Wednesday Sep 20

This semester, I’m teaching an introductory literature class that I’ve focused on Literary Monsters. We began with the Grendel and Grendel’s mother sections of Beowulf and have now transitioned to Bram Stoker’s Dracula.  As I recently prepared a couple of lessons on the novel, I found myself rather stunned by how similar the United States’ general mindset today is to the Victorian mindset that produced a story like Dracula

Any literary text in some way comments upon the culture which produced it.  The historical background that spawned this particular version of the vampire—a well-dressed but soulless count of considerable means and sophistication—is one rife with tension and turmoil.  By the end of the 19th Century, Britain had declined as a world power.  The economic and political rise of the United States and Germany, increasing dissent in British colonies and possessions, and various revolutions and instances of violent racial strife in nearby lands took its toll, as did a number of internal crises.  These included a sense that perhaps there was something immoral about its imperial ways, the increasing unrest within the ranks of a poorly-treated underclass, the threat to “home and hearth” that the “New Woman” embodied, and a sense that Britain was weakened and therefore susceptible to an attack by those they saw as “primitive.”  But perhaps most troubling of all, as many saw it, was the fact that Britain was fast becoming a more secular nation as religious skepticism—thanks in large part to the influence of Darwin’s Origin of Species, but also by the impact of the day to day harshness born of the Industrial Revolution—flourished.  Is it any wonder, then, that the foreign, powerful, blood-sucking vampire then appears to have his way with the corrupt nation?

As the presidential race that will determine the future path of the United States for the next four years draws to a close, I am struck by the similarities.  Many feel that our country has decayed as a world power, with a mysterious and scary eastern country like China beginning to flex its muscles.  Not only that, but China is also happily financing the two wars George W. Bush and his crew got us into for dubious reasons, further weakening us financially and politically.  The network of patsies we’d controlled for decades—Syria and the rest—have revolted.  Many in this country feel that our propping up of strongmen has been immoral, and we now fear these actions have come home to roost.  The gap between the wealthy and the growing underclass has never been wider, and the public Occupy demonstrations are only the tip of a far larger continent of unrest festering in the hearts of those of us denied the American Dream.  Rick Santorum, whose campaign for the Republican nomination for president failed but who, nonetheless, speaks for a relatively small but aggressive portion of the population, has steadfastly put forward the fears that engulf his supporters: they fear that we are amoral; they feel that science ought to be ignored in favor of Christian doctrine; they think that the role of women in our society has expanded well beyond the bounds of decency.  Our nation, too, is a pulsing, angry vein awaiting the bite of the vampire.

But in our case, the parts of the story are—and can this not be seen as a perfect metaphor for the grab bag population we’ve become?—out of sync.  It’s Obama who is the “foreign” threat, with his un-American name and his suspicious birth certificate.  And he’s mixed-race!  Or is it Romney, who hides his ill-gotten treasure—stolen from the working class—in foreign investments, who sends U.S. jobs overseas.  And wasn’t his father born in Mexico!?  And Barack Hussein Obama says he’s a Christian, but he sure sounds like a secret Muslim.  And Romney, isn’t he a member of a cult that allows multiple wives and wears special underwear?  And you’ve heard and seen the campaign ads: they both mean us harm, they both hate us, they both have brought us to the brink of disaster, and they both will end everything as we know it.  The Obama team has beaten Romney’s to the political punch with an ad in which a former steel worker at an Ohio mill that Bain Capital bankrupted calls Romney’s venture capital company “a vampire [that] came in and sucked the life out of us.”  The term vampire capitalism has now entered our vocabulary.

In Dracula, Stoker creates a dream team of Victorian heroes who together defeat the count and save Britain from his evil designs.  It is no accident that this group of defenders consists of two scientists and a group (including one American) who value morality and open-mindedness.  The group includes a woman, Mina Harker, who is struggling with the sickness of Dracula’s infection.  She is seen as the good, religious woman, in contrast to her friend, Lucy (the “New” threatening, independent and sexually aware woman), who dies of Dracula’s infection (after killing a few children first) because she’s finally too immoral to survive its power.  In the end, the coalition brings scientific method and reason to bear, but they rely as well on religious power (the Host, Holy Water, and crucifixes) as they come together to defeat the ghoul.

Maybe this provides as divided a country as our own a game plan as we face our own toothy demons; maybe, just maybe, if both sides would give some in order to get some, if we could join forces and embrace those things in which we can all believe (and there are many), who knows how deeply we can drive the stake home, how truly heroic and “exceptional” we might yet prove ourselves to be.