Category Archives: History and Memory

Relativity

It’s been a summer of traveling for me: Virginia, Florida, and California, all within the span of a few weeks.  Just a few days ago, I visited the La Brea Tar Pits with a couple of friends of mine.  I think the tar pits are sort of obligatory for paleophiles who visit L.A.  

It’s got to be the most famous fossil site in California, if not on the West Coast as a whole.  It’s also a very recent site, as far as fossil deposits go.  Most of the specimens from La Brea date from about 10,000 to 40,000 years ago, give or take a few millennia.  In geologic time, that’s practically yesterday, and much, much more recent than the terrible lizards that really interest me.  Dinosaurs first appeared around 230 million years ago, and flourished until the K-T extinction event killed off the non-avian dinos 65 million years before the present.  (I say non-avian because scientists now consider birds to be advanced theropod dinosaurs, the same group that includes the big carnivores.  T. rex is actually more closely related to a parakeet than to Triceratops.)  While checking out the exhibits at La Brea, I couldn’t escape the notion that all this stuff was really new.

Now, here’s the weird thing.  A few weeks ago, as you may recall, I was in Jamestown.  I’m fascinated by seventeenth-century colonial history, but my foremost historical interest is the American Revolution.  As an aspiring early Americanist who spends most of his time studying the end of England’s American empire, the founding of Jamestown seems almost like the Big Bang to me.

But when you consider that anatomically modern humans have been around for about 200,000 years, 1607 isn’t that long ago.  Indeed, it’s not even particularly early in the history of European adventurism in the New World.  The Spanish had been making their mark in the Americas for more than a century when the English started building their fort on the banks of the James River.  And four hundred years is hardly worth noticing compared to the gulf of time that separates us from the animals that roamed Rancho La Brea in the Pleistocene.

When I was standing within the reconstructed palisade of Jamestown’s fort a few weeks ago, I was thinking like an aspiring American historian, and it was like being present at the creation.  At La Brea, on the other hand, I was wearing my dino aficionado hat, and those 40,000-year-old mastodons, sloths, and saber-toothed cats seemed like they’d been around just a few moments ago.

History classes tend to reinforce these skewed perspectives of time.  The world history survey is ostensibly in the business of teaching students what humans have been up to during our tenure on this planet, but most of human existence gets covered in the first lecture or two.  The rest of the course is about human history since the end of the Neolithic.  In other words, we devote only one class meeting to something like 98% of humanity’s past.

The American history survey distorts time, too.  The first half zips through thousands of years’ worth of pre-Columbian history in about an hour of lecture, and then spends months on the few hundred years between Columbus and the end of Reconstruction.  The second half devotes the whole semester to less than a century and a half.  There isn’t really any sense to the way survey courses split American history in two.

The way we define fields of specialization makes no chronological sense, either.  There was twice as much time from Roanoke to the Rev War as there was from the Rev War to the Civil War, but both Roanoke and the Rev War are the business of early Americanists.  The Civil War?  That’s for those nineteenth-century historians.

The passage of time defines what historians do, but I don’t think we’re any more astute than a random person on the street when it comes to conceptualizing time accurately.

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Harriet Tubman might end up on the twenty

Harriet Tubman won the poll to find a female replacement for Andrew Jackson.  Assuming the government decides to retire Old Hickory, then, she’ll likely end up on the twenty.

In that event, the schoolchild and the layman will no longer ask in ignorance and apathy, “Harriet Tubman?  You mean the Underground Railroad lady?”  Instead, they will ask in continued ignorance and apathy, “Harriet Tubman?  You mean the lady on the twenty dollar bill?”

Putting a woman on the currency is undeniably a good and proper thing to do.  And Lord knows Andrew Jackson hated paper money so much that he’d probably be just as glad to see his picture removed from it.  But I see this whole thing pretty much the same way I see efforts to put up new monuments on battlefield land: it’s a nice gesture, and that’s pretty much the extent of it.  I’m way more excited about the National Women’s History Museum than the notion of a new face on money.

