Category Archives: History and Memory

“To give the truth of the thing”

After months of anticipation, I finally got to see Ron Howard’s In the Heart of the Sea on Thursday night.  The great age of Yankee whaling has always fascinated me, and the 1820 tragedy of the whaleship Essex is the stuff of which great movies are made, so I was really looking forward to this one.  Unfortunately, I left the theater feeling a little let down.

Part of the problem is the fact that the filmmakers fumble the ball when it comes to the very aspects of the story that have the most dramatic potential.  It’s almost as if Howard and company lose interest in their own movie once that malevolent sperm whale rams the Essex and sends it to the bottom of the Pacific.

It was that event which inspired the climax of Melville’s Moby-Dick, but what was the ending of Ishmael’s fictional adventure was only the beginning of the Essex crew’s months-long ordeal of exposure, starvation, despair, cannibalism, and (for nearly two-thirds of them) eventual death.  Curiously, though, the film gives the crew’s experiences after the sinking an almost cursory treatment.  It’s like reading a CliffsNotes version of Nathaniel Philbrick’s book: the story’s highlights are there, but there’s no heart.

But the main thing that irked me about the film is its treatment of the relationship between history and myth.  Putting this into words requires dropping quite a few spoilers, so read what follows at your own risk if you’re planning on seeing the movie (which I still recommend, despite my disappointment with it).

The marketing for the movie really hammered the connection between the Essex tragedy and Melville’s novel.  BASED ON THE INCREDIBLE TRUE STORY THAT INSPIRED MOBY-DICK, the posters proclaimed.  It’s not a bad PR move to link the film with such an instantly recognizable title.

And anybody who glanced at the cast list on IMDB before the movie’s release would’ve known that the Moby-Dick angle would come up in the film, since Melville is one of the characters (portrayed by Ben Whishaw, the same actor who plays Q in the new Bond movies).

The historical Melville did indeed cross paths with a few people who had close ties to the Essex tragedy.  While at sea as a crew member of the whaler Acushnet, he met the son of Owen Chase, first mate on the Essex‘s final voyage and the main character in Howard’s movie.  William Chase loaned Melville a copy of his father’s published account of the disaster; Melville recalled that reading it “had a surprising effect upon me,” and he included a quote from it in the “Extracts” at the beginning of Moby-Dick.   Years later, after his novel’s publication, Melville visited the Essex‘s home port of Nantucket and met the ill-fated ship’s captain, George Pollard.

Thomas Nickerson’s sketch of the whale’s attack on the Essex. Nantucket Historical Association via Wikimedia Commons

These incidents apparently weren’t sufficient for the makers of In the Heart of the Sea.  Rather than having Melville meet Chase’s son during a gam or Captain Pollard after Moby-Dick‘s publication, the movie has a fictional framing device in which Melville travels to Nantucket while working on his book to interview Thomas Nickerson, the Essex‘s former cabin boy.  In the film, the aged Nickerson has refused to speak of the tragedy to anyone.  He reluctantly agrees to tell his story to Melville only because his wife persuades him that they need the money.

As I’ve said before, I don’t mind dramatic license in historical movies when it’s used to good effect, but it irks me when filmmakers substitute a fictional episode for the truth when the truth would serve just as well.  I think that’s the case with the movie’s fictional meeting between Melville and Nickerson.

Is the notion of Melville hearing the tale from Nickerson any more dramatic than what actually happened, when the young would-be writer read a copy of Chase’s account given to him by the first mate’s own son, aboard a whaler, and (as Melville himself recalled) “so close to the very latitude of the shipwreck” itself?  I don’t see how the movie’s fictional framing device is an improvement.  In fact, since Chase is the film’s protagonist, it makes more sense to tell the story from his perspective rather than Nickerson’s, although the former cabin boy later wrote his own account of the disaster.

