Monthly Archives: August 2012

I showed up late to the feud

I didn’t watch The History Channel‘s Hatfields & McCoys miniseries when it premiered a few months ago, mostly because the notion of a fictionalized account of the Hatfield-McCoy feud from The History Channel filled me with the same foreboding I had when I found out that the Rock was going to star in a remake of Walking Tall.  But when an encore presentation aired last week, I ended up watching the whole thing, and it’s actually not half bad.

In terms of pure entertainment, Part Two is by far the best segment, and the scene in which the Hatfields execute three of Randolph McCoy’s sons packs quite a wallop.  (IRL this incident took place on August 9. 1882.)  To me, the standout performances are Kevin Costner’s “Devil” Anse Hatfield, Tom Berenger’s Jim Vance (Tom Berenger’s good in everything), Powers Boothe’s Wall Hatfield (ditto), Jena Malone’s Nancy McCoy, Lindsay Pulsipher’s Roseanna McCoy, and Noel Fisher’s Ellison Mounts.

Modern scholarship indicates that the changes taking place in postwar Appalachia led to the resentments that erupted in the feud.  The problem wasn’t so much the existence a traditional and primitive society untouched by modernization, but rather the reverse.  My biggest fear—and the main reason I steered clear of the miniseries when it premiered—was that we’d get six hours of the same old superficial, simplistic, and stereotypical depictions of nineteenth-century mountaineers as backward, violent, lawless, clannish, and ignorant.  Indeed, the feud itself helped generate and perpetuate these very notions.  For the most part, though, I was pretty pleasantly surprised.  The third part actually touches on the media’s role in popularizing the stereotype of a violent mountain culture in a scene featuring Bill Paxton’s Randolph McCoy.  While the embittered patriarch holds a sort of press conference at a relative’s home, a New York reporter and a photographer urge him to hold a bystander’s firearm while posing for the camera.

A few minor criticisms: I know it’s cheaper to film in Romania, but Eastern European mountains aren’t quite the same as Eastern Kentucky ones, so the scenic shots undermined the illusion a little.  Seeing men’s ponytails in a late nineteenth-century setting was also a little odd.  Finally, Appalachian accents continue to be hit-or-miss when it comes to Hollywood; some actors just can’t swing it.

Despite all the snark I’ve directed against The History Channel in the past, I’ll give them props for Hatfields & McCoys.  Ultimately, what impressed me the most about the miniseries was its success in depicting the feud as a wrenching ordeal in which flesh-and-blood human beings got caught up in extraordinary, terrible circumstances.  There’s something to be said for that.  Over the years, cartoons, TV shows, and other media have used the feud scenario as a comic, almost buffoonish affair, but whatever else it was, the Hatfield-McCoy conflict was a tragedy involving real people, and the filmmakers didn’t lose sight of that.  One could certainly do worse.

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What to do with that historic home you’ve got sitting around?

Hey, the most logical option is to burn it down so the fire department can get in a little practice, and then build something else there.

STOCKBRIDGE — An historic home is scheduled to go up in flames today.

The controlled burn of the Hightower House, named for its owner, Dr. Richard Hightower, is part of a ceremony hosted by the City of Stockbridge.

The burning, which also serves as training for county firefighters, will be Thursday, at 7:30 p.m., at 117 East Atlanta Road, in Stockbridge.

“The control training burn will be directed by the Henry County Fire Department,” said Henry Fire Capt. Sabrina Puckett.

The Hightower House was built in the 1800s, prior to the Civil War, according to officials. Its original purpose was to be the only medical facility in the area, having a doctor’s office, drugstore and small hospital. The Hightower House has been used in several capacities over the years, including a private home, a business, and recently to train Henry County firefighters.

City officials said they are burning down the historic house in order to make room for city improvements.

Preservationist that I am, I obviously find this depressing. On the bright side, however, the mayor provided a sound bite that is nothing short of unintentional comedy gold:

“It is only fitting that we stop to remember the historical significance this house has played in the development of Stockbridge, and Henry County,” said Stockbridge Mayor Lee Stuart. “The Hightower family history shows that [family members] have always been committed to community, serving [in various capacities] as sheriff, medical doctor, firefighter and emergency medical technician… We look forward to having the citizens of Stockbridge participate in the final chapter of this grand old house.”

