Monthly Archives: November 2010

Does this design make my blog look fat?

Regular readers of the blog will note that things are looking a little different around here.  I’d had the same design template since this I started this gig, and I decided it was getting a little stale.  Plus, I’d never been too crazy about the green and beige color scheme, but it was the only one at my disposal with that template.  So I’ve switched to a new one, which I think has a more readable font.

Unfortunately, when I changed designs, I also lost my nifty header image from Lloyd Branson’s painting of the overmountain men’s muster at Sycamore Shoals.  I couldn’t find another clear, high-res copy of it online.  I’ve substituted another King’s Mountain image, this one a depiction of Ferguson’s death by Alonzo Chappel, which is another of my favorite historical images.


Via Wikimedia Commons

Anyway, all the same features and links are still here, and of course I’ll still be doing my darnedest to bring you the best history-related commentary and news I can scrape together.  Let me take this opportunity to thank everybody out there who lets me share my fascination with history on this little corner of the Web.

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Some of my favorite movie directors—guys like Steven Spielberg, Ridley Scott, and the pre-Titanic James Cameron—are the world creators.  In fact, I’ve heard both Scott and Cameron use the term “creating worlds” when talking about the kinds of movies they like making.  I’m not talking about setting movies on other planets, necessarily, but setting them in any type of stylized, self-contained reality.

In this sort of movie, everything is aimed toward realizing a coherent vision.  All the elements are meant to work together to accomplish that vision, from the clothing to the architecture to the shapes of clouds.  Even light and color tones are controlled with the use of camera filters.  Watch a film by any of the three directors I mentioned above, and you’ll note that their goal is not to transfer life to the screen, but to transfer the images in their minds (or the minds of the production designers) to the screen.  It’s a sort of tweaked reality, filtered through a particular vision or aesthetic.

This is particularly common in historical films, especially the sweeping epics like Dances With Wolves, The Patriot, and Gods and Generals, because here you must are constructing an entire reality from the ground up by necessity.  The world on the screen is inescapably going to be different from our own, so the filmmakers freely indulge their ability to control the look of the movie—not simply in the material culture depicted, but even supposedly natural things like the tint of the sunset.  Movies like this tend to be “pretty” films, in which the screen is a canvas and the world is picture-perfect.

Even battle scenes in these movies have a kind of artificial, aesthetic beauty to them.  In Ridley Scott’s historic films, like Gladiator and Kingdom of Heaven, bloodshed is explicit and graphic, but it has a sort of strange appeal of its own—a sword flashes and there is a bold splash of rich crimson.  During the brief Valley Forge scene in The Patriot, you can tell that there is suffering and misery, but the setting itself is lovely, almost like a Thomas Kincaid painting.  These worlds are “pretty” even when they’re ugly.

Historical epics therefore tend to suggest an idyllic past, even if they depict the unpleasant aspects of the time and place in question.  Does this have any subconscious impact on us when we try to visualize the past for ourselves?  I think it does, especially for those of us who have grown up watching them.  When I’m reading about some historical event or period that would make a suitable subject for an epic film, I often visualize it in the aesthetic “style” of a film of this kind, even though I don’t do so consciously.  It’s just the main frame of reference I have for seeing these types of events play out.  It acts as an artificial filter between historical reality and my brain.

Film isn’t the only such filter that shapes visualizations of the past.  Sometimes the means of communication employed during the period in question can influence the way we conceptualize it.  When I worked at a Civil War museum, we had in our vault a set of six massive scrapbooks, bound in red leather, compiled by an inhabitant of Philadelphia during the war.  They contained hundrds and hundreds of clippings, engravings, lithographs, currency notes, cartoons, envelopes, and other ephemera.  Most of these items were in immaculate condition.  The first time I delved into them, I was working on a temporary exhibit about women in the Civil War.

This material absolutely floored me.  What really surprised me were the color items—the cartoons and prints from firms like Kurz and Allison.  The colors were still as vibrant and rich as anything you’d see in a modern publication, bright blues and reds and pinks and yellows that you’d find in comics.  I had seen many of these images reprinted before, but these originals were much, much more bold and vivid.

It took me a long time to figure out why they had such an impact on me, but finally it occurred to me that I wasn’t used to seeing the Civil War in color.  I was accustomed to black and white photographs, or the subdued, earthy tones of period paintings.  Of course, I knew that nineteenth-century Americans inhabited a world of color, but I had never really understood it viscerally.  I always saw them in blacks, whites, grays, and browns.

Of course, many Civil War Americans back on the home front probably visualized the battles using these garish lithographs and staged photographs, so it’s entirely possible that their concept of these events through which they lived was as skewed as mine is now.  But at least they didn’t have the disadvantage of so much time acting as an additional filter on their perceptions.

