of American History at the University of Oxford. Carwardine is no stranger to President Lincoln’s Cottage, having spoken here a few years ago. Based on the enthusiasm he demonstrated for the Cottage at this conference it is clear that has not forgotten experience here. The purpose of the conference was to explore Lincoln’s international legacy by including case studies of Lincoln’s legacy in the British Isles, Africa, India, East Asia, Latin America, Europe, and of course the United States. Some of the presenters such as Douglas Wilson, David Blight, Harold Holzer and Queen’s University, Belfast scholar Catherine Clinton, are no strangers to the Cottage. In fact Dr. Clinton rushed directly from England to the Cottage to help lead one of our teacher educational workshops. The American scholars joined an impressive group of international scholars to present stories on how Lincoln spoke – and continues to speak – to peoples across the world. In addition to Lincoln scholars and interested followers, dozens of elementary and high school history teachers from across America attended thanks to funding from the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History. These teachers added a freshness and energy to the gathering, and based on the number of business cards I gave out to teachers I feel confident that we will see many of these teachers and their students at the Cottage in the years ahead.

I was particularly honored to deliver my paper – “Presenting Race and Emancipation to the Public at President Lincoln’s Cottage” – at the wonderful Rothermere American Institute on the St. Catherine’s Campus. There was much interest in learning more about how we present the complicated and evolving story of mid-19th century race and emancipation to our visitors. Fortunately the field of ‘Public History’ found in museums and historic sites, is more frequently included in these scholarly gatherings. Members of the academy are increasingly intrigued with our work in presenting Lincoln stories at historic sites and museums across the world.

Dr. Milligan is the Director of President Lincoln’s Cottage.

Leave a comment

Filed under Education, Public Programs

Your Lincoln Summer Reading List

By President Lincoln’s Cottage Staff

It’s the Lincoln bicentennial year and new books about Lincoln are published every month. How do you decide what books to read? President Lincoln’s Cottage staff stay abreast of new publications on Lincoln to make sure we have a great selection available in the Museum Store. Of course we don’t spend all of our time reading Lincoln books, and we tend to be very selective.  What new books have made it onto our lists and onto our Store’s shelves?

What we’ve recently read that we think you’ll enjoy, too:

Did Lincoln Own Slaves: And Other Frequently Asked Questions About Abraham Lincoln, Gerald J. Prokopowicz, (Pantheon, 2008).

Prokopowicz ‘s goal is to remove the artificial barriers that sometimes divide academic historians from public historians and from the public itself. Did Lincoln Own Slaves is organized into twelve subject chapters such as ‘Politician” and “Legacy” and is a compilation of dozens of questions about Lincoln amassed during his career. In a recent telephone conversation he told me that he wrote the book with a President Lincoln’s Cottage audience in mind: that is people with a some knowledge of Lincoln wanting to learn more and have a good time doing it. This book delivers that in spades. It is highly informative, well researched and replete with Prokopowicz’s unique sense of humor. You will find yourself laughing out loud and learning incredible facts about our 16th President while doing it, and it doesn’t get much better than that!  This is a ‘no miss” summer read.  
-Frank Milligan, Director

Note: Prokopowicz will be our January 2010 Cottage Conversations guest speaker. Mark your calendars for January 21.

*Mrs. Lincoln: A Life, Catherine Clinton (Harper Collins, 2009)

Whether you love Mary Lincoln or just love to hate her, you’ll enjoy reading Mrs. Lincoln. Clinton does a masterful job of presenting and analyzing research in this balanced presentation of one of the most controversial first ladies of all time.  Mary Lincoln is portrayed as ambitious, tormented, flawed, and complex.  Clinton neither apologizes for Mary Lincoln’s behavior nor condemns her for it.   This is a great book to read with a friend or your book club, because you will want to discuss it with everyone!  
Erin Mast, Curator

Land of Lincoln: Adventures in Abe’s America by Andrew Ferguson (Grove Press, 2008)