And while the fictional Nickerson-Melville interview provides many poignant moments, surely Melville’s actual encounter with Captain Pollard was just as poignant as anything the filmmakers could have contrived, if not more so.  By the time Melville met Pollard, the former whaling master was a broken man.  On his next voyage after the Essex tragedy he captained a ship that ran aground and sank off Hawaii.*  Marked as a cursed man, he never took command of a whaling ship again.  He spent his last years as Nantucket’s night watchman.  “To the islanders he was a nobody,” Melville wrote of the aged captain.  “To me, the most impressive man, tho’ wholly unassuming, even humble—that I ever encountered.”

Even more puzzling to me was another bit of dramatic license.  The filmmakers evidently decided that “the incredible true story that inspired Moby-Dick” needed to include Moby Dick himself.

In the film, the Essex hits a dry spell in which their prey is scarce; frustrated, the captain and mates stop over in South America, where they meet a group of fellow whalers who have come from an area in the southern Pacific swarming with sperm whales.  But the other crew also warns them that a malevolent white whale is also prowling those waters.  Undaunted, Pollard and his crew strike out, only to come face-to-face with the mottled white whale himself—the very whale, as it turns out, who rams the Essex and dooms her crew to their long ordeal on the open sea.  The mottled whale reappears periodically throughout the movie, apparently pursuing the stranded crew across hundreds of miles of ocean for reasons that are never clear.  The overall effect is to turn what was already a gripping story of survival into something like Jaws—or perhaps the 1977 film Orca, in which Richard Harris does battle with a killer whale out for revenge against the man who killed its mate.

There really was a historical white whale nicknamed Mocha Dick who acquired a fearsome reputation around the waters off South America in the early 1800s.  That was another source of inspiration for Melville.  But since the movie touts itself as the “incredible true story” behind Moby-Dick, why re-fictionalize the Essex tragedy by adding in the very same elements that Melville did?  The film promises us the kernel of historical truth behind a great work of fiction, only to obscure that truth behind fictional embellishments taken from the novel.  It seems like a horribly unnecessary step backward.

Surely the most compelling thing about the story behind In the Heart of the Sea is the fact that it’s a true story.  That awesome climax of Melville’s novel really did happen; an enraged leviathan really did send a whaling ship to the bottom of the sea, setting off an ordeal of death, despair, and survival that is remarkable enough on its own without any dramatic license.

I think the filmmakers’ liberties with the Essex story reflect something about the relationship between history, drama, and memory more generally.  Some historical incidents and figures acquire cultural significance when talented writers and filmmakers come along and embellish them, turning them into stories that move people in a way that only great fiction or drama can.  And because the stories move people so deeply, they often want to get at the truth behind them, if only to come as close as possible to touching those fictional characters.  Thus historic sites linked to these embellished stories play up those links in their marketing; likewise for non-fiction books that promise to tell the true stories behind some legend, novel, or popular movie.  But often, when people finally encounter the historical truth behind those stories and characters they love, that truth only disappoints them.  The reason is because great stories rarely just happen.  Great storytellers know how to glean bits of truth from the world around them and remake them into something meaningful by means of their own imaginations.

Melville had that magic touch.  The wreck of the Essex gave him the spectacular ending to the story he wanted to tell.  But the Essex tragedy is one of those rare instances where the truth is just as dramatic and compelling as what the storyteller made of it.  That, I think, is what the filmmakers lost sight of.  We’ve already got Moby-Dick; we didn’t need another fictionalized take on the Essex.  The “incredible true story” on its own would have been…well, incredible.

That’s not to say that all dramatic license is off-limits when making historical movies.  To spin a good yarn, it’s necessary to (as Melville himself put it) “throw in a little fancy.”  But even while writing his novel, he claimed that he aimed “to give the truth of the thing, spite of this.”  I had hoped the filmmakers would “give the truth of the thing” when I sat down to watch In the Heart of the Sea.  Instead, it seems they took the advice of the newsman in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance: Melville’s legend became fact, so they filmed the legend.

