February 2001|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 slaves—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 does not 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 U.S. 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.