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On the lack of NPS sites devoted to Reconstruction

The National Park Service is undertaking an effort to identify appropriate sites for commemorating and interpreting the history of Reconstruction.  Two participants in the study note that, as of now, the NPS “has not a single site dedicated to that vital and controversial period.”

There’s no denying that Reconstruction is a critically important period that doesn’t get much public attention.  The issues Americans grappled with during Reconstruction are both fundamental and timely.  As the article notes, they include “debates over the meaning of equal protection of the law, over the right to vote, and over the limits of presidential and congressional authority, both in peacetime and in war.”

Over the years, especially during the sesquicentennial, I’ve heard a lot of people bemoan the fact that the Civil War gets a lot more attention than the messy, unglamorous period that followed it.  The drama of the war years has a lot more inherent sex appeal than Reconstruction.  And Appomattox provides a kind of narrative closure that you don’t get with the unfinished business of the 1870s.

But I submit that it’s not just the prejudices of popular memory that have given us so many Civil War parks without a single Reconstruction one.  The thing about agencies that are charged with preserving and interpreting historic sites is that they’re inevitably going to devote most of their resources to those aspects of history linked to specific points on a map.  This is not a shortcoming of such agencies; it’s just a by-product of what they’re set up to do.

Wars, after all, tend to turn ordinary pieces of ground into battlefields, and battlefields are the kinds of historic sites that are naturally suited to preservation, interpretation, and commemoration.  There were plenty of Reconstruction-era developments that were as significant to American history as the Battle of Shiloh, but it’s harder to find sites associated with those developments that you can point to and be able to say, “This is where it happened.”

I can’t think of too many locations where you could tell the Reconstruction story in a holistic fashion, along the lines of the comprehensive approach to the Civil War you get at the new Gettysburg visitor center.  One such site would be Andrew Johnson’s home in Greeneville, TN, which is already under NPS stewardship.  The site of the Colfax Massacre might be another ideal location, but I don’t know how much is left there to preserve and interpret.

Ultimately, I think the fact that there’s been no Reconstruction national park until now has as much to do with these practical issues as it does with Americans’ predilection for forgetting the messy and discouraging chapters of their history.  The NPS isn’t an all-purpose historical interpretation agency.  Its historical activities are linked to places, and some events are just naturally more suited to this sort of location-specific interpretation than others.

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The latest in anti-preservation follies and fallacies

Donnie Johnston of Fredericksburg’s Free Lance-Star has decided to let us all know how sick he is of all this hallowed ground from the Civil War.

Mike Stevens of the Central Virginia Battlefield Trust penned an eloquent and measured response to Johnston’s rant, which you can read at the Emerging Civil War blog.

For my part, I note that Johnston indulges in the anti-preservationist’s favorite logical fallacy: the straw man argument.  Anti-preservationists are seemingly incapable of engaging with actual preservationist arguments.  Instead, they have to reduce things to the most asinine mischaracterizations imaginable:

Everywhere a Union or Confederate soldier set his chamber pot is now declared “hallowed ground.”
You can’t build a store because there may be a Minié ball somewhere in the ground. Housing developments get axed because some farmer once plowed up a rusty bayonet in that field. You can’t construct a road because some soldier once fired a cannon from that spot.
This is all getting absurd.

Yes, that does sound absurd, and the reason it sounds absurd is because it’s a gross caricature of the actual situation.

Why people are so adamant about glorifying war—any war—is beyond me. Ask anybody who ever fought in one and they will tell you that war is indeed hell.
People kill other people in wars. They blow their heads off—literally. They disembowel fathers and sons and brothers with cannons and mortars.
Soldiers lose their arms, their legs, their feet and their hands in wars. You want to glorify that?

No, actually, I don’t want to glorify that.  I do, however, want to make sure the places where it happened remain available for future generations to draw meaning and information from them.  And it’s worth noting that the men who actually experienced those battles led some of the earliest efforts to set aside the sites where they happened.  They didn’t see anything inappropriate about commemorating the war.