A hilarious and eye-opening look at the ways in which Abraham Lincoln is revered and reviled in today’s America. Both a travelogue and a memoir, Ferguson explores the world of Lincoln sites, collectors, presenters and “Abephobes” dragging his reluctant family along for a journey to find the Abraham Lincoln he knew as a boy.
-George Rogers, Director of Development

Abraham Lincoln by James McPherson (Oxford University Press, 2009)

Pulitzer Prize-winning historian James McPherson’s succinct biography (70+ pages) is a good choice for those who want to dip a toe into the ocean of Lincoln scholarship. McPherson’s intent is to capture “the essential events and meaning of Lincoln’s life without oversimplification or overgeneralization” and in this he succeeds admirably.
-George Rogers, Director of Development

Lincoln’s Men: The President and His Private Secretaries, Daniel Epstein (Harper Collins, 2009)

As I’ve been anxious to learn more about Lincoln, the man, from those who knew him well, I recently read both David Herbert Donald’s We Are Lincoln Men (2004) and Daniel Epstein’s Lincoln Men.  The volumes complement one another well. Both provide great insight into Lincoln’s work ethic and habits, his integrity and moral compass, his kindness and deep compassion as well as his iron will and tenacity, and his relationships with both close associates and subordinates. Fascinating and enlightening reading!
-Leslie Bouterie, Private & Corporate Events manager

*Copies signed by the author are currently (6/29/2009) available for purchase in the Museum Store.  All titles listed here are available for purchase in the Museum Store.  Call 202-829-0436 x 31231 to inquire about availability. 

Check back soon for these President Lincoln’s Cottage Book Lists:

  • Children’s Lincoln Reading List
  • Our Visitors’ Top 10 Lincoln Reading List
  • Lincoln’s Own Summer Reading List
  • Staff All Time Favorites Lincoln Reading List
  • And more!

Leave a comment

Filed under Education, History

Cottage Conversations: Catherine Clinton

Join us for Cottage Conversations: Inside the Lincoln Household, part III, featuring author Catherine Clinton on May 20, 2009. Clinton will speak about her new book, Mrs. Lincoln, A Life (Harper Collins, 2009).  The talk is immediately followed by a book signing with the author. 

Event Details:
Wednesday, May 20, 2009
6:00pm Reception, 6:30pm Program
President Lincoln’s Cottage, 2nd floor
Free for Members, $10/person for General Public
Inquiries and ticket purchase: Alison_Mitchell@nthp.org

2 Comments

Filed under Public Programs

Mary Lincoln, Another Side to Her Story

By Erin Carlson Mast 

Mary Lincoln, a deeply controversial figure of her day, continues to draw an intense amount of public interest, sympathy, and even scorn.  As much as we continue to debate Abraham Lincoln and his presidency, so too do we dissect his wife’s actions and role in the Lincoln story. 

Mary Lincoln was intelligent and highly educated (fluent in French, she received 10 years of formal schooling to Lincoln’s aggregate one year), with a well connected family (Dolley Madison was a kinswoman and Henry Clay a neighbor and family friend), and had a keen interest in politics.   Mary was one of the first to see the promise in Abraham Lincoln and, to her family’s initial dismay, wed the prairie lawyer who was little known, unrefined, and lacking formal education and familial and political connections.   Not unlike other first ladies, Mary Lincoln appears to have been intimately involved in Lincoln’s political career, for better or for worse (perhaps getting worse the higher the stakes became), and during a time when overt involvement in politics by females was often regarded as inappropriate or unwelcome.

It cannot be denied that when the Lincolns arrived in Washington, DC, they entered a social and political minefield as Civil War loomed.  Opponents wasted no time deriding and ridiculing the Lincolns.  Not unlike celebrity gossip rags today, the public gobbled up outrageous stories about Mary Lincoln, eager for more.  But for every sensational story (whether based in truth or not), published about Mary, you can find a redeeming story that drew little press attention.  And for every judgment of Mary, you can find a great deal of context that’s omitted. 

