The Velociraptor-Chamberlain effect

Check out Gary Gallagher’s list of five overrated Civil War officers (with a tip of the hat to John Fea).  One of them is Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, not because he was a poor commander but because fiction and film have elevated him into the stratosphere of popular memory.

I call this the Velociraptor-Chamberlain effect.  It happens when a work of fiction or film sends a previously obscure subject into the stratosphere of popular imagination.  There were plenty of brave and talented field officers at Gettysburg, but only one got top billing in The Killer Angels and the movie adaptation.

Likewise, up until the 1990′s, Velociraptor was just one of many little carnivorous dinosaurs that rarely got any press.  And with good reason—other than its svelte form (the name means “quick robber”) and formidable claws, there wasn’t anything particularly impressive about it.

Clever girl! Velociraptor mongoliensis compared to a human, from Wikimedia Commons.

Then Michael Crichton came along.  Dinosaur artist Gregory Paul had assigned a larger relative, Deinonychus, to the genus Velociraptor, and Crichton adopted this classification in Jurassic Park.  The raptors in his book were therefore substantially bigger than their real-life counterparts, and formidable enough to take on his human characters.

Steven Spielberg evidently thought that even the beefed-up raptors in the novel were too puny for the big screen, so by the time the raptors made it to Hollywood they were about three times as tall as they had been in the fossil record.  Ironically, after the book came out, scientists identified yet another large relative of Velociraptor, as big as the ones in Spielberg’s film.

I’ve drifted off-topic, haven’t I?  Sorry; I’ve got this thing for dinosaurs.

Anyway, the point is that works of fiction often have a much greater impact on the way people remember the past than the interpretations of the people who study it.  How many monographs on Gettysburg do you think it would take to equal the impression made by Shaara’s novel?  I’d say quite a few.

The other thing that struck me about Gallagher’s piece is the reaction it elicited from readers.  Take a look at the comments; some readers assumed that because Gallagher takes issue with certain evaluations of a few Confederate generals, he must be politically correct and have an anti-South agenda.  Never mind that he included Union commanders in his list, and never mind that he didn’t say one word about the Confederacy itself.  Perhaps the online defenders of True Southronness should set aside the Confederate flag; a doctor’s reflex hammer seems like a much more appropriate emblem for them.

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5 Comments

Filed under Civil War, History and Memory

5 responses to “The Velociraptor-Chamberlain effect

  1. The Velociraptor-Chamberlain effect is now in my lexicon. ;-)

    I’m not sure it’s solely Sharra’s fault, however.

    I’m a big fan of Gary Adelman’s /Myth of Little Round Top/ which has a slam-bang chart in the back highlighting the escalation of the importance of LRT in Civil War memory, from place where a few men fought to epic hill that saved the fate of America. I like the fact that each time the hyperbole increases, it can usually be traced to Chamberlain’s own bluster. I guess that’s the danger of letting a professor of rhetoric speak about what he did during the war: he knows how to make a dynamic, dramatic and engaging speech and thereby magnify his role bit by bit.

    • Michael Lynch

      I haven’t read Adelman’s book yet; it sounds interesting. I’ve read a little bit about Chamberlain’s role in shaping the memory of the war, but not as much as I’d like.

      –ML

  2. You have to admit, Michael — having Jurassic Park threatened by a bunch of really pissed-off turkeys would not have make such a great movie.

    Fun dinosaur fact: when I was in grad school my office was next door to the lab of Sankar Chatterjee, who had just announced the discovery of Protoavis. I don’t think that identification has gone anywhere much in the paleontology world, though.

    I saw some of reaction to Gallagher’s list, and am not surprised at the reactions you cite , from those quarters. One note about Chamberlain, Little Round Top et al., though. If you look through mentions of both in Google Books, you get the expected spikes around the time of the Centennial and, of course, in the run-up to and following the movie. But they don’t pop up so much in connection with the publication of The Killer Angels, which came out 20 years before.

    Further, look at the tremendous number of mentions of “Little Round Top,” from 1865 right through about 1920, when if falls off the cliff. That roughly corresponds to the lifetime of actual CW veterans and their memoirs. What does one make of that?

    • Michael Lynch

      Hi Andy,

      Sorry your comment got kicked into moderation–I’m not sure how that happened. Comments from folks that have commented before are supposed to go up automatically, so yours should have appeared as soon as you posted it. I seem to be having some technical issues.

      Anyway, thanks for the Chatterjee anecdote. I remember first reading about that find in Don Lessem’s book Dinosaurs Rediscovered, and I was shocked that a bird had turned up in the Triassic. It seemed to throw the chronology of avian evolution way out of whack. From what I understand, most folks in the field doubt that it’s avian, and quite a few think the remains are actually from different animals.

      The stuff on Chamberlain from Google is interesting. I’d heard somewhere that Shaara’s novel didn’t really get much attention when it first came out (other than the big prize, of course), and that it was the movie that turned it into a cultural phenomenon. It seems that veterans made a big deal out of Little Round Top; maybe Shaara relied heavily on their published accounts when he was doing his research. His son has said that he uses memoirs a lot in his own work.

      Maybe the veterans’ accounts might have contributed to the notion one occasionally finds that Little Round Top was the critical point (or at least one of the critical points) in the battle, similar to what may have happened with the guys who were at the Hornet’s Nest at Shiloh. They’re way out on the flank, they can’t see the whole battle play out, and all they know is that they’re throwing back one Rebel charge after another, so when the smoke clears, as far as they’re concerned it was them against the whole Reb army in the hottest part of the whole fight. Makes you wonder how many of the great turning points of famous battles acquired that status largely because the guys who were there had a poor field of vision and great PR.

      –ML

  3. Pingback: Assassins in America | Past in the Present

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