Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Remembering The Assassination

This year marks the 145th anniversary of the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. Still remembered today as one of the most tragic events in American history, the United States experienced an outpouring of grief unmatched until perhaps the death of John F. Kennedy.

To help commemorate the assassination and the funerals which followed, I'm planning on a series of posts which will begin on April 14th, the assassination anniversary. The series will continue with posts which will coincide with the anniversary of his death and for each of the funerals held in various cities along his final journey to Springfield.

People often forget that Lincoln was not a popular president while living. He was hated by Democrats, abolitionists (for not moving to end slavery quickly), the elite of his own party, and obviously by the South. Unfortunately, the assassination is what turned Lincoln into "Lincoln," the near mythical figure so many people are fascinated by in our time.

I hope you'll journey along with me as The Abraham Lincoln Blog remembers our first martyred president, beginning April 14th. It's a remarkable story even today.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Booth - Graphic Novel Review

For many Abraham Lincoln enthusiasts, nothing intrigues them more than the tragedy of his assassination. Just as he had, at long last, achieved victory in the Civil War, he was struck down by the vainglorious young actor, John Wilkes Booth. Even today, books written about one of the saddest events in American history go on to become best sellers. The past few years have seen the publication of two superb books about the assassination: Blood On The Moon (Edward Steers, Jr.) and the more recent Manhunt: The 12 Day Chase For Lincoln's Killer.

Joining the growing list of Lincoln assassination books is Booth, a graphic novel published by First Second. Booth is a joint effort by the author C.C. Colbert and the graphic novel artist Tantioc. C.C. Colbert is the pen name of the esteemed historian Catherine Clinton, who earned her Ph.D. in history from Princeton. She is the author of numerous books, including her recent biography of Mary Todd Lincoln, titled Mrs. Lincoln: A Life. Dr. Clinton also is a member of the Abraham Lincoln Bicentennial Commission. This is her first foray into historical fiction.

Tantioc is a French artist who specializes in graphic novels. He is also a writer, lecturer, a scholar of comics criticism, and has authored two graphic novels.

Booth presents a semi-fictionalized account of John Wilkes Booth and the events which led to his murder of President Lincoln. After a brief two-page introduction to the Booth family in 1850 Maryland, the novel rapidly moves to the year 1863, during the heart of the Civil War. By then, the Booth family (John and his brothers Edwin and Junius - also famous actors), have become divided, with Edwin and Junius supporting the Union, while John is an unabashed Confederate sympathizer. The graphic novel progresses through Booth's becoming involved with rebel plotters to either kidnap or murder Lincoln to the assassination itself. Along the way, the various relationships Booth had with women are also depicted, including his secret engagement to Lucy Hale, the daughter of a U.S. Senator.

In the author's notes, Colbert (Clinton) discusses that she enjoyed the speculation and "what ifs" this form of book permitted her to write, freeing her for once from the rigors of accuracy expected of scholars. Her sons are apparently fans of graphic novels, which also helped lead her to this effort.

A fine effort it is, at least considering the writing. Colbert/Clinton wrote the text of the graphic novel and she does a nice job of blending fact with speculation and fiction. The major characters in Booth are true historical figures. Booth and Lincoln (barely seen...this is Booth's story), Booth's family, his fiancee Lucy, her father, Robert Lincoln, Secretary of War Stanton, and the people hanged for the conspiracy were all real, of course. Where the book diverges into speculation is when it shows Booth involved with other Confederate agents (which may have been true...historians aren't sure) in plotting against Lincoln. Booth is also shown in the company of a women of questionable morals, Ella, one of the fictional potential plotters. The dialogue is believable and very well-written.

A little more background about the real conspirators would've been nice, especially if readers aren't familiar with the assassination story. For example, George Atzerodt (his name misspelled as "Adzerodt") is shown as one of the people who was hanged on July 7, 1865. Other than a single panel earlier in the work, no reason is given as to why he was hanged. (Of course, the real Atzerodt was assigned by the real Booth to assassinate the Vice-President, Andrew Johnson.)

The artwork didn't impress me nearly as much as the writing did. I make no claims to being an artist, but the artwork in Booth detracted (for me) from the overall quality of Booth. Today's "style" of many comic book and graphic novel artists is, to my eyes anyway, crudely drawn with muted colors. It gives a "flat" appearance to the art with poor attention to facial features and perspective. I happen to be a collector of vintage comic books. When I look at the art from the 1930's through the 1970's, I'm stricken by how beautifully drawn and colored those comics were. I also think larger dimensions for this graphic novel would have permitted the artist more room with which to work. The overall appearance is that things look "cramped" in the art in Booth.

