Monthly Archives: February 2011

Women and fictional characters first

Some time ago we discussed the Titanic Museum Attraction in Pigeon Forge, TN specifically (a) the nature of a Titanic Museum Attraction, as opposed to a plain old Titanic Museum or Titanic Attraction, and (b) its existence in Pigeon Forge, of all places.

Today a good friend of mine who works in broadcasting received a press release from the Titanic Museum Attraction and was kind enough to pass it along.  It states in part:

In James Cameron’s 1997 record-shattering movie “Titanic,” the character “Rose” – played by Kate Winslet – was the primary reason the movie is still regarded today as one of the most romantic films ever produced.  Titanic Museum Attraction’s own “Rose” will be making a special appearance in Pigeon Forge during Sweetheart Month.

Basically, they’re going to have someone on hand pretending to be the character from the movie.  It’s similar to those programs at non-attraction museums where you can chat with reenactors doing first-person Lincoln or Jefferson, except of course that Lincoln and Jefferson actually existed and neither of them (so far as I know) allowed Leonardo DiCaprio to draw him naked. 

The Museum Attraction also issues this invitation: “Celebrate your own love story with your Valentine on the Grand Staircase as you relive Rose’s on-screen Titanic romance.”  I might take them up on it.  It would be an appropriate venue for celebrating my love stories, a good many of which were catastrophes of a magnitude similar to the ship’s maiden voyage.

I think it’s safe to drop the “museum” and just stick with “attraction” now, guys.

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I’m not wearing hockey pads

The people who leave the most hostile comments on this blog are folks who are upset when I question outlandish claims.  I find this same pattern at work on other history blogs.  The more improbable the claim, the angrier its proponents get when you challenge it.  The readers who want to tear me a new one are generally the ones responding to posts in which I’ve discussed subjects that lie outside the bounds of conventional history, like extensive pre-Columbian contact, black Confederates, and so on.  They want to know why history bloggers dismiss these ideas with such contempt.

What I hope to do here is explain why I and other history bloggers sometimes come across as dismissive.  I submit to you that there are some occasions when failing to take an idea seriously is not only excusable, but unavoidable.

Here’s what a reader said some time ago in response to a post dealing with dubious Native American history:

Once again the so-called experts and historians have slammed the door shut on a new thought.…When anyone says he is a ‘classically trained’ anything, I shudder because they are usually so locked into what is ‘accepted’ that they would choke on a new idea. My respect for what our colleges and universities are turning out as scholars continues its free fall. When will the minds of intelligent people be freed from this stranglehold of ‘experts’ who are much more interested in their own opinions than they are in what might actually be the truth?

The “new idea” in question was an artifact from an excavation here in East Tennessee, now discounted by most researchers working in relevant fields of study as a hoax.  Ironically, some of its detractors published their findings in a professional journal, which isn’t exactly what I’d call “slamming the door shut on a new thought.”  Professional journals are where new thoughts go to either flourish or die.  This one hasn’t exactly flourished.  It happens.

So whenever historians encounter a challenge to the status quo, so this notion goes, they instinctively close ranks and charge bayonets, too closed-minded to accept anything that doesn’t fit through the narrow doors of their ivory towers. (I guess I should be flattered that they’d consider an adjunct with a mere master’s degree to be an elitist expert, but that’s another post altogether.)  Historians, teachers, curators, and some of us bloggers supposedly dismiss arguments out of hand, simply because we don’t like to share our sandbox.

It reminds me of an early scene in The Dark Knight where a gang of young, would-be Batmen, decked out in hockey gear in place of armored Batsuits, show up at a parking garage where crooks are arguing over a drug deal.  The Batmen try to bust the bad guys and end up making a royal mess of things.  When the real Batman arrives, he tells them to butt out.

“Don’t let me find you out here again,” he says.

“What gives you the right?” one of them asks.  “What’s the difference between you and me?”

