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Game on: developing a historical sensibility in Westeros

Game of Thrones author George R.R. Martin put in an appearance at the 50th annual Balticon a few days ago:

Though Martin didn’t speak in detail about the books, he said the Vietnam War was part of what shaped his writing and the complexity of his characters.

“We have the capacity for great heroism. We have the capacity for great selfishness and cowardice, many horrible acts. And sometimes at the same time. The same people can do something heroic on Tuesday and something horrible on Wednesday,” he said. “Heroes commit atrocities. People who commit atrocities can be capable later of heroism. It’s the human condition, and I wanted to reflect all that in my work.”

I haven’t read any of Martin’s novels, but my cousin got me hooked on the TV series a couple of years ago when he loaned me the first two seasons on DVD.  I’ve never been much of a fantasy buff, but one night I decided I might as well watch the first episode to see what everybody was raving about online.  That first episode turned into another, and then another…and hours later, I was still perched in front of the TV.  There were aspects of the early seasons I found off-putting; I’m hardly a prude, but the nudity was gratuitous to the point of absurdity.  Still, it’s an undeniably riveting show, probably the best plotted series I’ve ever watched.

Quite a few current TV shows either have a historical setting or intersect somehow with the past’s people and places: Turn, Vikings, Reign, Call the Midwife, Sleepy Hollow, Houdini and Doyle.  But if you ask me, the makers of GoT display a more fully realized historical sensibility than the people behind any other TV series—or creators of many historical films and fiction, for that matter.  It might sound odd to use the term “historical sensibility” when describing a fantasy series set in a world that never existed, but I see two object lessons for historians and writers of historical fiction in GoT.

The first is the three-dimensionality of the characters, reflected in the Martin quote above.  As the series has developed, it’s become harder and harder to categorize GoT‘s characters as “good” or “bad.”  Except for a few outright scoundrels, most of the characters wear grey hats, rather than black or white ones.  Their motivations and their actions are as complex as those of any flesh-and-blood human being.  Even the most sympathetic characters are three-dimensional enough to retain some sense of complexity and fallibility.  And the show’s creators have managed to stir up some degree of sympathy for despicable characters who seemed all but beyond redemption in early seasons.

This knack for human complexity is indispensable for writers of history books, whether fiction or non-fiction.  History, after all, is ultimately the stuff of human existence.  It requires a degree of empathy with your subjects; you can’t male sense of people unless you can understand what drove them and crawl inside their skulls to see things as they saw them.  But historical writing also requires an ability to acknowledge a person’s faults and failures.  The historian must get inside his subjects’ heads, but simultaneously retain enough objectivity to be frank about their shortcomings.  This balance of empathy and aloofness is one of the most difficult of all historical skills to develop, especially in an age of social media and sound bites, when we’re all too prone to label historical figures as either heroes or villains and reduce them to simple caricatures.

The second reason I think GoT exhibits a sort of historical sensibility has to do with the notion of the past as a foreign country.  Consider that the makers of GoT face pretty much the same situation as producers of any historical drama.  They have to establish a world with which viewers are unfamiliar, one with its own cultures, customs, geography, politics, players, and backstories.  It’s not our world, and its inhabitants have little in common with us.  But effective drama also requires characters in whom an audience can become invested.  Fantasy thus requires storytellers to perform a balancing act.  On one hand, they have to create realms where so much is unfamiliar, and populate those realms with people who are so very different from us; on the other hand, they have to make us relate to that place and people.

Good historical fiction, I think, requires the same balancing act. When I read historical fiction or watch historical movies and TV shows, I want the stories to reflect that “foreignness.”  I don’t want people who differ from moderns only with regard to their clothes and hairstyles.  At the same time, however, great fiction taps into those deep, elemental aspects of the human condition that we can all relate to, regardless of the place or time in which we live.  That tension between particularity to a specific time and place on the one hand and the universality of the human condition on the other is hard to maintain, but I’m always in awe of how well the makers of GoT sustain it.  And it’s something many writers of historical non-fiction could stand to emulate as well.

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Selling humans in the Capitol’s shadow

This week I’ve been reading Steven Deyle’s Carry Me Back: The Domestic Slave Trade in American Life for one of my classes.  It’s one of the most engrossing books I’ve come across in grad school, and if you haven’t read it, I encourage you to put it on your list.

One of the topics Deyle addresses is the slave trade in Washington, D.C.  I knew slave traders were active in the District of Columbia until 1850, but I didn’t know (or I’d forgotten) that trading in human beings went on just a stone’s throw from the U.S. Capitol building.

One of the illustrations in Deyle’s book is a map from an anti-slavery broadside showing three of the largest pens where D.C. traders kept their merchandise.  The map places the slave house of Joseph Neal & Co. on Seventh Street near the southern edge of the National Mall.  That’s less than two-thirds of a mile from the Capitol.  Here’s a modern map of the Mall with a dropped pin near the site of Neal’s slave house.  The Capitol is on the right side of the image, the Washington Monument on the left:

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There were a couple of other large slave pens just a few blocks north, one of which belonged to a trader named William Williams.  Solomon Northup of 12 Years a Slave fame spent about two weeks imprisoned there after his kidnapping.  Here’s how he remembered Williams’s slave prison and the savage beating he endured there:

The light admitted through the open door enabled me to observe the room in which I was confined. It was about twelve feet square—the walls of solid masonry. The floor was of heavy plank. There was one small window, crossed with great iron bars, with an outside shutter, securely fastened.

