Monthly Archives: December 2012

Paul Revere sitcom is in development

I kid you not:

Apty titled We Hate Paul Revere, the project is actually a comedy set in colonial times. In the project, two brothers will be living in Boston, which gives them plenty of access into what Revere, as a silversmith and an activist, is up to. While many of us would probably think it would be cool to run into the man responsible for the famed ‘midnight ride,’ the Boston brothers simply can’t stand the man. Ethan Sandler and Adrien Wenner will write and executive produce the project

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Wonder why they hate him. Maybe they’re veterans of the Penobscot Expedition.

This thing is in the works at AMC, the same network that’s developing a show about the Culper spy ring. Somebody over there must have a thing for the Rev War.

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Lincoln gets his mouth washed out

At long last, we arrive at the most pressing issue yet regarding Spielberg’s Lincoln: Is there too much cussin’ in it?

The Hollywood Reporter asked David Barton for his take:

“The historical record is clear that Lincoln definitely did not tolerate profanity around him,” Barton says. “There are records of him confronting military generals if he heard about them cursing. Furthermore, the F-word used by [W.N.] Bilbo was virtually nonexistent in that day and it definitely would not have been used around Lincoln. If Lincoln had heard it, it is certain that he would instantly have delivered a severe rebuke.”

Barton is overstating his case, as he often does. Lincoln didn’t make a habit of swearing, but he did break out the curse words occasionally, especially when his temper got the better of him. Check out Chapter Seven in Michael Burlingame’s The Inner World of Abraham Lincoln, which discusses some of these episodes. And as we’ve noted before, he wasn’t above telling an off-color joke.

What about those records of Lincoln confronting generals who cursed? Barton doesn’t specify which records he’s talking about, but in an article at his organization’s website he says Lincoln “personally confronted one of his own generals when he learned of his profanity and then urged the general to use his authority to combat that vice.” His source is Arthur Brooks Lapsley’s The Writings of Abraham Lincoln, which briefly mentions the incident without naming any names or providing specific details. Off the top of my head, I don’t know what incident this is.  In any case, I don’t really think we can use this story to draw any broad conclusions about Lincoln’s level of toleration for profanity.  It wouldn’t be unusual for a commander-in-chief to rebuke an officer who used vulgar language in his presence in the nineteenth century.

As for the f-word being “virtually nonexistent” during the Civil War, while the term wasn’t as common or endowed with so many varied meanings as it is now, it wasn’t unknown. It was rare to see the f-word in print, of course, although even during the Victorian era it appeared in pornographic stories.

Barton notes that officers and enlisted men in the Union forces were subject to courts-martial for using profanity, and that’s certainly true. Yet to judge by their own accounts, soldiers in that war—like soldiers in other times and places—swore profusely. “There is so much swearing in this place it would set anyone against that if from no other motive but disgust at hearing it,” wrote one Northern soldier about life in camp. Another noted that “Drinking, Swearing, & Gambling is carried on among Officers and men from the highest to the lowest.”  The same thing was true of the Continental Army, where cursing was officially discouraged but widely practiced.

So if you ask me, here’s the bottom line: While  Abraham Lincoln didn’t curse much, and while profanity wasn’t as ubiquitous in his day as it is in ours, there’s nothing particularly inaccurate about the movie’s language.

None of this really matters in the grand scheme of things, but I think it’s interesting that moviegoers are surprised at the notion that nineteenth-century Americans had an arsenal of vulgarities at their disposal and the moxie to use them. I think it’s because they look so stern and dignified in those old paintings and photos. We’re so used to seeing them in gilt frames and on marble pedestals that encountering them in any other way can be a jolt.

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Teaching Lincoln again

Every undergraduate student at Lincoln Memorial University is required to take a one-hour credit course called “Lincoln’s Life and Legacy” which serves as an introduction to the university’s namesake, his significance to the history of nineteenth-century America, and the story of the school’s origins.  (In case you’re wondering, the required texts are William Gienapp’s short but solid Abraham Lincoln and Civil War America; a one-volume selection of Lincoln’s writings; and whatever supplementary essays, articles, and excerpts the instructor wants to add.)

I haven’t taught this class in a while—not since a previous tour of duty at LMU a few years ago—but I’ve got a section next semester, and I’m really looking forward to it.

I used to end the course with a short overview of Lincoln in memory using the five themes identified by Merrill Peterson, and then I’d show clips from some of the more notable Abe-related movies.  It’ll be interesting to see what impact, if any, the past year’s Lincoln films have had on the 18-22 set.  I’m guessing it’s not a whole lot.  Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter didn’t draw big crowds, and most of the people I saw at screenings of Spielberg’s movie were quite a bit older than me.  Maybe I’ll add a scene from AL:VH to my last lecture just for the heck of it.

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“I guess I have come to die”

Today is the 101st anniversary of the Cross Mountain Mine Disaster, a coal mine explosion in the Coal Creek Valley of Anderson County, TN. Despite a rescue effort mounted by the new U.S. Bureau of Mines, eighty-four of the eighty-nine men who were in the mine at the time of the explosion lost their lives.

The last two bodies recovered were those of Eugene Ault and Alonzo Wood, both of whom managed to leave farewell messages for their families before suffocating. Ault’s last statement is inscribed on his monument at the cemetery of Briceville Community Church:

Dear Father, Mother, Brothers, and Sisters, I guess I have come to die. Well I started out and I came back to side track, and Lonzo Wood is with me.. Air is not much now. Will be good, and I aim to pray for God to save me. All of you tell Clarence to wear my clothes out. Give him my trunk. I guess I will never be with you any more. Give Bessie Robbins a stick pin of mine. Tell her goodbye, so goodbye. Give them all my love.