The Civil War began because big landowners in the South wanted to keep black people enslaved. You can sugarcoat it all you want, but slavery was what that conflict was all about. You want to glorify slavery?

Certainly not, but I think the war that brought about its end might merit some commemoration.  It was kind of a big deal.

Now we want to save every inch of ground trod upon by every Federal and Confederate. Why? Well, partly so that re-enactors can line up, fire blank shells and show us what the war was like.

Actually, the NPS doesn’t permit reenactments on its battlefields.  But don’t let the facts get in your way.

Enough is enough. We don’t glorify World War I or World War II or even the Revolutionary War, where we won our independence. It is only the Civil War that seems to excite us.

I hate to be the one to break this to you, dude, but they actually do commemorations at World War I, World War II, and Revolutionary War battlefields, too.

The Civil War is over. Let’s move on. The good earth was put here for us to use, not to glorify because one man killed another man at some particular spot.

Preserving historic battlegrounds doesn’t mean we’re “glorifying” war, any more than setting aside Auschwitz as a historic site means we’re glorifying genocide.  There’s a difference between commemoration and glorification, and I just don’t get some people’s inability to make that simple distinction.

But maybe I’m making too much out of a conflict that tore the nation apart, ended slavery, and cost hundreds of thousands of lives.  We could really do something about our national shortage of big-box stores and fast food franchises, if only we could develop some of that prime real estate all those Civil War soldiers were inconsiderate enough to die on.

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Why the dramatic license in ‘Sons of Liberty’ is a problem

Most people realize, when they’re watching a dramatic work based on some historical event, that they’re not getting a history lesson.  And by this point, I think it’s dawned on most viewers of The History Channel that their chances of seeing historically edifying programming on that network are comparable to their chances of seeing a beluga whale while vacationing in Montana.  Why, then, is the total disregard for accuracy in Sons of Liberty such a big deal?

It’s a big deal because a heck of a lot of people who watched Sons of Liberty while under the impression that they were having an educational experience.  This is not my assumption.  This is a fact.  I know this is the case because I was scrolling along on Twitter while I watched the miniseries, looking at tweets with the #SonsOfLiberty hashtag.  I saw a lot of tweets decrying the show’s misrepresentations, but I saw as many if not more tweets from people who were totally psyched about how much they were “learning,” about how they wished schools would screen the whole thing for students, about how they were getting more information out of the miniseries than they ever did in their history classes, and so on.

Actually, when I first wrote this post, I’d embedded a few dozen of these tweets to prove how pervasive this sense of the series as an educational experience really was.  Since it occurred to me that your average Twitter user probably doesn’t want some blogger to cite him as an example of somebody who mistakes entertainment for edification, however, I decided to leave them out.  So if you want to get a sense of what I’m talking about, just search Twitter for #SonsOfLiberty and the word “learning” or “school” and you’ll find plenty of examples.

It’s worth taking another look at the disclaimer on the series website:

SONS OF LIBERTY is a dramatic interpretation of events that sparked a revolution. It is historical fiction, not a documentary. The goal of our miniseries is to capture the spirit of the time, convey the personalities of the main characters, and focus on real events that have shaped our past. For historical information about the Sons of Liberty and the dawning of the American Revolution, please read the Historian’s View section on history.com/sons.

I’m glad for the statement the series is “historical fiction,” but the rest of the disclaimer’s language obscures more than it clarifies.  The series doesn’t “capture the spirit of the time” when it fundamentally misrepresents the nature of British authority in the period leading up to the war.  It doesn’t “convey the personalities of the main characters” when it depicts Hancock as a reluctant dweeb, Gage as a sadistic tyrant, and Sam Adams as a brooding young heartthrob.  And it certainly doesn’t “focus on real events that have shaped our past” when the sequences portraying these iconic events—the destruction of Hutchinson’s house, the Boston Tea Party, Revere’s ride, the firefight at Concord, and the Battle of Bunker Hill—bear little relation to what actually happened.

