Sara Libby Robinson, Blood Will Tell: Vampires as Political Metaphors Before World War I

Posted by Daniel Morse on August 26, 2011 in Blog, Reviews tagged with , , , , , , , , ,

Sara Libby Robinson, Blood Will Tell: Vampires as Political Metaphors Before World War I. Academic Studies Press, 2011. ISBN: 978-1-934843-61-1

Reviewed by Daniel Morse, University of Edinburgh

As many regular contributors to this website know, and as the author freely admits in her introduction, writing about vampires is “a double-edged sword.  On the one hand,” Robinson asserts, “it’s an attention grabber” (xiv) which fires the imagination and captivates the general public much more than, say, “the economic development of Uganda in the post-colonial period” (xiv-xv) (witness, for example, the recent popularity of Elizabeth Kostova’s The Historian, Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight series and HBO’s True Blood); on the other hand, despite its widespread appeal—or perhaps because of it—the former is rarely taken as seriously as the latter in the majority of academic circles.  However, as the burgeoning field of so-called Dracula studies suggests, critical discourse on the subject is beginning to come into its own, so Blood Will Tell, Robinson’s study of vampires as metaphorical and rhetorical devices prior to World War I, is nothing if not timely.

The book’s scope is ambitious, with Robinson tracing her subject matter through Germany, France, the United Kingdom and the United States of America—the four countries which, she maintains, epitomized Western culture before the onset of the First World War—from 1870 to 1914, and this is something of a mixed blessing.  The author’s decision to focus on contemporary newspapers, magazines, humor periodicals and semi-forgotten popular fiction in addition to the odd literary ‘classic’ is similarly Pyrrhic in that it opens up a potentially overwhelming field of primary material and occasionally leaves the reader feeling that she has cast her net rather too wide for a book of Blood Will Tell’s relatively short length.  The broad range and diversity of primary sources, and of the national cultures under review, necessitates the careful selection of material and Robinson picks examples from her various locations which highlight similar political attitudes and overarching cultural movements, the result of which, to her credit, paints a coherent picture despite the glut of information with which she has chosen to contend.  She also chooses, a few relevant references notwithstanding, to avoid dwelling on high-profile texts by writers such as Stoker and Le Fanu, preferring instead to concentrate on lesser-known depictions of vampires which were used to espouse political ideologies, vilify contemporary cultural figures, and purvey popular stereotypes, and all of this combines to make the book successful as a sort of filter which assists the reader in distilling several of the era’s more widespread and complicated socio-political debates into a manageable form by presenting some of their salient discursive points and viewing their arguments through the lens of vampiric imagery.

Blood Will Tell opens with a discussion of historical vampire mythologies which is useful in dispelling the misconception that they originated in Eastern European folk culture, though such culture is undoubtedly the West’s primary source of modern vampiric lore.  More information on the Babylonian, Egyptian, Greek and Roman tales Robinson mentions as predating those of Eastern Europe would be welcome, but—given her focus on Western European and American cultural milieus, which took their vampiric cues from Eastern Europe—not strictly necessary.  Following this, the text recounts the vampire legend’s importation to the West and describes how it was used to stereotype the supposedly backward, superstitious nature of the communities in which it was discovered by Western bureaucrats, and, in tandem with a discussion of the supposed causes of Eastern European folk vampirism, demonstrates that the concept of the vampire has been tied to marginalized groups since well before its introduction to the West.  This revelation sets the stage for the rest of the book, which frequently cites examples of political, economic, and ethnic minorities demonized as monsters intent on sucking the lifeblood from the nations, industries, and majority populations they encountered in earnest.