*A few years ago, NOAA archaeologists found the remains of this ship, the first discovery of a sunken Nantucket whaler.

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Would a monument cure America’s slavery amnesia?

Blain Roberts and Ethan Kytle call for a national monument to slavery in an op-ed for The New York Times:

White Americans have long used monuments to propagate a flawed understanding of slavery and its role in the Civil War. When Charlestonians raised a memorial to the South Carolina statesman John C. Calhoun in 1896, they praised his dedication to truth, justice and the Constitution — ignoring his devotion to slavery, which he famously called “a positive good.”

Hundreds of similar monuments convinced generations of white Southerners, and others, that the Confederacy had gone to war to defend states’ rights, liberty and the Southern way of life. Anything but slavery.

Rather than relegating slavery to the margins of memory, we must place it front and center. Decades ago, scholars demolished claims that slavery did not cause the Civil War and debunked fairy tales about faithful slaves and doting masters. New research has gone further, exposing how American capitalism and democracy — once thought to be antithetical to slavery — emerged hand-in-hand with it.

Our nation’s capital is replete with memorials to presidents and veterans. Why not raise a slave monument alongside them? Congress actually entertained the idea in 2003, when the National Slave Memorial Act was introduced, but ultimately authorized the Smithsonian Museum of African American History and Culture instead.

There seem to be two impulses at work here, one commemorative and the other pedagogical.  I think a national monument to slavery would only address the former.

Monuments are great if you want to commemorate and pay tribute.  They constitute a visible, public statement about what a community thinks is important about its past.

As educational devices, though, monuments aren’t exactly the most effective instruments.  If the aim is to counter mythical Lost Cause narratives or to propagate knowledge about the links between slavery, democracy, and capitalism, then the sort of sustained and serious public history effort we can expect from the NMAAHC will do far, far more good than a memorial on the National Mall.

I hasten to add that I don’t think a national slavery monument is a bad idea.  I just don’t think it would address the issues regarding public understanding of the history of slavery that Roberts and Kytle have identified.

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Greene Co. repudiates the Confederacy…again

Like much of the rest of East Tennessee, Greene County was heavily Unionist during the Civil War.  When the state held a secession referendum in June 1861, 78.3% of voters from Greene County opposed leaving the Union.

Indeed, one Greene County resident became the most prominent Southern Unionist in the nation.  Andrew Johnson—the only Southern senator to remain loyal to the U.S., military governor of Union-occupied Tennessee, and Lincoln’s second running mate—started his political career in Greeneville, and his home and grave are still there.

These are just a few of the reasons why County Commissioner James Randolph’s recent proposal to fly the Confederate battle flag at the courthouse made absolutely no sense.

He wants to see the Confederate flag displayed at the courthouse as a “historic exhibit,” his resolution states.

The resolution also states that the flag should be displayed to honor Tennesseans who fought for the Confederacy and that the flag represents “heritage and history that our county should be proud of.”

The Confederate flag’s display has proven to be a divisive issue, as some say it represents history and heritage while others see it as representative of slavery and oppression.

Randolph previously said in an interview with The Greeneville Sun that the State of South Carolina’s removal of the flag from its state capitol provoked him to propose the resolution.

Just so we’re clear here: Randolph thought it would be a good idea to fly the Confederate flag…

  1. at a courthouse
  2. where there was no traditional display of the flag
  3. to reflect pride in the history of a county whose residents were overwhelmingly opposed to secession in 1861
  4. and which boasts an outspoken Southern Unionist—Lincoln’s second VP, for crying out loud—as a native son
  5. in the wake of a massive groundswell of opposition to the display of Confederate symbols in public spaces

Little wonder that when Randolph’s fellow county commissioners got together to vote on his resolution a few hours ago, they roundly rejected it.  In fact, the proposal received twenty negative votes, with just one in favor.  (The “yea” vote, natch, was Randolph’s.)  That’s even worse than Greene Co. Confederates’ showing in the ’61 referendum.