The past is one thing, and our conception of it is another.  What happened has happened only once.  We can approach it, and we can approximate it, but we can no more recover it completely than we can bring the dead back to life again.


Filed under History and Memory

A Catholic take on Pilgrim ironies

Mark Shea is an extremely witty fellow who blogs and writes prolifically from a Catholic perspective.  I always find his reflections well worth reading.  In a recent piece he examines the religious dissidents who settled New England, and some of the ironic developments resulting therefrom, all the way through the Civil War and down to the present day.  Check it out.

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New light on the flag’s origins

…courtesy of America’s Finest News Source.  The Washington quote is the high point.

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Abraham Lincoln drinks your milkshake!

He drinks it up!

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Pigeon Forge brings us historical interpretation at its finest

Pigeon Forge, TN is the hap-hap-happiest place around when it comes to learning about the past, and I’ve got some news that’ll make every history enthusiast within two hundred miles of the Smokies start wetting their pants with excitement.

First up, check out what’s happening for the holidays over at a site this blog has featured before—the Titanic Museum Attraction: “Starting Saturday, November 13, it will snow – yes, REAL snow – at the Titanic every Friday and Saturday evening at 7:00pm through January 1, 2011.  The snow is part of the museum’s ‘Christmas in a Winter Wonderland,’ which is dedicated to honoring and celebrating the lives of the 2,208 passengers and crew of the Titanic.”

And we’re not talking cheap, second-rate snow here, either.  This snow equipment cost $150,000.  That’s not even counting the “additional $100,000 [that] will be spent on Christmas trees, lights and decorations that will decorate the interior and exterior of the Titanic Museum Attraction.”

This may be the best quarter million ever spent in the history of museum budgeting.  I’ll tell you what I’m doing for the holidays, ladies and gents. I’m driving to Pigeon Forge, where I can enjoy a frothing mug of egg nog while I watch artificially generated snow gently blanket a fake ship festooned with garlands and Christmas lights.

Perhaps I’ll make a second trip on January 22, when they’ll be hosting—I kid you not—the First Pigeon Forge Professional Ice Carving Competition.  I can’t think of a more appropriate way to commemorate the deaths of 1,517 people than by carting in a bunch of chainsaw-wielding artisans to fashion decorative shapes out of the very same substance that killed them.  Can you?

You’ll want to come back to Pigeon Forge in the spring so you can be first in line to buy tickets for the upcoming “Hatfield & McCoy Dinner Feud and Stunt Show.”  Now, maybe you’re thinking that a dinner theater/stunt show isn’t the best way to teach history.  Well, think again.  The visionaries behind this enterprise are making cultural edification a top priority:

The new production is scheduled to open in early Spring of next year, and will be loosely based on the true story of the famous Hatfield and McCoy feud.  The audience will be divided into the Hatfield and McCoy families by special seating areas.  The show will extend throughout the theater as the audience participates in the good natured rivalry.  Dangerous and comical stunts will be performed throughout the show to add a special excitement.  Singers, dancers, actors, musicians and specially trained stunt people will round out the cast.  As with all Fee/Hedrick shows, this new show will have a family friendly atmosphere with a focus on fun.

“Our area is rich with Appalachian heritage,” said theater co-owner David Fee.  “Mountain clans were a way of life here, and this show will showcase all that’s great about them!”

And just what is it that’s so great about mountain clans?  Well, being a native Appalachian myself, I can personally attest that “dangerous and comical stunts” are right at the top of the list.  Indeed, when my family gets together for any special occasion, we make a special point to engage in as many dangerous and comical stunts as possible.  Last Thanksgiving, for example, after we had all eaten our fill and hanged a member of the opposing clan with which we were feuding at the time, everyone adjourned to the backyard to watch as I climbed to the roof of my uncle’s house and (wearing nothing but a pair of leopard-skin underpants and a gigantic foam Yosemite Sam hat) shoved a fistful of lit bottle rockets into each nostril, took a running start, and leaped off into a kiddie pool filled entirely with creamed corn.

But I digress.  The news item continues:

The building, will undergo a multi-million dollar renovation and transform in appearance into two neighboring hillbilly style mountain homes complete with a decorative moonshine still and barnyard animal areas.  The theater lobby will also feature the largest moonshine still in the world – soon to be verified by the Guinness Book of World Records.  “The Moonshine Still will be an interactive learning center that highlights the history of the mountain people, but interjected with lots of humor”, says Hedrick. “Our customers will have a better understanding of everyday life back in the hills, while making them laugh at the same time!”