(Speaking of the artwork, I do want to warn parents who might be reading this review. This book is NOT a comic book, and it is not meant for younger readers. There are panels which show Booth's companion, Ella, while she is topless. A bit gratuitous, perhaps, but at least realistic. Booth was a notorious womanizer.)

In spite of my criticisms, I enjoyed Booth. I would recommend it to graphic novel enthusiasts or to Lincoln buffs. For her first attempt at writing a graphic novel, author Colbert did an excellent job with the story, the introductions to the chapters, and the dialogue. Well done, Dr. Clinton.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Abraham Lincoln : Vampire Hunter Facts vs. Fiction

The recently published book "Abraham Lincoln : Vampire Hunter" by Seth Grahame-Smith has attracted a lot of interest from readers in recent weeks. It's garnering great reviews, including one I wrote here. The book is well-written and Grahame-Smith has skillfully blended historical fact with a fun fictional account of Lincoln as a hunter of vampires.

I've been struck, though, by how many "hits" this blog has been receiving from people who are trying to determine what is fictional and what is fact in the book. As a small public service, I thought I'd help out those who are having difficulty in this area. The list below touches on some of the major events in the book. WARNING: There will most likely be spoilers here!

  • The Secret Journal Of Abraham Lincoln - complete fiction. It would be a major historical find if such a journal were ever to be discovered.

  • Lincoln befriending Edgar Allen Poe - also fiction. The real Lincoln loved Poe's works of poetry and fiction, but the two gentlemen never met in real life. That photo in the book which shows them posing together? Nicely faked.

  • Lincoln venturing to Mississippi to confront Jefferson Davis - fiction. The two probably did meet somewhere along the way, but Lincoln never travelled to Mississippi to confront him.

  • The photos - mostly doctored, blatantly or not. Most of the photos in the book have been "enhanced" to go along with the story. For example, Jefferson Davis and John Wilkes Booth never posed together for a photo. The photo with Lincoln sitting in General McClellan's tent at Antietam is real enough, with the exception of the ax shown next to Lincoln. The photo showing the close-up with the skull on the battlefield? Mostly real, with the exception of the fangs.

  • Lincoln in New Orleans - fact. Lincoln did travel twice to New Orleans, once in 1828, and once in 1830. He was hired to deliver crops and other cargo from Illinois down the Mississippi River.

  • Lincoln's mother Nancy dying when Abe was 9 - fact. She indeed died when Abe was only 9, but from drinking milk poisoned by a cow eating white snake root, a poisonous plant.

  • Lincoln's son Willie dying in 1862 - fact. He died of typhoid fever.

  • Vampires - sorry, folks. Henry Sturges is fictional. So are all the other vampires which pop up in the story. I didn't really have to tell you this, did I?

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Noteworthy New Lincoln Website and Blog

More than 201 years after his birth, and 145 years after his death, Abraham Lincoln continues to fascinate people around the world. His story has been told countless times in books, plays, magazine articles, movies, musicals, and even modern dance. I began this blog 2 1/2 years ago in order to share my own fascination with all things Lincoln, but it's hardly the only such blog on the Internet. There is always room for more.

I'd like to bring attention to probably the most recent Internet site about Lincoln, and it has the makings of one of the best. Erika Holst is the author of "Lincoln Footnotes" which is both a website and a blog. The purpose of both is to share little-known stories about Lincoln, stories which, as she writes on her site "show up in biographies as footnotes, if they show up at all, but are nevertheless fascinating bits of history." For example, Ms. Holst has already posted articles on her blog about Lincoln's ties to the infamous Donner Party, Moby Dick author Herman Melville, and a political acquaintance who met an unfortunate end by being crushed by a political campaign pole. I'm intrigued already.

Ms. Holst is a trained historian who holds a Masters in Early American Culture from the University of Delaware's Winterthur Program, and her B.S. is in History and English from Illinois Wesleyan University. She's also worked, volunteered, and interned at prestigious museums such as The Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum in Springfield, Illinois. Her articles have appeared in History Magazine, and the Journal Of The Abraham Lincoln Association. Very impressive and a bit intimidating to those of us who are only amateurs.

