Monthly Archives: August 2012

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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Filed under Appalachian History, Tennessee History

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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Filed under History and Memory

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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Filed under History and Memory, History on the Web

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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Downright uncanny

Take a look at the photo, and then click here.

Taken at Brady’s studio on Jan. 8, 1864. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division

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Jury-rigged arms race at Boonesborough

In the fall of 1778 a large force of Indians, most of them Shawnees, laid siege to Fort Boonesborough in central Kentucky. The fort held out, but the siege provides some pretty nifty examples of military ingenuity.

The original site at Fort Boonesborough State Park

Native American attempts to capture frontier garrisons were usually pretty straightforward affairs, with a party of warriors surrounding the walls and firing from cover along with attempts to fire the structure with torches or flaming arrows.  At Boonesborough, the Indians got creative.  The Kentucky River ran parallel to the fort’s rear wall and about sixty yards away from it.  The attackers decided to tunnel into the bluff along the stream and dig a mine toward the settlers, either to gain access to the interior or to set off a powder charge under the walls.  The defenders heard the digging and saw the river’s water turn muddy, and figuring out what was up, they set to work on a counter-mine.  The Indians’ tunnel collapsed before reaching the fort, but it was still a pretty interesting approach to frontier warfare.

The banks of the Kentucky River beside the site of the fort

The whites inside the fort developed a few tricks of their own, thanks to the ingenuity of Daniel Boone’s brother Squire, who built a makeshift cannon out of gum wood bound with iron wagon wheel strips.  The second shot blew the barrel apart, prompting derisive shouts from the attackers.  (One notable thing about participants’ recollections of the siege was the frequency of verbal insults traded between the two sides.)  Not the most effective of weapons, but the bang did cause a party of Indians to “skamper perdidiously,” as Daniel Trabue put it.

Another of Squire Boone’s inventions proved more effective during the siege when he managed to fashion squirt guns out of rifle barrels to douse the Indians’ torches.  I’ve never been able to figure out exactly how these things worked, but apparently some type of piston was involved.  This guy was like an eighteenth-century MacGyver.

So, who’s up for an experimental archaeology project?

Picture something along these lines, only with a nice maple stock.

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Filed under American Revolution

Fiction enslaved to facts

Dimitri Rotov on the late Gore Vidal’s historical fiction:

Characters were not integral to the plot but were inventory items on an historical checklist; they had to be present, kept busy somehow. They had to be there in the fiction because they had been there in history.

For Gore Vidal, the historical novel was a meander that touched on past events in the correct order leaving most in, regardless of story value. If you were a buff, I suppose the appeal might be to make a list of all the people and events included. Maybe that was the challenge for him – how much history he could pile into a fictional format.

Rotov’s analysis sums up more clearly than I could the reason why I rarely read novels about prominent historical figures. All too often, they’re nothing but historical narratives with dialogue added, which makes for a rather uninspiring read.

This was my main problem with the only Jeff Shaara book I’ve read, Rise to Rebellion. His father’s masterpiece, The Killer Angels, was as much a work of artistic imagination as historical reconstruction. Michael Shaara crawled into his characters’ skins, using the Battle of Gettysburg as a venue to meditate on universal themes—war, freedom, equality, country. I found Rise to Rebellion to be a completely different animal, a pageant in which prominent historical figures waited for their cues, stepped onstage, played whatever parts they played in the historical record, and then sauntered back to the wings. If you’re going to be so careful to color inside the lines, why not just write narrative non-fiction?

At the end of the day, of course, this comes down to personal taste, so your mileage may vary. Judging by the popularity of Jeff Shaara’s books, a lot of readers’ mileage varies quite a bit from mine. Fair enough.

Anyway, while we’re on the subject of Vidal’s Lincoln, I did enjoy the adaptation with Sam Waterston. Contrast his portrayal with that of Henry Fonda in Young Mr. Lincoln. Waterston gives us the gregarious, folksy Lincoln, whereas Fonda gives us the moody, melancholy one. Two very different performances, but they’re both right on the money.

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Filed under Abraham Lincoln, History and Memory

One of the reasons American history is hard to teach

…is because it keeps getting longer.

Of course, his lessons didn’t change on the day of the attacks, but once students started showing up who had completely forgotten about it — “18-year-olds who were about seven when 9/11 happened” — he knew he had to teach it. But there are only so many hours of instruction in the semester.

That meant he had to start making cuts in his lesson plans. Take Watergate. Once, he used to spend an entire lecture on the political scandal, but now, he covers it in 10 to 15 minutes. “The New Deal is another really good example,” he says. “When I first started teaching, I think I had three lectures on it.” Now he’s down to two, and that’s changed the way he teaches, too. “I try to do it differently so that I won’t overwhelm people with lots and lots of facts. And then they’ll be able to understand more history, hopefully, through only having to know a little less.”

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