In fact, of all the iconic “high points” that figure in the series, I can’t think of a single one depicted accurately enough to be suitable for use even as a visual aid in a classroom.  Some historical films take liberties with chronology and characters, but at least have the virtue of providing a compelling and reasonably useful enactment of particular events.  I’m thinking of the siege of Ft. William Henry in Last of the Mohicans, the O.K. Corral shootout in Kasdan’s Wyatt Earp, and the final attack sequence in Glory.  But what point would there be in showing your students Sons of Liberty‘s take on Lexington Green when the whole thing seemingly takes place in a field in the middle of nowhere, with British officers torturing and executing wounded minutemen?  Or screening Paul Revere’s capture when he takes on a whole group of redcoats who have him at gunpoint, like Chuck Norris in a tricorn hat?  Or the Boston Tea Party scene, with Whigs decked out in Lord-of-the-Rings-style orc war paint?

If anything, the short notices aired during commercial breaks, in which The History Channel reminded viewers to log on to the show’s website for the facts behind the story, might have made the whole thing worse.  Viewers who visited the site might have gotten some useful information, but for the many who didn’t, the mini-commercials for the website only lent the whole thing an air of credibility it didn’t have.  Hey, if there’s a companion website with commentary from historical pundits, the show must be pretty legit, right?

Perhaps the liberties taken with the material wouldn’t trouble me so much if the show ran with a disclaimer at the top of every hour, reminding viewers that what they were seeing was fictionalized and only loosely based on real events and people.

In any case, the fact that so many Twitter users took the show as a learning experience indicates that The History Channel still carries an air of authority and authenticity, whether the network’s brass want it or not.  Since that’s the case, they really need to approach their (increasingly rare) historical programming more seriously.  If you want to be nothing but another TV network, fine.  But don’t pretend to be anything else.

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‘Sons of Liberty': Not much of the Sons, but plenty of liberties

Here’s how The History Channel describes their new miniseries: “SONS OF LIBERTY is a dramatic interpretation of events that sparked a revolution. It is historical fiction, not a documentary.”  That’s quite an understatement.  It’s like calling Godzilla a reptile of above-average stature.

I knew I was in for a doozy from the very start of last night’s first installment, when Samuel Adams escaped from a party of redcoats by bounding parkour-style across Boston’s rooftops.  No wonder they made him twenty years younger and thirty pounds lighter than his historical counterpart.  Can’t have the main character keeling over from cardiac arrest during a big chase sequence.  Hey, if video games have taught us anything, it’s that the eighteenth century was all about aerial stunts.

The History Channel claims that one of the show’s aims is to “convey the personalities of the main characters.”  If that’s true, they might want to head back to the drawing board.  The two main protagonists, Sam Adams and John Hancock, share little in common with the historical figures other than their names.

J.L. Bell has weighed in on the problems with Adams’ depiction at his blog.  As for Hancock, the miniseries portrays him as a dandy who’s quite uncomfortable walking into a tavern full of toughs.  The real Hancock was indeed a stupendously wealthy man, certainly no stranger to fine clothes, lavish parties, and good wine.  But he was also a man who, when informed that British regulars were en route to Lexington, brandished his gun and sword and swore up and down that he “would never turn my back on these troops.”  It took the entreaties of Sam Adams and Paul Revere to convince him to escape.

It was instructive—and a little depressing—to follow the Twitter hashtag #SonsOfLiberty during the premiere.  Most of the tweets I saw were pretty positive about the show.  There were plenty of remarks about how modern politicians could learn a thing or two by watching real ‘Murican patriots on TV.  I found these sentiments highly ironic, since the larger political issues surrounding the onset of the Revolution were actually absent from the first episode.