It’s no secret that negative Appalachian stereotypes and historical misperceptions are a ubiquitous problem, but the best way to inculcate an appreciation for the rich, subtle past of the mountain region is to have a feuding-themed theatrical production and then decorate the lobby with the biggest frocking moonshine still you can find.

My history buff nerve endings are just buzzing with anticipation.


Filed under Appalachian History, History and Memory

Planning on watching some historical programming?

If you are, then I hope you got up early.  The History Channel ran a Civil War documentary at 7:00 this morning.  After that, it’s a solid block of truck driving shows for the rest of the day.

Why don’t they just go ahead and pick up some American Idol reruns?

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Something stays

When I was in high school, my family developed a summer tradition where we’d load up a minivan and drive all over the West for a few weeks at a time.  We hit dozens of places of interest that catered to our individual interests—dinosaur graveyards for me, gunfighter haunts for Mom, and battlefields for Dad.

On one of those trips we ended up at the site of the massacre of Wounded Knee. There is a small memorial and gate at the mass grave where the frozen, twisted bodies were buried.

Some places in the West, even very beautiful ones (and the West has much more than its share of beautiful places), have a kind of melancholy, forlorn atmosphere.  I noticed it at some locations that were remote but simultaneously open and expansive, where you could look all around in any direction and see nothing but landscape and sky.  Little Bighorn, which is one of the most gorgeous historic sites I’ve ever visited, had that feeling.  Wounded Knee had it in spades.

Wounded Knee had something else, too.  It was an almost palpable vibe that was—there is no other word I can think of here—sinister.  You got the sense that even if you were blindfolded, driven to the site, and dropped off with no idea of where you were, you’d still have the notion that you were standing at a place where something terrible happened.


Memorial and grave at Wounded Knee, from Wikimedia Commons

Years after seeing Wounded Knee, I went to a symposium on the Revolutionary War in South Carolina.  On the last day they loaded us on a bus and took us to some of the little-known, out-of-the-way battlefields in the backcountry.  One of the stops was the battlefield at Waxhaws, site of another purported massacre, where British dragoons reportedly cut down Virginia Continentals who were surrendering.  It was a controversial event; the extent of the British excesses and their causes are still open to debate.

Like Wounded Knee, Waxhaws had a small monument and a mass grave.  Like Wounded Knee, it was a lovely spot.  And like Wounded Knee, it had that unmistakable something sinister.


Memorial and grave at Waxhaws, from Wikimedia Commons

I don’t believe in a permeable boundary between this life and the next one.  I don’t believe that the dead remain behind, and I don’t believe in curses or parapsychological trauma, or any of the rest of it.  But there’s no denying that these massacre sites have a lingering something, immaterial and intangible though it is.  Maybe it’s just an accidental combination of the events and the environment.

Joshua Chamberlain said of Gettysburg, “In great deeds something abides.  On great fields something stays.”  I suppose that what applies to great deeds and great fields sometimes applies to deeds and fields of horror and misery, too.


Filed under History and Memory, Museums and Historic Sites

Andrew Jackson Superstar

I’m not entirely sure what to think about this.

This spring’s biggest downtown hit was undoubtedly BLOODY BLOODY ANDREW JACKSON. Rolling Stone called it “the season’s best musical” and audiences flocked to The Public Theater-where iconic shows like A Chorus Line and Hair started out-to see what the daring young creative team ALEX TIMBERS (writer/director) and MICHAEL FRIEDMAN (composer/lyricist) had cooked up. Now, by populist demand, their bloody brilliant show is packing up its tight, tight jeans and heading to Broadway!

In BLOODY BLOODY ANDREW JACKSON, rising star BENJAMIN WALKER reprises his role as America’s first political maverick. A.J. kicked British butt, shafted the Indians and smacked down the Spaniards all in the name of these United States-who cares if he didn’t have permission? An exhilarating and white-knuckled look at one of our nation’s founding rock stars, BLOODY BLOODY ANDREW JACKSON recreates and reinvents the life of “Old Hickory,” from his humble beginnings on the Tennessee frontier to his days as our seventh Commander-in-Chief. It also asks the question, is wanting to have a beer with someone reason enough to elect him? What if he’s really, really hot?

I saw one of the people behind this thing interviewed on TV today, and he described it as an emo take on Old Hickory.  I’d always figured Jackson as more of an eighties metal sort of guy.


Filed under History and Memory

The Knoxville News Sentinel

…recently published an article on Lincoln and his connections to East Tennessee, illustrated with some items from the Abraham Lincoln Library and Museum in Harrogate.  Check it out.

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Filed under Abraham Lincoln, Appalachian History