The text flows logically from one chapter to the next, each of which focuses on an aspect of society which found a use—or multiple uses—for the archetype of the villainous vampire.  The second chapter contains sections on the Jewish blood libel and Enlightenment anti-clericalism, the latter of which is more effective than the former in terms of examining the vilification of a political enemy—in this case, the Roman Catholic Church—via the application of a stereotype connoting both ignorant superstition and predatory parasitism.  This gives way to Chapter Three’s discussion of blood as the basis of numerous coeval scientific and pseudoscientific philosophies, many of which viewed biologically ‘unfit’ minority groups as parasites sapping the strength of their host communities, which flows, in turn, into Chapter Four’s discussion of economic discourses that characterized both immigrant labor and industrial capitalists as malevolent entities thriving on the stolen vitality of others.  This chapter is notable for its use of disparate sources, and it is characteristic of Robinson’s style: in it she cites writers as diverse as Voltaire, Marx, Trollope, George Eliot, Émile Zola and Margarete Böhme, quotes a contemporary article from The New York Times, and includes, among other images, political cartoons from Punch, Puck, Harper’s Weekly and Kladderadatsch, a German satirical magazine.  The images are striking, Robinson describes them in lucid detail, and their inclusion compliments the text’s written content by emphasizing the widespread, quotidian and social nature of contemporary vampire stereotypes, but in examining these cartoons the author tends to regard anything monstrous—be it a chimerical beast or simply a bloated, wild-eyed capitalist—as inherently vampiric.

The economic dimensions of the vampire metaphor are, or course, intertwined with the political, which enables a smooth transition into Chapter Five’s discussion of the vampiric rhetoric applied to far-left political groups such as communists, socialists and anarchists, but the argument here is less convincing than those presented in previous chapters.  Robinson effectively demonstrates that these groups were represented as violent and animalistic by the popular press, but their vampiric attributes, if they possess any at all, are not overtly conveyed in many of the examples she cites despite her assertions to the contrary.  The author’s claim that the skeletons and death’s heads depicted in several cartoons are akin to vampires in that they are “animated in death and seek the blood of others through violence” (107) is likewise unconvincing, but Robinson positions this chapter well as its weakness is somewhat offset by the strength of Chapters Six and Seven, which deal with blood and national identity, and vampirism and gender politics, respectively.  Chapter Seven, in particular, works with Robinson’s conclusion to elucidate the vampire metaphor’s lasting impact—the modern vampire as a quintessentially sexual entity—even as she charts its inevitable passage from the realm of political rhetoric to pop culture entertainment, where it is strikingly devoid, comparatively speaking, of political and economic subtext.

As a whole, Blood Will Tell manages to remain coherent while analyzing debates undertaken in a variety of countries, economic settings, and media outlets, and this is no small feat.  A number of themes recur in the text—anti-Semitism is a major component of almost every chapter (so much so, in fact, that the book becomes a sort of chronicle of European anti-Semitism in addition to a study of vampiric political metaphors), the Franco-Prussian War informs the great majority of Robinson’s discussion of contemporary French and German culture, and Zola’s work appears in nearly every chapter, as do references to Harriet Brandt, the titular character in Florence Marryat’s The Blood of the Vampire—and in some cases it seems that Robinson relies rather too heavily on certain sources, such as political cartoons from Puck and Punch, despite the potential for diversity engendered by the breadth of her research.  Robinson’s style, however, is concise and engaging, and though her concision is sometimes at odds with the broad scope of material she has chosen to present, it is, in fact, what makes such a presentation possible without losing the reader in an often convoluted sea of regional, national and international discourses of power.

Using the contemporary public’s fascination with vampires as a point of departure, Robinson employs vampiric metaphor as both a unifying theme and a lens through which to view interconnected social, political and labor histories encompassing anti-Semitic, anti-clerical, anti-immigration and anti-capitalist sentiment in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and her text demonstrates the ubiquity of a trope which was often used to denounce those on both sides of a given debate.  As the author confides in her introduction, “[her] study’s conclusions are not unexpected” and “[e]xperienced scholars or Modern European history . . . may feel that they have heard many of [its] insights elsewhere” (xxvii), but her writing is energetic and engaging, she is sympathetic to—and passionate about—her subject, and she does an admirable job of juggling a variety of disciplines while sifting through the myriad of sources at her disposal, so her aim of presenting “an informative, useful, and . . . enjoyable synthesis of a wide range of subjects, countries, and cultures that all share vampires as their unifying symbol” (xxvii) does not go unfulfilled.  As such, individuals seeking a thoughtful, well-researched examination of vampires as a symbol embodying the threatening, implacable ‘other’ in a Western milieu which was becoming increasingly cosmopolitan will find Blood Will Tell a valuable resource.

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