Category Archives: History and Memory

Historical-looking faces are getting harder to find

Filmmakers are finding it difficult to cast period movies because people are so darn pretty these days. Check it out:

Historical movies such as Steven Spielberg‘s “Lincoln” have placed a greater premium on authenticity in recent years, with on-set researchers ensuring that costumes, production design and language accurately reflect the age. Filmmakers, however, have a more difficult time making sure the contemporary appearance of their casts doesn’t strain a movie’s credibility.…

Teeth whitening, plastic surgery, body piercings, weight training, healthful eating and yoga have made it a challenge to find the perfect period performer. Add the unforgiving nature of high-definition video on which more movies are made and seen and the emergence of visually savvy audiences, and you often have a recipe for historical dissonance.

Hey, I’ve got a terrible complexion, crowded lower teeth, and no muscle tone whatsoever.  I could make a killing as an extra.

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Do we need a law against moving monuments?

Now, here’s the sort of thing that’s perfect for stirring up debate in the historical blogosphere:

A new bill proposed in the Georgia legislature would prohibit local governments from hiding or removing statues of Jefferson Davis, Robert E. Lee or other Confederate army heroes indefinitely.…

Rep. Tommy Benton, R-Jefferson, introduced the proposal at the request of the Sons of the American Revolution and the Sons of Confederate Veterans.

The bill, if passed, would require that monuments be kept in a prominent place. It would also make it illegal to “deface, defile, or abuse contemptuously” any memorial dedicated to the Confederate army.

“We’re not saying they can’t move them,” Benton said. “We’re just saying they can’t just put them in a field somewhere.”

You can read the proposed bill yourself by clicking here. It’s pretty short, so go ahead and give it a look.

Of course, I’m in favor of throwing the book at anybody who mutilates or damages historic monuments and markers, but I would assume Georgia already has vandalism laws to cover that sort of thing. As for the bill’s more novel provisions to stop such monuments from being “relocated, removed, concealed, obscured, or altered,” I’m not sure what to think.

My inclination in disputes over older monuments is usually to let them be and keep them in good condition, since they have intrinsic historic value. But I’m not sure it’s a good idea to have a state law prohibiting local government agencies from moving monuments except in cases of construction projects, since the bill (if I understand it correctly) makes no distinction among monuments “dedicated to a historical entity” based on their age or significance.

What do you guys think?

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What do American college freshmen think of when someone mentions Lincoln? (An unscientific survey)

Cross-posted at the blog of the Abraham Lincoln Institute for the Study of Leadership and Public Policy

For the past couple of weeks, I’ve been teaching a section of the introductory course on Abraham Lincoln which all freshmen at Lincoln Memorial University are required to take.  On the first day, I asked the students to write down five things they think of when they hear Lincoln’s name.  I didn’t require correct answers, and I told them not to consult any books or other sources.  I was just curious to see what comes to the mind of the average American eighteen-year-old when Lincoln is mentioned.

The most common responses by far involved some aspect of the assassination, with all but five of the students mentioning Lincoln’s murder.  About one-third of them referred to the fact he was shot in a theater, and one-fifth mentioned John Wilkes Booth by name.  One of them mentioned Booth’s close proximity to Lincoln at the 1864 inauguration.

Lincoln’s height was the second most common thing that came up, followed pretty closely by references to the Emancipation Proclamation, Lincoln’s opposition to slavery, and his “Honest Abe” moniker.  One-quarter of the students mentioned the fact that he was the Sixteenth President of the United States, and the same number mentioned his iconic stovepipe hat.  One-sixth of them referred to Lincoln’s whiskers, his Kentucky background, his appearance on American currency, his “railsplitter” nickname, or his association with the Civil War.

The early deaths of several of Lincoln’s relatives was mentioned twice.  So was the Thirteenth Amendment, the date of his birth, his election to the presidency, and the association of his name with LMU.

Only two incorrect statements appeared in the responses.  One student claimed that Lincoln was “stern and serious,” perhaps confusing his appearance in formal portraits with his actual demeanor.  Another wrote that Lincoln got into hot water with his dad for chopping down a cherry tree, but I half suspect that this answer was an intentional joke rather than an honest mistake.

The following references each appeared once:

  • Member of the Whig Party
  • He dressed badly
  • Born in a log cabin
  • Was a Republican
  • His wife shopped a lot
  • Carried letters in his hat
  • A public speaker
  • Had many enemies
  • Was a great leader
  • Loved reading books
  • Had “defined” facial features
  • Had disturbing dreams
  • Mentioned the names of attending doctors at his deathbed
  • Gettysburg Address
  • Wrote about giant bones at Niagara Falls
  • Grew up poor

Only one student mentioned the Gettysburg Address, which came as a surprise to me.  Also surprising was the reference to Lincoln’s short meditation on Niagara Falls, one of his more obscure written works.  In addition, I expected to see more references to his humble origins and log cabin birth, since that’s been such an important aspect of the Lincoln cultural phenomenon over the years.  In fact, of the five major aspects of “Lincolnian memory” identified by historian Merrill Peterson (the savior of the Union, the great emancipator, the man of the people, the first American, and the self-made man), only the notion of Lincoln as emancipator was prominent in the students’ responses.

Finally, three students mentioned the recent “vampire hunter” meme.  I leave it to you to decide whether that number is alarmingly high or reassuringly low.

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Movie items of interest

  • International audiences for Spielberg’s Lincoln will see a slightly different opening sequence to provide context for viewers who might not be as familiar with American history.  Maybe some additional background would’ve been a good idea for American moviegoers, too; Black Hawk Down and Argo both needed historical prologues even though the events in question happened during the lifetimes of many of the people watching the films.
  • Readers of ScreenCrush selected Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter as the worst movie of 2012, indirectly proving the continuing viability of democracy as the best available form of government.
  • Saving Lincoln, the upcoming film about Ward Hill Lamon, made HuffPo.
  • That high-pitched, ecstatic shrieking sound you heard?  That was me: We now have a trailer for the twentieth anniversary 3D re-release of Jurassic Park and an official release date for JP4.

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IFC Fix’s top American historical films

They’re not at all the ones I would’ve picked, but that’s part of the fun of reading these lists, right?

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Like I said a few days ago

…If I ever meet an editorial writer who’s capable of discussing sectionalism in modern American politics without invoking the Civil War, I’ll be pleasantly surprised.

Seriously, guys, find some original metaphors.  How about Federalists vs. Republicans, just to try something new?

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When this cruel war is over

If I ever meet an editorial writer who’s capable of discussing sectionalism in modern American politics without invoking the Civil War, I’ll be pleasantly surprised.

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Sevier’s Parson Weems

Check out the latest post in Gordon Belt’s series on the memory of John Sevier, in which he examines the work of James R. Gilmore, the nineteenth-century writer who did for Sevier what Parson Weems did for George Washington.

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Filed under Appalachian History, History and Memory, Tennessee History

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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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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