Monthly Archives: November 2013

The exceptional Solomon Northup

I saw 12 Years a Slave the other day, and it’s a darn good movie—certainly the most visceral onscreen depiction of the peculiar institution I’ve ever seen, rivaling the harrowing slave ship scenes from Amistad.

One reason the film is so powerful is because Solomon Northup makes for an especially relatable protagonist. Anyone who’s thought about the history of American slavery has probably sympathized with the people who were victims of it, but sympathy for someone is not the same as identification with them. Identification requires you to be able to see yourself in a character, and living your whole life as someone else’s property is so foreign to the experience of most modern Americans that it’s difficult to put yourself in that place.

Northup wasn’t born into slavery; he had his freedom, a home, and a family before losing it all when he was abducted. You can see yourself in him. And in the movie, he’s thrown into this brutal new reality at the same time you are. You’re on his journey alongside him, and that lends the experience a special kind of impact.

Of course, if Northup’s exceptionalness makes him a useful surrogate in approaching the subject of slavery, it also means that we have to remind ourselves of how atypical his story is. Most slaves were born into bondage, lived their entire lives in that condition, and died without publishing their stories. Peter Malamud Smith explains the dilemma:

It’s just so hard for us to identify with “the regular slaves,” in whatever form they may take. 12 Years a Slave is constructed as a story of a man trying to return to his family, offering every viewer a way into empathizing with its protagonist. Maybe we need a story framed on that individual scale in order to understand it. But it has a distorting effect all the same. We’re more invested in one hero than in millions of victims; if we’re forced to imagine ourselves enslaved, we want to imagine ourselves as Northup, a special person who miraculously escaped the system that attempted to crush him.

In other words, this individual’s story can’t take the place of millions of other slaves’ untold stories. But it more than compensates by reminding us, as few other slave narratives can, that behind each of those untold stories was an individual.

Northup as depicted in his book, via Wikimedia Commons

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Filed under History and Memory

Spend an evening at John Sevier’s

Marble Springs State Historic Site in Knoxville, TN is getting ready for its first annual fundraiser.  We’re calling it a “Sevier Soirée.”

It’s on Saturday, Nov. 23 starting at 6:30 P.M.  For $50 you can enjoy hors d’oeuvres prepared on an open hearth, dinner, wine, live music, nighttime tours of the historic buildings, and a silent auction.  If you’ve been to Marble Springs before, this is a wonderful opportunity to enjoy the site in a fashion you’ve never experienced.  And if you haven’t been, this is the perfect chance to do it in style.

For more information, visit the Marble Springs website or call (865) 573-5508.

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Filed under Museums and Historic Sites, Tennessee History

Ender’s Game, Catton’s war

A lot of people think Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game is the best science fiction novel ever, or at least one of the top contenders, so I decided to read it before seeing the new movie adaptation.  I enjoyed it, although it didn’t have the impact on me that it seems to have had on thousands of other readers over the years.  The movie’s not bad, either.

A story about children training to fight space aliens is just about the last place you’d expect to find anything relating to popular Civil War historiography, but in his introduction Card identifies the work of Bruce Catton as one of his main influences:

I remembered so well the stories of the commanders in that war–the struggle to find a Union general capable of using McClellan’s magnificent army to defeat Lee and Jackson and Stuart, and then, finally, Grant, who brought death to far too many of his soldiers, but also made their deaths mean something, by grinding away at Lee, keeping him from dancing and maneuvering out of reach. It was because of Catton’s history that I had stopped enjoying chess, and had to revise the rules of Risk in order to play it–I had come to understand something of war, and not just because of the conclusions Catton himself had reached. I found meanings of my own in that history.

I learned that history is shaped by the use of power, and that different people, leading the same army, with, therefore, approximately the same power, applied it so differently that the army seemed to change from a pack of noble fools at Fredericksburg to panicked cowards melting away at Chancellorsville, then to the grimly determined, stubborn soldiers who held the ridges at Gettysburg, and then, finally, to the disciplined, professional army that ground Lee to dust in Grant’s long campaign. It wasn’t the soldiers who changed. It was the leader. And even though I could not then have articulated what I understood of military leadership, I knew that I did understand it. I understood, at levels deeper than speech, how a great military leader imposes his will on his enemy, and makes his own army a willing extension of himself.

Card thus takes the Civil War (at least the war in the East) primarily as the story of an army in search of its commander.  Framing the war with this narrative is not at all uncommon, but is it accurate?  And is it possible to draw such broad general lessons about the nature of war and the human experience from the study of one particular conflict?

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Filed under Civil War, History and Memory

Teamwork!

A friend and colleague of mine just showed me this unexpectedly inspirational notebook cover from the Surratt House Museum.

There’s no I in “team,” but there are three of them in “conspiracy to assassinate the president.”

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Filed under Abraham Lincoln, Museums and Historic Sites