Of course, what people in the rest of the country will take away from this episode isn’t the commission’s 20-1 vote against Randolph’s resolution, but the fact that somebody made the resolution to begin with.  And that’ll suffice to confirm every ignorant stereotype they have about East Tennessee in particular and the South in general.

I am so, so, so sick of these kerfuffles over the memory of the Civil War.

Greeneville, TN. By Casey Nicholson (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

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Filed under Appalachian History, Civil War, History and Memory, Tennessee History

A few Civil War updates

A few items relating to the Civil War and the ways we remember it caught my attention lately.

First up, when Pope Francis visits Philadelphia, he’ll be speaking behind the same podium Lincoln used to deliver the Gettysburg Address.  Right now it’s at the city’s Union League for safekeeping.

By the way, the Union League is worth a visit if you’re ever in Philly.  As Dimitri Rotov noted recently, it’s got a fine collection of Civil War art and memorabilia.  I got to spend some time there a few years ago on a business trip (one of the perks of working for a Civil War museum is traveling to neat places for work), and it’s a fantastic building to wander around in if you’re a history buff.

Second item: an opera based on Cold Mountain just premiered in Santa Fe.  Seems like a suitably operatic subject, but I doubt they’ve found a way to pull off the Battle of the Crater inside an auditorium.

Third, it looks like Jefferson Davis will be staying in the Kentucky Capitol for the foreseeable future.  The state’s Historic Properties Advisory Commission voted to keep the Davis statue while adding some “educational context.”  As I’ve said before, I think leaving historic monuments intact while providing some interpretation to put them in their context is the best course of action in these situations.

One thing that really surprised me about the Davis issue was the reaction among black Kentuckians.  In one poll, they were pretty evenly split between support for keeping the statue (42%) and support for removing it (43%).  The percentage of black Kentuckians in favor of keeping the statue was much lower than that for whites (75%), but still a lot higher than I would’ve expected.

Reflecting Kentucky’s Civil War divisions, the Davis statue shares the Capitol with a likeness of the state’s other wartime president, Abraham Lincoln.

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Appalachia and the atom bomb

Today we mark a noteworthy anniversary in the history of the world—and in the history of Appalachia, although I don’t think we really associate the two as we should.

Lots of people know that the enriched uranium in “Little Boy,” the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima seventy years ago, came from the Y-12 plant at Oak Ridge here in East Tennessee.  At the very least, they know that Oak Ridge was involved somehow in the Manhattan Project.  But while plenty of people know of East Tennessee’s connection to the atomic bombing, I suspect they don’t really “get” it.  “Appalachia” connotes backwardness; people think of the mountains as a place of log cabins and hardscrabble farms, not the advent of the atomic age.

Even here in East Tennessee, it seems to me that we tend to see Oak Ridge’s wartime experience as somehow set apart from the rest of our history, as a kind of singular, brief moment in time when we suddenly became relevant before slipping back out of the mainstream.  Because we’ve let ourselves be convinced of our isolation and exceptionalism, we don’t really “own” this instance that proves how wrong those notions of isolation and exceptionalism are.  But Oak Ridge’s history, and thus the history of the atomic bomb and the world it made and unmade, is a part of Appalachian history.

Part of the job of Appalachian historians, I think, is to figure out how to integrate these aspects of the region’s past that don’t fit people’s expectations into a more comprehensive narrative.  Maybe this would help erode some of the simplistic stereotypes that continue to define popular notions of what the region is, and what it isn’t.  East Tennessee’s role in the creation of the atomic bomb might be a good entry point for this sort of thing, but that won’t happen as long as we see it as some singular development in the region’s history that has little to do with the rest of it.

With that out of the way, here are some links in recognition of what happened seventy years ago today.

Shift change at Y-12 in 1945. Department of Energy via Wikimedia Commons

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Battle flag backlash?