"Criminals are a superstitious, cowardly lot." This is two consecutive posts containing a DC Comics reference, by the way. That's got to be a first for the historical blogosphere. Image from buysuperherocostumes.com

Now, Batman could reply that he’s spent years studying martial arts, or that he’s developed an arsenal of cutting-edge weaponry, or that he’s mastered all the techniques of criminal investigation.

He doesn’t say any of those things.  What he says is simply, “I’m not wearing hockey pads.”  He has a point.

Similarly, there are a great many statements and beliefs inhabiting the seedy underside of our collective historical consciousness which are so incongruous with generally accepted facts that they undermine the credibility of the persons promoting them. In other words, the very act of making some statements indicates that you don’t know what you’re talking about, because if you knew what you were talking about you wouldn’t have said something so asinine in the first place.

Are some historians closed-minded snobs? Absolutely; there are some in every profession.  Contrary to what some critics claim, however, academic history actually puts a premium on originality.  The “original contribution” is the holy grail of scholarship.  Every grad student, every author, and every university press is looking for the new interpretation that’s going to push the field in another direction.  Historians who present fresh arguments of tremendous explanatory power and who set the agenda for other scholars working in the same field are the ones who advance to the pinnacle of the profession.  Those are the folks that other historians carry on their shoulders in triumph, like the kid in the Old El Paso commercials.

But history is still a discipline, and all disciplines have parameters and standards. An “original contribution” needs to be original, but it also needs to be a contribution.  It needs to make sense within the context of all the other evidence accumulated over the years.  Adding something new to the conversation is great, but disregarding the entire conversation isn’t.  You can always disagree with the literature, but you’ve still got to make sense of the information at hand.  That’s where we draw the line between “original” and “crackpot.”

Historians saturate themselves in the work of other historians because they recognize that other intelligent people have invested a great deal of time and effort in the subject, and they’re hesitant to disregard all that accumulated knowledge without good cause.  If you’re setting out into the wilderness, the sensible thing to do is take a few maps, even if those maps are sketchy or incomplete.  That’s why the prefaces and introductions of so many historical books summarize the earlier work on a subject and then outline where the author intends to go.  It’s a way of saying, “I’ve done my homework here.  I’ve looked into what’s been done, and this is what I think I can bring to the table.”  It’s not snobbery that prompts this concern for the lay of the landscape.  It’s conscientiousness.  It’s a kind of humility in the face of those researchers who have charted out the ground before them.

The fact that you’re going against the grain of consensus doesn’t mean you’re wrong—every revisionist has to do so to one degree or another—but it should at least inspire some healthy caution.  The folks who have established a paradigm have already made their case; now the burden of proof is entirely on your shoulders.

If you think the historical consensus is wrong, fine.  Show us why you think it’s wrong, and give us a framework for making sense of the past that’s more helpful than the one we have and accounts for the primary sources at our disposal.  This is how knowledge advances, with new evidence and better interpretations replacing outmoded ideas.

I started blogging because I wanted to join this growing online conversation about the past, not because I wanted to have the last word.  So if I argue that some claim or another is pseudohistorical nonsense and you’ve got information that indicates I’m wrong, or if you can demonstrate that my logic is faulty, then feel free to chime in and set me straight.  Do the same in any exchange about history.  What I want is to make sense of the past, and I don’t care who helps me along the way.

But don’t try to substitute conviction when information is lacking.  That’s a recipe for making a complete fool of yourself. That’s why I wish some folks would at least entertain the possibility that they have no one but themselves to blame when they can’t get a hearing.  Maybe the problem isn’t that historians are closed-minded ideologues.  Maybe you just look like a doofus, standing there in a cape and hockey pads.

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A reader tells me what it was like back in the day and then lets me know what a jerk I am

The other day I got a particularly irate complaint on an older post in which I’d argued that Glenn Beck is a bit too credulous when it comes to stories about George Washington.  Something about these Beck posts really brings out the vitriol in people; I’ve got to stop doing them.