Much is made of Mary’s spending habits, but little is made of her frequent visits to hospitals to bring supplies and help care for wounded soldiers.  Fewer still know of Mary Lincoln’s letter to her husband (at the end of their first season living at the Soldiers’ Home) requesting $200 to be donated to Elizabeth Keckley’s Contraband Relief Association.   The Lincolns’ $200 donation was the single largest donation received that year for the CRA, which provided much needed relief to formerly enslaved African Americans who had fled to the District after the DC Emancipation Act was passed in April 1862.

Mary was called a traitor and a spy, her patriotism frequently questioned, in large part because of her Kentucky roots and her Confederate family members.  The theme of divided family is integral to the Civil War story, and was experienced first hand by the Lincolns while they were living at the Cottage.  Yet Mary never publicly mourned the loss of her siblings who died fighting for the Confederacy and once said in private, “They would kill my husband if they could, and destroy our Government—the dearest of all things to us.” 

A frequent question at President Lincoln’s Cottage is whether or not Mary Lincoln was “crazy.”  When contemplating such a question, it cannot be ignored that Mary’s life was fraught with death and tragedy.   As author Catherine Clinton points out in her new biography Mrs. Lincoln: A Life, while Mary was not unique amongst Civil War Americans in having to endure these personal trials, unlike most others, she had to endure them on a very public stage, with the entire world watching–and critiquing–her every move.    

Like all human beings, Mary Lincoln had her faults and weaknesses.  Her faults cannot be denied, but Mary’s strengths and admirable qualities deserve equal attention.

President Lincoln’s Cottage strives to offer a balanced story of the Lincolns and their time here at the Soldiers’ Home.   For those interested in learning more about Mary Lincoln, we welcome you to join us for two upcoming events.

March 26, 2009
“Face to Face” series at the National Portrait Gallery
Erin Carlson Mast talks about Mary Lincoln, as painted by Pierre Morand, ca 1864.
For more information: https://lincolncottage.wordpress.com/2009/03/10/ladies-first-womens-history-at-the-national-portrait-gallery/

May 2009
Cottage Conversations at President Lincoln’s Cottage
Catherine Clinton talks about her new book, Mary Lincoln: A Life (2009)
For more information: https://lincolncottage.wordpress.com/2009/02/19/cottage-conversations-speaker-series-2009/

Ms. Mast is the Curator at President Lincoln’s Cottage.

Leave a comment

Filed under History, Public Programs

“Cottage Conversations” Speaker Series 2009

By Erin Carlson Mast

The President Lincoln’s Cottage speaker series, “Cottage Conversations,” will continue throughout the Lincoln Bicentennial. Past speakers include Chandra Manning for What This Cruel War Was Over (2008), Stephen Berry for House of Abraham (2007), and Burrus Carnahan for Act of Justice (2007). 

Cottage Conversations: Inside the Lincoln Household, part I

Michael Burlingame, Abraham Lincoln: A Life

Join us as Burlingame talks about his new book, 2-volume Abraham Lincoln: A Life, released by The Johns Hopkins University Press in December 2008.

Thursday, March 12, 2009
6:00pm Reception, 6:30pm Program 
President Lincoln’s Cottage, 2nd floor
Free for Members, $10/person for General Public 
Tickets for the General Public go on sale Tuesday, February 24th.
Inquiries: Alison_Mitchell@nthp.org

Cottage Conversations: Inside the Lincoln Household, parts II and III

April 2009: Daniel Epstein
Lincoln’s Men: The President and His Private Secretaries (2009) and The Lincolns: Portrait of a Marriage (2009)

May 2009:
Catherine Clinton Mary Lincoln: A Life (2009)

Members of President Lincoln’s Cottage receive first notification and priority registration for “Cottage Conversations.”  For more information about the benefits of membership at President Lincoln’s Cottage, please visit the membership page of our website: http://www.lincolncottage.org/donate/index.htm

Ms. Mast is the Curator for President Lincoln’s Cottage.

Leave a comment

Filed under Education, Public Programs