Please visit her website and blog. I've already learned more about Abraham Lincoln from her efforts, and so will you.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Book Review - Abraham Lincoln:Vampire Hunter

Forget almost everything you've ever learned about Abraham Lincoln and his life. Sure, he was the 16th President of The United States who led the nation through the Civil War. But that was only a front for what he really was: a hunter and killer of vampires!

That at least is the claim of Seth Grahame-Smith, the author of "Abraham Lincoln:Vampire Hunter," due for release to book stores everywhere this week (March 2, 2010). Grahame-Smith was also the author of last year's surprise best-seller, "Pride And Prejudice And Zombies" in which he re-imagined the classic novel by Jane Austen to include killer zombies.

Now, Grahame-Smith has chosen to re-imagine not a classic novel, but a towering figure of American history, Abraham Lincoln. Grahame-Smith was recently befriended (so we're told) by a mysterious stranger, who gave him a package of old diaries which turned out to be the long-lost Secret Journal of Abraham Lincoln. All we've ever known about Lincoln has been turned upside down. Lincoln's mother, Nancy Hanks Lincoln, didn't die of "milk sickness." No, she was killed by a vampire who was seeking a debt from Lincoln's father, Thomas. When Thomas later reveals the truth, young Abe dedicates himself to destroying all vampires.

Grahame-Smith has reconstructed the hidden story of Abe through the journals and interviews with others mentioned by the mysterious stranger. We see young Abraham build his body and perfect his hunting and tracking skills as he pursues vampires. He develops an amazing skill with his trusty ax, able to hit targets by flinging it from up to 30 feet away. Abe encounters his own stranger who proceeds to reveal to him what his purpose will be in life.

Not only does the author take us through Abraham Lincoln's life, he also weaves the famous Lost Colony of Roanoke, Edgar Allen Poe, Barack Obama, and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. into the narrative. It all seems to be sheer insanity.

Yet, somehow it works. It works well. The reader is treated to a novel which is at times gripping, sometimes moving, and all the while highly entertaining. Though the book is more than 330 pages long, it never drags and keeps the attention of the reader.

The best feature of this book is the skill with which Grahame-Smith blends historical fact with the absurdity of the involvement of vampires in Lincoln's life. Other than the vampires, all other characters presented here did exist. Most events are accurate, while a few are imagined (the real Lincoln did not not travel to Mississippi to confront the real Jefferson Davis, for example). Dates are also mostly accurate. Real photos or prints depicting Lincoln or the Civil War are shown, but have been "doctored" to further the vampire story. In fact, the blending of fact and fiction is done so well that many readers may not know when events and photos have been faked.

I enjoyed the book a great deal, with a few caveats. The first two parts of the book (Boy and Vampire Hunter) are very well-done with excellent character development. The reader can almost feel that he or she is in New Orleans with Abe, or while he's tracking a vampire along the Mississippi. We follow Abe as he grows from a young boy into a young man and leaves his father and step-mother to be on his own in New Salem, Illinois where he meets Ann Rutledge.

The final part of the book, when Abraham Lincoln becomes president of the United States, seemed to me to be rushed at times. We see Lincoln as he is elected, when he travels to see McClellan at Antietam, when he gives his Gettysburg Address and his inaugural speeches, and as he deals with his cabinet. The events surrounding his death are especially presented very quickly. I believe a few extra pages, no more than 20 or 30, would have permitted the author to further explain John Wilkes Booth's motivation behind the reasons he chose assassination over an initial kidnapping plot, even if it was a fictionalized account.

I suppose it doesn't make much sense to point out some inconsistencies and inaccuracies in the book, but they did bother me. A reference to Lincoln's 53rd birthday gives his birth date as February 9th instead of February 12th! The names of Lincoln's sons Willie and Eddie are sometimes misspelled as "Willy" and "Eddy," while they are spelled correctly in other instances in the book. It's the responsibility of the author to assure accuracy, but better editing would have caught these problems.

When I was first asked to review "Abraham Lincoln : Vampire Hunter" by the publisher, I was tempted to laugh it off. Then I found out that The Smithsonian Institution and Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum have both held (or will soon hold) appearances by the author for discussions and book signings. I figured if the book is important enough for those institutions to highlight, then it should be for me, too.

I recommend this book. It's fun, entertaining, and even informative. Above all, it just might make more people interested in Abraham Lincoln, the real person. And that is a good thing.


4.0 out of 5.0 axes (The image is real. It's a close-up of the final ax Abraham Lincoln used, approximately one week before his death. Not to kill vampires, though.)

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