Anyway, this reader touched on a couple of my pet peeves, so I thought I might address his comment in some detail here.  His unedited remarks are in italics, mine inserted in plain type:

Isn’t it ironic that people who can’t even remember a world without electric lights (like Glenn Beck’s detractors) can tell us all about colonial times in America better than Mr. Beck can…?

Not really.  People who can’t remember a world without electric lights have access to colonial documents, books about the colonial era, colonial artifacts, and so on.  If being born before the advent of electricity is a requirement for discussing the colonial era, then I’m afraid Glenn Beck is in the same boat as the rest of us.

Well guys, I spent my first years in a log cabin–without electric lights, indoor plumbing or a telephone–and it wasn’t all that long ago…

Okay, this is Pet Peeve #1.

If his point is that living without electricity or plumbing gives you some unobtainable gnosis into the eighteenth century, I hope he’ll pardon my skepticism.  The problem here is that Washington’s life and times were about more than a lack of electricity and plumbing.  Knowing what it’s like to live without modern conveniences is of precious little help in determining whether George Washington really prayed at Valley Forge, which is the sort of thing I was dealing with in the post to which he responded.

If we follow this line of reasoning out to its conclusion, then I must have some insight into the childhood of John F. Kennedy which you don’t, because although I was born many years after his death into a family that did not consist of New England aristocrats, both JFK and I grew up with electricity and plumbing.

Look, as I’ve said elsewhere, personal experience has serious limitations as a means of understanding the past.  If you’re a former infantryman who served during WWII and you’re writing about mid-twentieth-century combat, then you’ve got a real leg up on the scholar who was born in 1968.  But if you’re trying to make sense of eighteenth- or nineteenth-century battles, your best bet is to go to the primary sources and the relevant secondary literature.  Likewise, I seriously doubt that merely growing up in a house with no phone lines is going to give you any profound insight into the lives of eighteenth-century Virginia planters.

There is a fundamental “otherness” to the past which is more pronounced the farther back in time we go, and this otherness is an insurmountable obstacle to the history-by-personal-experience approach, unless we’re talking about history that happened within the span of current lifetimes.  The fact that this gentleman is alive and breathing indicates that he probably doesn’t have any direct knowledge of the Revolutionary era.

Funny, I have a slightly different opinion of what Mr. Beck is trying to do than you have. Could it be that I have just a little bit different perspective about our country’s origins than you have–and maybe I have seen and experienced some things beyond your wildest imaginings…!

I don’t know; I’ve seen some pretty crazy stuff.  I actually met Bob Saget once.  I’m not making this up.  Remember those episodes of Full House when they all went to Disney World, and Saget was trying to propose to his girlfriend but could never find the right opportunity?  I was there with my family and I got to be in the background during the Indiana Jones sequence.  I’ve got a picture of me and Saget and my dad somewhere.  (That would make an awesome post, come to think of it.  I need to find it.)

And then when I was in grad school I went to a Shakira concert in Detroit, and when she did “Whenever, Wherever” she bellydanced while wearing a lit candelabra on top of her head.  You don’t see that every day.  I would’ve gone to see her on her next tour when she was in Atlanta, but I’d wasted like four hundred dollars on a birthstone ring for my girlfriend, so I couldn’t really justify spending the money on tickets so soon afterward.  And then that same girl dumped me by e-mail a week or two after that.

I mean, getting dumped is lousy enough, but what really had me peeved was the fact that Shakira was going to be performing only four hours away, and I’d knocked myself out of seeing it.  The only way I’d buy jewelry for a woman again would be if she actually was Shakira or if I was married to her.  Of course, Shakira’s got loads of cash, so she probably wouldn’t care about jewelry.  You could probably just take her to Baskin Robbins or something, and she’d be like, “Hey, it’s cool.  In fact, I’ll buy.”

Okay, where were we?

Why don’t you guys find something productive to do with your time–like finding some ANSWERS to our problems–maybe beyond the scope of “community organizing”…?

Ah, there we are.  This is Pet Peeve #2, the old “scratch someone who doubts your favorite historical myth and find a flaming liberal” routine.  I took issue with something Glenn Beck said about George Washington, so therefore I must be a left-winger.