Something really unusual happened this afternoon.  I was headed back to my apartment when I met a pickup truck going the other direction with two ginormous banners fluttering from its back: Old Glory and a Confederate battle flag.  I’ve been running around Knoxville for a few decades now, but that was a first.

Come to think of it, I’ve basically spent my entire life in the South, and that was probably only the second or third pickup truck flying a ginormous Confederate flag I’ve ever seen, period.  People whose knowledge of the South is limited to pop culture and what they get from the news probably assume that pickup trucks flying big Confederate flags are ubiquitous down here, but my experience has been otherwise.  Pickups decked out with Confederate flag bumper stickers, novelty plates, decals, and the the like aren’t that uncommon, I guess, but huge, in-your-face flags on poles mounted in the bed are another matter entirely, especially in an urban setting like Knoxville.  Yet today somebody was driving around town with a pretty big Confederate flag flapping in the wind, in the midst of a national debate over that flag’s display.

Of course, one such sighting doesn’t amount to much, but there are other indications that the Confederate flag is becoming really popular all of a sudden.  I’ve always said that most southerners I know are neither strongly in favor of nor strongly opposed to the flag.  It’s just not the sort of thing that comes up in the day-to-day lives of most people.  It would therefore be really ironic if the recent groundswell of support for taking the flag down only ended up prompting a backlash, reversing what would have otherwise been the continuation of a long, slow, gradual decline in regional attachment to Confederate iconography.

Or maybe the uptick in sales noted in the article linked above is just so much statistical noise against a general backdrop of indifference or hostility to the flag on a regional or national scale.  Your guess is as good as mine.

In any case, my question for people who are suddenly rushing to defend southern heritage by buying Confederate flag merch is the same as it was a few days ago.  Wouldn’t southern heritage be better served if you devoted that energy and money to preserving historic sites and objects?

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Flags, monuments, and a proposal for proponents of Confederate heritage

While I was on the road the past couple of weeks, a heck of a brouhaha erupted over historical memory, specifically the place of the Confederate flag, Confederate monuments, and the Confederacy generally in contemporary American life.

I was getting snippets of all the arguments on Twitter, but I didn’t really have time to make my usual rounds of the historical blogosphere.  In fact, over the last few weeks, I haven’t been thinking about American history or historical memory as much as I usually do.  Instead, I’ve been enjoying the company of old friends, gorging on good food, visiting places oriented toward non-historical subjects, and going to the movies.  (Well, I’ve actually been going to the same movie, over and over again.)

To tell you the truth, I was pretty glad I had other things to distract me, mostly because I was already weary of the whole thing as soon as I got wind of it.  If you follow the intersections of history, politics, culture, and current events long enough, then you can usually predict the lines along which arguments of this sort are going to run.

The only thing that’s surprised me about this latest Confederacy kerfuffle has been the speed at which it became so widespread.  Usually these debates play out within the context of one particular town or organization trying to figure out what to do with a monument or a flagpole, and the only people who take an interest are the local media, a few heritage groups, and those of us who blog about historical stuff.  With this round, though, it seems like everybody’s in the fray.

Well, for whatever it’s worth, here’s my take.

I think it’s perfectly reasonable to be uncomfortable about seeing a Confederate battle flag on the grounds of a state capitol, or any other space where it’s implied that a sitting government is wholeheartedly endorsing the ideals on which the Confederacy was founded.  The secessionists were quite explicit about why they were doing what they did, and they did it because they felt slavery was threatened if they remained in the Union.  Slavery was simply the Confederacy’s raison d’être.

This is not to say that every Confederate soldier enlisted or fought to uphold slavery, still less that the desire to preserve slavery and white supremacy lay behind every thought and action of white southerners in the Civil War era.  Nor is it to say that descendants of Confederate soldiers have no business remembering and honoring their ancestors.  But it is to say that without slavery, there would have been no Confederacy.

It is therefore not at all inappropriate to keep statehouse flagpoles Confederate flag-free.