“My fellow citizens, it is only fitting that we stop to remember the historical significance this house has played in the development of Stockbridge, and Henry County. Now pass the lighter fluid, so we can burn this sucker right down to the ground.”

Image from myfoxatlanta.com

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Bluegrass history on your smartphone

Check this out:

The Explore Kentucky History app connects historical markers, related items in the Historical Society’s collections and user-submitted images and stories to points of interest on a map. The information is then grouped together into tours, with a Civil War-themed tour the first available.

As of today, it’s available on iTunes.  I just installed it on my iPhone, and it’s awesome.  (And free!)  If you’re interested in the history of the Bluegrass State or the Civil War, you’re going to love it.

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East Tennessee History Fair this weekend

If you’re looking for something to do this Saturday, check out what’s happening in downtown Knoxville.  They’ll have demonstrations, reenactors, Civil War and historic home tours, and vintage film screenings.  And the whole thing’s free!

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This isn’t the way to defend David Barton

For what it’s worth, I’m an evangelical Christian whose political inclinations are not liberal. I mention this here because posts of this sort tend to prompt irate commenters to speculate about my convictions.  Now, on to business.

Rick Green, who does speaking engagements for WallBuilders, takes on David Barton’s critics on his site. I stumbled across his defense of Barton while browsing some religious history blogs, and there are a number of points he makes which I find problematic.

He begins by posing a question.

Question: What do elitist professors have in common with Adolf Hitler & Saul Alinsky?

Answer: They masterfully use the powerful art of innuendo to falsely defame those with which they disagree.

Definition of Innuendo: A derogatory hint or reference to a person or thing

For someone who has a problem with derogatory hints or references, Green is surprisingly ready to employ them in taking on Barton’s critics.  He’s just compared them to Hitler.

Furthermore, he doesn’t hesitate to impugn their motives, writing that Barton’s critics (“elitist professors,” as we are reminded a number of times) are motivated by jealousy, since “they write boring books that very few people read and they give boring lectures that are only attended by students forced to do so in order to get a grade,” and “they do not want to lose the power of being the keepers of the keys to history.”

Green also repeats a defense commonly used by Barton and his defenders, namely that Barton cites and quotes from original sources in his work.  That’s true, but it ignores the fact that what is often at issue in discussions of Barton’s work is his interpretation and contextualization of those sources.  That a scholar has used primary sources does not address the issue of how he has done so, which in the case of Barton’s work is often the very point being contested.  It is the proper use of the evidence, and not simply the presence of quotations or references, that distinguishes good scholarship from bad.

If we’re going to have a discussion about the quality of Barton’s work, then, the only way to go about doing so is to grapple with the work itself.  Green claims that Barton’s critics have failed to do this, that they “have not pointed out even one inaccuracy or false statement.”  I find this statement baffling, since many critics—including a number of evangelical Christians—have been taking issue with specific claims made by Barton for some time. (See, for example, here, here, and here.)  Indeed, entire books have been written in response to his work.

Even more puzzling is Green’s claim that “if you’re wondering why Thomas Nelson would pull the book, perhaps you should know that HarperCollins (secular publisher) recently purchased Thomas Nelson (Christian publisher). I wouldn’t have expected Deepak Chopra (New Age Atheist) and David Barton to remain under the same publisher for long.” This line of argument makes little sense. HarperCollins publishes books from a number of religious perspectives, including an explicitly Christian one.  In recent years Harper (sometimes through HarperOne, its religious imprint) has published Luke Timothy Johnson’s defense of traditional New Testament orthodoxy against the Jesus Seminar, works on spiritual formation by Christian philosopher Dallas Willard, and popular theological books by N.T. Wright.

And if it was Thomas Nelson’s acquisition by HarperCollins prompted the pulling of Barton’s book, why didn’t Nelson also pull their other books of an evangelical bent? After all, the bulk of Thomas Nelson’s catalogue consists of explicitly Christian and evangelical books by prominent believers and ministers such as John MacArthur, Max Lucado, Hank Hanegraaff, and Billy Graham.  If Thomas Nelson’s acquisition by a “secular publisher” made Barton’s book a problem, why are Billy Graham’s books still available through Thomas Nelson?

I think we should all be open to hearing a robust defense of Barton’s work based on the evidence at hand and the proper interpretation of it. What Green has offered us, alas, is not that defense.  Barton’s defenders need to stay focused on the historical claims Barton makes and whether or not he is able to substantiate them—and the same applies to his critics.