Is agreeing with Glenn Beck’s historical claims a requirement for conservatives?  I really hope not, because I don’t particularly care for an interventionist government myself, but I have yet to listen to one of Beck’s historical lectures that did not involve the ladling out of more horseflop than most ranch hands move in an entire afternoon.  Remember his segment on Native Americans, when he tried to draw comparisons between Indian monuments and Egyptian pyramids?  Remember his lecture on the Dead Sea Scrolls, the one that was so riddled with mangled statements—mixing up the DSS with something about Constantine building an army and placing them in the wrong century—that listening to it was embarrassing to the point of physical pain?

Can’t I oppose leftist politics and at the same time maintain that, when it comes to history, Glenn Beck is an uninformed buffoon? Do I have to agree with everything the man says in order to oppose liberalism, even when he’s saying things that have nothing to do with modern politics?

Anyway, I agree that it’s very important that we find some answers to our problems.  But since this is a history blog, I tend to spend more time discussing past events here than current ones.  This, alas, is pretty unavoidable. Most history involves the past—practically all of it, in fact.

Perhaps we can compromise on this.  At least let me finish this post, and then I might take a crack at the AIDS crisis in Africa.  Then I’ll look into the national debt; I’m pretty sure I can make some headway there.

At least drop the snobbish know-it-all attitude…!

Well, no promises on that one.  But I’m actually glad he brought that up. Coincidentally, I was hammering out some remarks on that very subject when I got this comment.  So in the next post we’ll look at my snobbish know-it-all attitude and I’ll try to explain my belief that not all ideas are created equal.

But first, duty calls—I’m off to find some answers to our problems, beyond the scope of community organizing.  History blogger, awaaaaaaayyyyyyyy!

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Hess on Lincoln Memorial University and Bergeron on Andrew Johnson

Let me direct your attention to two of this year’s books from the University of Tennessee Press, both of which I’ve eagerly awaited for some time.

First up is Lincoln Memorial University and the Shaping of Appalachia by Earl Hess, which will place the early history of LMU within the context of what was happening in Appalachia during the crucial late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries and of the Lincoln apotheosis that peaked around the time of the centennial of his birth.

As regulars of the blog know, LMU is my alma mater, and Dr. Hess is one of the people most responsible for setting me on a path toward a career in history.  Most readers know him for his acclaimed Civil War studies.

Another book to anticipate is Andrew Johnson’s Civil War and Reconstruction by Paul Bergeron, who spent more than a decade editing and publishing Johnson’s papers and is probably the country’s foremost authority on him.  This book promises a more nuanced and balanced appraisal of Johnson than what many histories provide, and may lead to a thorough reassessment of his place in American politics.

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Filed under Appalachian History, Civil War, Historiography, Tennessee History

Quantrill’s revenge?

Today’s discussion question:

Famed Confederate raider William Clarke Quantrill died after Union troops ambushed him near Taylorsville, KY in 1865.  A century and a half later, Taylorsville is being overrun by stray cats, a feline plague of almost biblical proportions.

Coincidence?  And if not, what’s in store for Lawrence, KS?

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Bad news for Florida historic sites

…reported by the Explore Southern History blog.  The bit about Olustee is especially disturbing, since it was the largest Civil War battle in the state.

Slashing funding for state parks and historic sites is an odd move for a state that depends so heavily on tourism, particularly when it will barely make a dent in the department’s overall budget.  If you’re willing to settle for an infinitesimal reduction in spending, then why pull the funds from sectors that will suffer a disproportionately large reduction in effectiveness as a result?  Let’s contact some Florida state officials and ask them.

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I am sooooooo busted

A carefully laid and nefarious scheme of mine has come to naught, thanks to the diligence of a reader named “JosephineSouthern” who left the following comment on my last post:

“Your critque [sic] might have sailed past us with an ok except for your mention of Kevin Levin and andy hall. A dead give away [sic] for your progressive present-ism agenda. Sorry but you get a failing grade, a big fat F for your opinionated article!”