Am I, then, opposed to the display of Confederate flags in any context other than the exhibition of artifacts in museums?  No, I’m not.  I don’t see anything wrong with using the battle flag to decorate the graves of Confederate soldiers, or in certain other commemorative settings.  Indeed, I thought the W&L students’ demand to remove the flags from Lee Chapel was a bit much, and I said so at the time.

Nor do I agree with every position that supporters of Confederate de-flagging have taken in the recent brouhaha.  As a preservationist, I’m generally opposed to moving longstanding Confederate monuments.  To me, monuments are more of a historic preservation issue than anything else.  We maintain old structures and works of public art because they have intrinsic historic value, not because we agree with the statements made by their creators.

I think my opinion on old Confederate monuments squares up pretty well with Andy Hall’s post from yesterday, which I heartily commend to your attention:

While I adamantly support the authority of local governments to make these decisions, I’m not sure that a reflexive decision to remove them is always the best way of addressing the problems we all face together. Monuments are not “history,” as some folks seem to believe, but they are are historic artifacts in their own right, and like a regimental flag or a dress or a letter, they can tell us a great deal about the people who created them, and the efforts they went to to craft and tell a particular story.

I think we need to be done, done, with governmental sanction of the Confederacy, and particularly public-property displays that look suspiciously like pronouncements of Confederate sovereignty. The time for that ended approximately 150 years ago. But wholesale scrubbing of the landscape doesn’t really help, either, if the goal is to have a more honest discussion about race and the history of this country. I’m all for having that discussion, but experience tells me that it probably won’t happen. It’s much easier to score points by railing against easy and inanimate targets.

Furthermore, I’ll go ahead and state that I think some of the actions taken in response to this latest round of controversy have been downright asinine.  Banning Civil War video games because the pixelated Confederates are carrying Confederate flags?  That was like something out of The Onion.  (What are video game Confederate troops supposed to carry?  A banner with the Cobra emblem?)

I’ll also happily go on record to denounce vandalism aimed at historic monuments in all cases whatsoever.  It’s not that I don’t understand why these monuments can still arouse strong feelings.  It’s just that, as a preservationist, I cannot get behind any effort to deface historic structures, property, or artworks.

But, as I said, I think it’s eminently reasonable to remove the Confederate flag from state capitols.  And to self-professed defenders of Confederate heritage who are rushing to keep those flags flying, to set up new flags on private property, or to buy up Confederate flag merchandise just to prove a point, I have a proposal.  It echoes an argument I made on this blog five years ago.

Why not direct that energy and money elsewhere and really preserve some heritage?  Instead of defending reproduction flags and buying Confederate emblem merch, use your time and money to preserve actual Civil War land and artifacts.

Sure, you can start a petition urging legislators to keep a piece of synthetic fabric flying from a pole on the statehouse grounds…or you can start a petition urging them to pass legislation keeping historic ground intact, and to fund the facilities where actual relics are conserved and treated.

You can spend thousands of dollars setting up ginormous Confederate flags on private land just to give de-flaggers the middle finger…or you can give that money to an organization that will purchase endangered battlefield land where real Civil War soldiers fought and died.

You can hold a rally to demand that a historic symbol be displayed out of reach and free of any context whatsoever…or you can support museums and archives where genuine historic artifacts are kept in stewardship for all of us and our descendants to enjoy.

Let me submit that the stuff of “heritage” isn’t flying from a modern flagpole or emblazoned on the roof of a toy car.  It’s on battlefield land that’s threatened by development, and it’s sitting in underfunded museums and archives that need money to keep it in intact.

As someone born and raised in the South—someone who loves the South and the people who live here, someone would not live anywhere else—I’d much rather see our historic sites and artifacts preserved so that Americans of all ages, sections, races, backgrounds, and political persuasions can enjoy them and learn from them than see a reproduction flag hanging from a pole.

Wouldn’t you rather rally to keep the real, raw material of history around?

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