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Retconned

When I was a kid, a friend of mine and I had a weekly ritual.  When the school day ended, we made a mad, hell-for-leather dash across a four-lane highway to a small grocery store so we could check out the new comic books.

I never followed any particular titles consistently; I just grabbed whatever looked interesting off the rack.  But comics storytelling is cumulative. Story arcs can span multiple issues, and continuity often extends across many different titles in elaborate, self-contained fictional universes. If you only pick up occasional issues here and there, it’s sort of like trying to start watching a soap opera in the middle of the season.  For undisciplined readers like me, things could get a little confusing.

Continuity can make life tough for comic writers and editors, especially when you consider that some characters have been around for decades, accumulating intricate backstories in the same way that shipwrecks accumulate colonies of marine organisms. When this complicated web of internal mythology becomes problematic, comic creators use “retconning,” the retroactive alteration of in-story continuity.

Retcons usually take the form of a deus ex machina-like plot device that discards whatever aspects of the mythology are inconvenient and harmonizes between conflicting details.  Thus when DC Comics decided to restore Hal Jordan of the Green Lantern Corps to its roster of heroes after Jordan lost his marbles, went on a cosmic killing spree, and died, it was a fairly simple matter to resurrect him and attribute his homicidal tendencies to possession by a cosmic entity.

Likewise, when the head honchos at Marvel decided that single underdog Spider-Man was preferable to responsibly married Spider-Man, they had only to put Peter Parker’s Aunt May in the path of a bullet. Next thing you know, Spidey and his wife made a deal with the demonic villain Mephisto, who spared the old gal’s life in exchange for the Parkers’ agreement to allow him to undo history so that their marriage had never taken place.

By the time Marvel decided to make Spider-Man a bachelor again, I was no longer a regular reader of comics, so I found out about it only when the same friend with whom I used to run across the road to buy comics told me.  But even to an ex-reader like me, the news packed a wallop.  Die-hard fans were even more upset.  One reviewer called it “infuriating and downright disrespectful to anyone who has come to love Spider-Man comics over the years.”  And little wonder.  This one editorial decision erased over two decades’ worth of character development, sweeping it aside as though it had never happened with apparent disregard for the emotional investment of thousands of readers.

Also…well, Spider-Man’s wife was hot.

Don’t be an idiot, Spidey. Aunt May’s gotta kick the bucket sometime. Image via marvel.wikia.com

One of the reasons pseudohistory irritates me is because those who propagate it are practicing a similar form of cheap, lazy retconning when it comes to the past. The problem isn’t that somebody is proposing something new; that’s an integral part of the process of doing history, and we laud historians who make original contributions when those contributions hold explanatory power.  The difference is that responsible scholars craft their interpretations to take account of the preponderance of the evidence, whereas pseudohistorians just set that evidence aside.  They toss reams of primary source material and conscientious scholarship out the window like so much inconvenient backstory, while using out-of-context quotations and unsubstantiated anecdotes to the same ends as the deus ex machina plot device.

By ignoring a whole lot over here and adding a few bits over there, practitioners of bad history whip up a whole new self-contained continuity suited to their own preferences.  They ignore all our evidence about the Founders’ religious inclinations based on a few spurious quotes, and disregard mountains of contemporary documentation about the Confederacy in favor of a few fabricated stories of black Rebel soldiers.  It’s a distressingly cavalier approach to the business of understanding the past.

Granted, it’s a lot easier to play havoc with history in this manner than it is to try to make sense of all the evidence at hand, just as it’s easier to cut the Gordian knot of a character’s backstory with a lousy plot trick than it is to build on a mythology that’s been developed over years of storytelling.  But there is such a thing as a responsibility to the truth; indeed, it’s the most basic responsibility of anyone who wants to do history.  If your need for a past that validates your own inclinations overrides that sense of responsibility, don’t blame historians when they give you the cold shoulder.

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Were you thinking about reading Barton’s Jefferson book?

Looks like you waited too late.  The publisher has decided to pull it from the shelves.  (Hat tip: American Creation.)

Why they didn’t get somebody to vet the text more carefully before printing and marketing it is entirely beyond me.  I’m guessing Barton will self-publish it through WallBuilders, as he did with his earlier books.

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