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Visions of America
Rhinebeck is one of those upstate towns that time forgot. A town where family-owned shops and familiar faces line the streets, and the oldest inn in America (where, as any townie will proudly tell you, General Washington himself once laid his wigless head) still offers its comforts at reasonable prices. It's a town where people give each other homemade quilts and use woodstoves to heat their homes; and where I have witnessed, on more than one occasion, an apple pie cooling on a windowsill. (Introduction.11)
What did George Washington think of vampires? Sadly, we'll never know. Anyway, the point here is that Rhinebeck serves as something of a bridge: Henry comes from the past and he can communicate to us in the present because Rhinebeck (and the narrator) has one foot in the past. Still.
Those first American decades were ones of seemingly limitless growth and opportunity. By the time Abe Lincoln was born, residents of Boston and Philadelphia had seen their cities double in size in less than twenty years. New York's population had tripled in the same amount of time. The cities were becoming livelier, more prosperous. "For every farmer, there are two haberdashers; for every blacksmith, an opera house," joked Washington Irving in his New York periodical, Salmagundi. (1.13)
People in the past don't have iPads or computers (or all of their teeth), but the 19th century was a time of big growth and modernization. Washington Irving makes a joke about how fast things are growing and becoming civilized, but the fact that he can print a magazine with humor is a pretty big sign that things are changing—fast. After all, if everyone has to farm to survive, they're all too busy to publish Mad Magazine.
Knob Creek became a place where weary travelers on the Old Cumberland Trail could spend the night. Sarah would make up a bed for each guest in one of the outbuildings (the farm consisted of a cabin, a storage shed, and a barn), and Nancy would serve a hot meal at sundown. The Lincolns never asked their overnight guests for payment, though most made contributions, either in money or, more often, in goods such as grain, sugar, and tobacco. After supper, the women would retire, and the men would pass the evening sipping whiskey and puffing pipes. (1.36)
The narrator often gives us broad overviews of the historical period, as here, where the narrator describes how the Lincoln family deals with strangers/travelers. Although the 19th century does have a lot of stuff that we recognize from our time—railroads, guns, vampires—the idea of giving strangers a place to sleep and eating together shows how different the past is. No Motel 6's.
The noise of engines and churning water. Black smoke rising from its chimney and white steam from its pipes. A boat that could take a man all the way from New Orleans to Louisville in under twenty-five days. Were there any limits to the ingenuity of man? (4.30)
Abe is born into a rapidly changing America and he gets to see a lot of those changes, for a poor kid born on a poor farm in Kentucky. In this scene, he gets to see one of the technological wonders of the time—the Mississippi steamboat. Which gives us a great idea for Grahame-Smith's next mash-up: Huck Finn plus… werewolves.
I was all astonishment, for I had never in my life seen such multitudes—their tongues dripping with French and Spanish phrases. Ladies fanning themselves in the latest fashions, and gentlemen clad from head to toe in suits of the highest quality. Streets filled with horses and carts; merchants selling every ware imagined. We strolled the rue de Chartres; beheld the Basilica of St. Louis in Jackson Square, so named for our president's heroic defense of the city. Here, teams of men and mules dug trenches for gas pipes. When their months of work were finished, one of them proudly sang, the city would "gleam like a sparkling jewel in the night, with nary a torch or a candle in sight." (4.43)
Now, there's a dark side to New Orleans. It may be a jewel of the South, but it's also where Abe sees his first slave auction. So Abe says that New Orleans seems very European (4.45), but the American side is that a lot of this city was made by slave labor. Aside from that, New Orleans nicely mixes history (Jackson Square memorializes a battle during the War of 1812) with the hope of the future (gas lamps). That might be the perfect representation of America in this book: new, old, violent, beautiful. Also, full of fried doughnuts.
Offutt saw the Sangamon River as a 250-mile stretch of opportunity. The frontier was booming, and towns were springing up all along its banks. Many believed that navigation would soon be improved, and that steamboats would soon bring passengers and goods through their backyards.
New Salem sat atop a bluff on the west bank of the Sangamon, a tightly grouped collection of one- and two-room cabins, workshops, mills, and a schoolhouse that doubled as a church on Sundays. There were perhaps one hundred residents in all. (5.45-6)
Offutt sees the growth of the 19th century and the opportunities it provides. But although this book has a lot of talk about growth and improvement, let's not get ahead of ourselves. The frontier town that seems promising to Offutt is made up of small houses and a schoolhouse that serves as a church. No skyscrapers yet.
"Truth is, it was more important to be rough," said Jack. "This is rough country, and it takes a rough man."
"Must you choose one or the other?" asked Abe. "I've always found time for books, and I know something of rough country."
Jack smiled. "Not Illinois rough." (5.72-4)
"Illinois rough" may not explain why Illinois governors keep ending up in jail, but it does make Illinois sound different from Kentucky (where Abe was born) and Washington, D.C. (where Abe will die). But is that real or is that just what Jack thinks? Is it just hometown pride, or is Illinois really rougher than the rest? And why would it be so?
The savage clashes which laid siege to much of Manhattan these two days and nights have at last been quieted. By order of the Governor, militiamen entered the Five Points late Sunday and engaged the remaining combatants with volley upon volley of musket fire. Untold numbers of dead could this morning be seen lining Baxter, Mulberry and Elizabeth Streets—victims of the worst rioting this or any city has seen in memory. The violence seems to have begun when those notorious Five Points gangs, the Plug Uglies and Dead Rabbits, sprung an attack against their shared enemy, the Bowery Boys. (9.4)
Gang warfare has always been a popular hobby in New York, just behind scrapbooking. These gang fights may be the subject of the movie Gangs of New York, and this book has 'em, too, only with vampires. This gang warfare makes it seem like New York may be just as rough as Illinois (see quote #7); and it also shows us that vampires aren't just a problem in the South. They're everywhere, including right behind you.
The drawings do it no justice—it is a city without end or equal! Each street gives way to another more grand and bustling than the last. Buildings of such size! Never have I seen so many carriages crowded together. The air rings with the clopping of horseshoes against cobblestones and the murmur of a hundred conversations. There are so many ladies carrying so many black parasols, that if a man were to look down from a rooftop, he would scarcely see the sidewalk. One imagines Rome at its height. London and its grandeur. [Footnote:] As big as New York City was, it was still only a quarter of London's size in 1857. (9.63)
New York City tends to be thought of (and tends to think of itself) as the best city in the world. (Ever notice how alien invasion and disaster movies always destroy New York? Wonder what that's about.) And here, in 1857, Abe agrees with that assessment. New York City is even bigger and more amazing than New Orleans and Springfield. But then we get that awesome footnote to puncture Abe's wonder. The Big Apple can be nice, but it's still small compared to the real metropolis of the time, London. This also points to a larger truth: America is still pretty new at this point. It has a lot of growing up to do.
"Five score years ago," the preacher began, "a great American, in whose symbolic shadow we stand, signed the Emancipation Proclamation. This momentous decree came as a great beacon light of hope to millions of N**** slaves who had been seared in the flames of withering injustice. It came as a joyous daybreak to end the long night of captivity. But one hundred years later, we must face the tragic fact that the N**** is still not free."
Abe and Henry had come to help finish the work begun a century before. They'd been there during Reconstruction, driving out the vampires who continued to terrorize emancipated slaves.... (14.28-9)
We focus on the 19th century here, but the actions of Abe and Henry have echoes in present day America. Or at least 1963, when Martin Luther King, Jr. gave his famous speech, referencing Lincoln's good deeds. But as much as Abe and Henry did to make America the country they wanted, it's still not quite there yet.
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