Curses!  Blast!  I had sincerely hoped that I might pull one over on the online reading public by pretending to discuss a historical novel while secretly foisting my leftist, progressive agenda off on an unsuspecting country.  And I would have gotten away with it, too, if I hadn’t mentioned Kevin Levin and Andy Hall, because we’re all secretly members of a cabal of Yankeefied, crypto-Marxist bloggers who use history as a front to destroy truth, justice, and the American way.

This is particularly galling because I have spent the past three decades posing as both a conservative and a southerner, solely for the purpose of infiltrating the ranks of freedom-loving believers in black Confederates.  Yes, the secret is now out.  My birth certificate and driver’s license stating that I am both a native and a resident of Tennessee, my high school years spent doing volunteer work for numerous conservative political campaigns, my vocal opposition to the Obama administration, my family’s longtime connections to conservative organizations and politicians all across the state…ALL LIES!  All an elaborate ruse to deceive you, the readers of this blog and subvert your minds with my progressive, presentist agenda!

And now all exposed as a sham, because JosephineSouthern has pegged me as a member with them of the Council of Progressive Presentist History Bloggers, which convenes every month in an underground chamber lit by torches. Kevin, dropping his guise as a mild-mannered schoolteacher, presides over our meetings while seated atop a throne of skulls flanked by portraits of Chairman Mao and George Soros.  After a rousing chorus of our anthem…

we proceed to old business, followed by the hatching of schemes to hasten the advent of progressive, presentist, agenda-driven history.  Then we usually break for coffee and finger foods.

Now that JosephineSouthern has outed me as a sleeper agent, I guess my days as a progressive historical blogger operative are numbered.  Maybe ACORN is taking applications.

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Black Confederates: Coming to a Gap near you

Most people think of Cumberland Gap National Historical Park as a pioneer site, but it was also a strategically important point during the Civil War, changing hands four times.

Just recently I stopped by the visitor center on my way back from lunch.  Imagine my surprise when I found Entangled in Freedom on sale in the gift shop.  This novel aimed at young readers is about a slave who accompanies Confederate troops into the field, and has generated some degree of controversy online because of its depiction of race relations in the nineteenth-century South and the nature of slaves’ participation in the Confederate war effort.  Kevin Levin and Andy Hall have addressed some of the book’s interpretive issues at length, so there is little need for me to go into them here.

Part of the book is set in and around the Gap, which is presumably why CGNHP is selling it.  What’s weird is that for a book that misreads some of the big issues involved in the Civil War, it includes a surprising amount of relatively little-known, arcane detail about local history and geography.

For example, there really is a cave in the mountain face, just above the old Wilderness Road, and incidentally this isn’t the first time a cave near the Gap has appeared in a work of fiction.  Cudjo’s Cave was a nineteenth-century novel set in the Cumberland Gap region which also featured an underground sanctuary, and coincidentally enough, it also featured a slave character.  After the war the real cave became a tourist attraction, and the proprietors re-christened it “Cudjo’s Cave” as a nod to the book.  Now it’s in NPS hands and has reverted to “Gap Cave,” its original name.

And there really was a massive cannon named “Long Tom” that soldiers pitched over the side of the mountain, at least according to local Civil War lore.  My hometown of Tazewell is correctly identified as the site of an engagement, and while we’ve got an interesting history of our own, we’re not exactly Sharpsburg or Chancellorsville.  Historical figures who were present at Cumberland Gap during the war appear in the book, too.

There are a few bits of trivia that are off.  The troops encamped at the Gap couldn’t have gotten water from Fern Lake, because it’s an artificial reservoir created in 1893, three decades after Union and Confederate forces were contending for control of the pass.  (The park is incorporating the lake into its boundaries as part of a 2001 piece of legislation, by the way.)  Still, it’s surprising to see Fern Lake mentioned at all.

All this credible detail within a context that misinterprets some of the fundamental issues of the war makes for an interesting case of the forest vs. the trees.

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