E. Ault

Nine years before the Cross Creek disaster, this same church hosted a memorial for miners killed in an even deadlier explosion at the Fraterville Mine which killed 216 men, making it the costliest mining accident in Tennessee history. And a decade before that incident, it served as a temporary jail for miners involved in the Coal Creek War, an uprising prompted by the use of convict laborers to break a coal strike.

You can learn more about the turbulent mining history of the Coal Creek area by clicking here.

Eugene Ault’s grave marker in the Briceville Community Church Cemetery. The message he left for his family is inscribed on the base. By Brian Stansberry (Own work) [CC-BY-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

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Taking Hollywood to task

When I wrote my own review of Lincoln, I said this: “You buy a ticket to Transformers to see fighting robots, and you buy a ticket to Titanic to see the ship sink.  Most of us who buy tickets to Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln are probably going to see Abraham Lincoln himself, and in that regard this movie doesn’t disappoint.”

Based on some of the responses to the movie that have hit the Interwebs since then, I might need to revise that statement.  Daniel Day-Lewis’ performance was the main draw for me, but at least some viewers apparently had different expectations.

I have a tendency to judge all Lincoln-related movies by how convincingly they depict him.  If a film can sell me on its Lincoln, I can overlook any number of other flaws.  Conversely, if I don’t buy the Lincoln, then it’s hard for me to appreciate other strengths a movie might have.  I’ve enjoyed quite a few good Lincoln portrayals over the years, performances that have captured particular aspects of the genuine article—Henry Fonda, Walter Huston, and Sam Waterston are favorites of mine—but I don’t think I’ve ever seen anybody inhabit the role as completely as Day-Lewis.  I didn’t love everything about Spielberg’s film, but what I really wanted to see was Lincoln himself, and I left the theater satisfied.

Some historians have noted the movie’s inaccuracies, which is a perfectly proper thing for historians to be doing.  Other commentators, though, seem less interested in what the filmmakers did wrong as much as they’re interested in what they didn’t do at all.

Over at The Atlantic, for example, Tony Horwitz writes, “I enjoyed Lincoln and agree that it strips away the nostalgic moss that has draped so much Civil War cinema and remembrance. But here’s my criticism. The movie obscures the distance Lincoln traveled in his views on race and slavery. Probing this journey would have made for better history and a finer, more complex film.”  Sure, but it also would’ve made for a completely different film.  Spielberg and Kushner made a conscious decision to focus on the last months of Lincoln’s life.  Including his transformation from a fairly conservative Whig into the man who embraced the Thirteenth Amendment and made public references to limited black enfranchisement would have required not a longer movie, but another one.

Historian Kate Masur, meanwhile, complains that “it’s disappointing that in a movie devoted to explaining the abolition of slavery in the United States, African-American characters do almost nothing but passively wait for white men to liberate them.…Mr. Spielberg’s ‘Lincoln’ helps perpetuate the notion that African Americans have offered little of substance to their own liberation.…[I]t reinforces, even if inadvertently, the outdated assumption that white men are the primary movers of history and the main sources of social progress.”  But this isn’t a movie “devoted to explaining the abolition of slavery.”  It’s a movie about the twilight of Lincoln’s presidency.  Any examination of the men who stood at the pinnacle of the American government in the 1860’s is inevitably going to spend most of its time on white men.

William Harris wrote a book about the last months of Lincoln’s second term; I don’t think anyone who would criticize that book for failing to analyze the evolution of Lincoln’s views on race from 1858 to 1865 would get much of a hearing.  Similarly, I think most of us would be quite surprised if a reviewer referred to a novel about Lincoln as “an opportunity squandered” because the book didn’t deal with African-American life in nineteenth-century Washington.

Yet Masur ultimately concludes that the move is “an opportunity squandered.”  That sort of reaction is legitimate when it comes to major museum exhibits or interpretation at an important historic site, since those are educational institutions which can and should try to tell definitive stories about their subjects.  Movies shouldn’t have to be so authoritative.

We seem to hold filmmakers to a lower standard when it comes to getting the facts straight, but a higher one when it comes to deciding what to include and what not to include.  The reason, I think, is because movies reach so many people and leave such an impression.  We envy filmmakers their audience and their influence, and since we know how many stories about the past need telling, we want filmmakers to use the tremendous resources at their disposal to tell the ones that matter to us, as well as to tell their own stories well.

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“Welsh of Tennessee” lecture this Friday

Here’s an interesting event for all you folks in Knoxville:

“The Welsh of Tennessee” is the subject of a Brown Bag Lecture and book signing at the East Tennessee History Center at noon on Friday, December 7. Dr. Eirug Davies, associate member of Harvard University’s Celtic Department, will discuss his new book and the remarkable story of how the Welsh helped develop East Tennessee’s fledgling iron and coal industries after the Civil War.

The Welsh presence in East Tennessee goes back to the very beginning of white settlement in this neck of the woods. One of the region’s most prominent early settlers was Evan Shelby, an immigrant from Wales who moved from Maryland to Sapling Grove (present-day Bristol) in the early 1770’s. He served in Dunmore’s War and in a number of other campaigns against the Indians, and his son Isaac was a soldier and statesman who’s appeared on this blog before.

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AMC has a Rev War show in the works

Check it out:

AMC has also put into development Revolutionary War drama ‘Turn,’ based on Alexander Rose book ‘Washington’s Spies.’ Written by show-runner Craig Silverstein (‘Nikita’) and executive produced by ‘Bones’ Barry Josephson, ‘Turn’s 1778 narrative follows New York farmer Abe Woodhull as he “bands together with a group of childhood friends to form The Culper Ring, an unlikely group of spies who turn the tide in America’s fight for independence.”

Sounds pretty cool.

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