Instead, the miniseries emphasizes the personal aspects of the Whigs’ involvement.  Adams and Hancock aren’t motivated by abstract notions of rights and liberties.  They’ve got a beef with Hutchinson (promoted to governor in the first episode) over his meddling in their financial activities.  When the mob attacks Hutchinson’s house, they do so because he’s persecuting Adams, not because of the Stamp Act.  The premiere basically has the whole Revolution boiling down to a bunch of personal grudges.  Personal conflicts certainly played a role in the Revolution, but the show de-emphasizes principles to such an extent that I can’t fathom why so many back-to-the-founding folks tweeted enthusiastically about it.

Many tweets ran something like this: “Psyched about #SonsOfLiberty bc I’m such a total history nerd LOL!!!1!11!”  I hate to break it to you, kiddo, but if you were a “total history nerd,” you wouldn’t be so psyched about two hours of pure fiction.  You’d be reading Pauline Maier.

You could fill pages on the show’s historical discrepancies, both major and minor.  The chronology is hopelessly mangled.  John Adams’ house looks nothing like the real thing, nor does it bear any resemblance to any intact eighteenth-century home I’ve ever seen.  There’s far too much facial hair for the late 1700s.  Gen. Gage was already in America during the events depicted in the series.  You get the idea.  For a detailed breakdown, check out Thomas Verenna’s episode-by-episode critique.

I think the only thing the first installment really got right was the sense of tension and volatility in Revolutionary-era Boston, a place where the streets roiled with passion and violence, where officials were sitting on top of a volcano that could erupt in revolt at any minute.

If I disliked the first episode so much, I’ll be skipping the other two, right?  Yeah, I would…except I’ve always wanted to see Lexington and Concord on film.  It’s the prospect of a few well-executed battle sequences that will bring me back to the TV, in spite of my better judgment.  No doubt I’ll be disappointed, but not as disappointed as all those gals who watched the premiere will be when they do a Google Image search for Samuel Adams.

“Lllllllladies.” Wikimedia Commons

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The Battle of New Orleans on the big screen

From NOLA.com:

Two hundred years after the Battle of New Orleans was waged — earning it an eternal place in Louisiana history books and further burnishing Andrew Jackson’s reputation as one of America’s original action heroes — it is getting the Hollywood treatment.

In a ceremony timed to coincide with local bicentennial celebrations of the historic skirmish between American and British troops, fought in January 1814 as one of the closing salvos of the War of 1812, Hollywood producer Ken Atchity and brother Fred unveiled plans Friday (Jan. 9) for a major feature film about the battle’s place in history and Jackson’s role in it.

With a planned budget of $60 million to $65 million, the independently financed “Andrew Jackson and the Battle for New Orleans” is being targeted for a possible 2016 release, with shooting to begin as early as this summer. Envisioned by Ken Atchity as a sweeping action epic in the vein of 2000’s “The Patriot” and 1995’s Oscar-winning “Braveheart,” the film will be shot entirely within a 30-mile radius of New Orleans, he said.

A script for the film has been written, and while it will strive for historical accuracy, it will function as a mainstream Hollywood-style movie, not a “schoolroom movie.”

I’m really excited to see this happening, but as I’ve said before, what I’d really like to see is a sprawling, three-hour, Patton-esque Old Hickory biopic.  I’d start with a brief scene at the American lines on Jan. 8, 1815, zoom in on Jackson’s face as he scans the horizon for signs of the British, and then flashback to his boyhood injury at the hands of a redcoat officer during the Revolution.  Flash forward to the Dickinson duel and the run-up to the War of 1812, cover his Creek campaign, then New Orleans for the big climax.

Time permitting, I’d include the whole 1818 Florida imbroglio, and then cut to James Monroe and John Quincy Adams mulling it over and discussing the fact that the country hasn’t heard the last of Jackson…annnnd roll credits over some rousing military music.

Here’s an earlier Hollywood take on Jackson in New Orleans, with Charlton Heston as Old Hickory and Yul Brynner as Jean Lafitte in The Buccaneer (1958).  Heston was probably used to filling Jackson’s boots at that point, since he’d played the same role in The President’s Lady just a few years earlier.

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