December 22, 2020 | At the small New England college
I attended, majoring in American Studies packed a great promise:
the opportunity to rub shoulders with the program chair, legendary
"Americanist" Richard Slotkin. Unfortunately for me, Slotkin and
I missed each other, shoulders and all. As it happened, Slotkin
was "on leave" for three-and-a-half of my four years, working
on a titanic study of gunslinger mythology in the American mindset.
His research yielded no less than three books on the topic.
Fascinating stuff, if you're into that sort of thing.
Even though he was never around in those days, Slotkin remained
a badge of pride for the program. Saying you were in "The Department
of Slotkin" felt a little like Republicans must feel when they
say they're in "The Party of Lincoln," even if it doesn't mean
much at any given time. The analogy seems especially pertinent
today, since Slotkin's new book tackles no less a historical sacred
cow than Honest Abe himself.
Does Slotkin's Abe do anything to tip that cow, you may
ask? Far from it. In fact, it's an indulgence in Lincoln mythology
of, well, mythic proportions. Anybody who knows his or her American
history knows it's not unreasonable to suggest that Lincoln's
signature act--freeing the slave--was the right thing done for
the wrong reasons. His Emancipation Proclamation was an empty
promise (he didn't have the jurisdiction) and a pragmatic army
recruitment drive. If the myth seems convincing to you, consider
this infamous quotation: "If I could save the Union without freeing
a single slave," Lincoln said, "I would." To whom did he address
this and what did he mean by it? Those are challenging questions
to answer--probably even fairly mitigating--but the statement
itself can't be ignored as a part of the man.
Slotkin's book, a thrilling historical novel that fictionalizes
Lincoln's childhood, begins not with the man but with the boy,
and thus more easily, the myth: it asks the question, how
did Lincoln grow up amidst the racism of early 19th Century Illinois
and emerge as a man most emphatically not of his place or time?
(Slotkin's answer, in part: an imagined Huck Finn-like adventure
with a "white inside" slave sidekick.) What's so interesting about
the book is that instead of exposing American myth like his earlier
work, it takes existing myth and expands it. My only fear
is that his original point about our culture's thriving on myth
will be undermined if the book doesn't sell.
A far more poignant point for our day and age might be one that
throws Lincoln to the wolves, surrenders him to any party or candidate
that wants to co-opt his image. If you take him at his word--prioritizing
saving "The Union" (read: his job) above ending the greatest crime
against humanity that America has gotten around to yet--is Lincoln
any less careerist than the modern counterparts who co-opt his
name and myth?
I recently saw a TV documentary on Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak.
Now here's a man whose lasting impact on the world has arguably
not been terribly significant--sure, he invented the Apple II,
but it's the II's adopted stepbrother, the Xerox-designed Mac,
that begat Apple's lasting lineage. But the path Wozniak followed
seems refreshing today compared to those of his peers, if only
because his ambition always had teeth to it. Misstepping from
the US Festival to the universal home electronic remote, at least
the guy had his heart in the right place. Meanwhile, Wozniak's
former partner Steve Jobs has made a career of innovation--that
is, he's become a maverick-by-numbers, passing off cosmetic contrariness
for vision and, uh, "genius." He's also made a career of selling
Apple users a myth of themselves, an image of a different-thinking
artistic computing elite, ever-reinforced by the knowledge that
90% of the computing world remains too unhip to punch the same
colored keypads that they do.
But if your artistic ambitions run to DVD, the Mac world is
a frustrating place to be these days. Three years into the DVD
era, Apple's DVD strategy remains a mystery. Specifically, what
are Apple's plans for the MIA DVDirector that the company bought
from Astarte and promptly buried? The return of Steve Jobs and
the rise of his G and i models seem to have guaranteed the company
a long and visible, if not necessarily especially prosperous life.
Apple is Number Two with a bullet and that seems an oddly comfortable
place to be; exclusion and exclusivity so often go hand in hand.
But where does DVDirector fit in Apple's comfort zone? Within
the company's assault on consumer computing, is there room for
advancing a professional DVD authoring platform? Or is DVDirector
doomed to be buried like a ballot box, or to spend eternity as
an extra in the iMovie galaxy?
Purchasing DVDirector and its engineers could have been
a visionary move, not entirely unlike the move EMedia implored
Microsoft to make by embedding CD recording capability in the
OS some years back. Throughout the 1990s, as Windows was winning
the world, the multimedia authoring community flocked to the Mac
platform to develop titles that would for the most part be run
under Windows. Buying DVDirector gave Apple a chance to cement
that relationship in the DVD era with the best justification of
their Apple allegiance that authors have ever had: building blocks
of built-in authoring and run-time support for DVD all but unimaginable
in the Windows world. But since advancing DVD authoring barely
qualifies as a niche achievement compared to getting the whole
consumer electronics world to make colorful boxes that look like
yours, it hardly seems the kind of "career-making" innovation
that's Steve Jobs' stock in trade. Here's hoping he steps up at
MacWorld 2001 and proves me wrong.