An iron-bound door led into an adjoining cell, or vault, wholly destitute of windows, or any means of admitting light. The furniture of the room in which I was, consisted of the wooden bench on which I sat, an old-fashioned, dirty box stove, and besides these, in either cell, there was neither bed, nor blanket, nor any other thing whatever. The door, through which Burch [James H. Birch, the D.C. slave trader who purchased Northup from his kidnappers] and Radburn entered, led through a small passage, up a flight of steps into a yard, surrounded by a brick wall ten or twelve feet high, immediately in rear of a building of the same width as itself. The yard extended rearward from the house about thirty feet. In one part of the wall there was a strongly ironed door, opening into a narrow, covered passage, leading along one side of the house into the street. The doom of the colored man, upon whom the door leading out of that narrow passage closed, was sealed. The top of the wall supported one end of a roof, which ascended inwards, forming a kind of open shed. Underneath the roof there was a crazy loft all round, where slaves, if so disposed, might sleep at night, or in inclement weather seek shelter from the storm. It was like a farmer’s barnyard in most respects, save it was so constructed that the outside world could never see the human cattle that were herded there.

The building to which the yard was attached, was two stories high, fronting on one of the public streets of Washington. Its outside presented only the appearance of a quiet private residence. A stranger looking at it, would never have dreamed of its execrable uses. Strange as it may seem, within plain sight of this same house, looking down from its commanding height upon it, was the Capitol. The voices of patriotic representatives boasting of freedom and equality, and the rattling of the poor slave’s chains, almost commingled. A slave pen within the very shadow of the Capitol!

Such is a correct description as it was in 1841, of Williams’ slave pen in Washington, in one of the cellars of which I found myself so unaccountably confined.

“Well, my boy, how do you feel now?” said Burch, as he entered through the open door. I replied that I was sick, and inquired the cause of my imprisonment. He answered that I was his slave— that he had bought me, and that he was about to send me to New-Orleans. I asserted, aloud and boldly, that I was a freeman—a resident of Saratoga, where I had a wife and children, who were also free, and that my name was Northup. I complained bitterly of the strange treatment I had received, and threatened, upon my liberation, to have satisfaction for the wrong. He denied that I was free, and with an emphatic oath, declared that I came from Georgia. Again and again I asserted I was no man’s slave, and insisted upon his taking off my chains at once. He endeavored to hush me, as if he feared my voice would be overheard. But I would not be silent, and denounced the authors of my imprisonment, whoever they might be, as unmitigated villains. Finding he could not quiet me, he flew into a towering passion. With blasphemous oaths, he called me a black liar, a runaway from Georgia, and every other profane and vulgar epithet that the most indecent fancy could conceive.

During this time Radburn was standing silently by. His business was, to oversee this human, or rather inhuman stable, receiving slaves, feeding, and whipping them, at the rate of two shillings a head per day. Turning to him, Burch ordered the paddle and cat-o’-ninetails to be brought in. He disappeared, and in a few moments returned with these instruments of torture. The paddle, as it is termed in slave-beating parlance, or at least the one with which I first became acquainted, and of which I now speak, was a piece of hard-wood board, eighteen or twenty inches long, moulded to the shape of an old-fashioned pudding stick, or ordinary oar The flattened portion, which was about the size in circumference of two open hands, was bored with a small auger in numerous places. The cat was a large rope of many strands— the strands unraveled, and a knot tied at the extremity of each.

As soon as these formidable whips appeared, I was seized by both of them, and roughly divested of my clothing. My feet, as has been stated, were fastened to the floor. Drawing me over the bench, face downwards, Radburn placed his heavy foot upon the fetters, between my wrists, holding them painfully to the floor. With the paddle, Burch commenced beating me. Blow after blow was inflicted upon my naked body. When his unrelenting arm grew tired, he stopped and asked if I still insisted I was a free man. I did insist upon it, and then the blows were renewed, faster and more energetically, if possible, than before. When again tired, he would repeat the same question, and receiving the same answer, continue his cruel labor. All this time, the incarnate devil was uttering most fiendish oaths. At length the paddle broke, leaving the useless handle in his hand. Still I would not yield. All his brutal blows could not force from my lips the foul lie that I was a slave. Casting madly on the floor the handle of the broken paddle, he seized the rope. This was far more painful than the other. I struggled with all my power, but it was in vain. I prayed for mercy, but my prayer was only answered with imprecations and with stripes. I thought I must die beneath the lashes of the accursed brute. Even now the flesh crawls upon my bones, as I recall the scene. I was all on fire. My sufferings I can compare to nothing else than the burning agonies of hell!

At last I became silent to his repeated questions. I would make no reply. In fact, I was becoming almost unable to speak. Still he plied the lash without stint upon my poor body, until it seemed that the lacerated flesh was stripped from my bones at every stroke. A man with a particle of mercy in his soul would not have beaten even a dog so cruelly. At length Radburn said that it was useless to whip me any more—that I would be sore enough. Thereupon Burch desisted, saying, with an admonitory shake of his fist in my face, and hissing the words through his firm-set teeth, that if ever I dared to utter again that I was entitled to my freedom, that I had been kidnapped, or any thing whatever of the kind, the castigation I had just received was nothing in comparison with what would follow. He swore that he would either conquer or kill me. With these consolatory words, the fetters were taken from my wrists, my feet still remaining fastened to the ring; the shutter of the little barred window, which had been opened, was again closed, and going out, locking the great door behind them, I was left in darkness as before.

For more info on the slave trade in Washington, D.C., check out Mary Beth Corrigan’s article in Washington History and this piece from the National Archives.

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Help out a family from my hometown

Via one of the local TV stations, I just found out that a nine-year-old boy from my hometown died in a tragic accident over the weekend.  His mom has donated her son’s organs, turning this tremendous loss into an opportunity to offer life to somebody else.  If you’d like to do a good deed for a grieving family, you can help out with medical and funeral expenses by donating to their GoFundMe page.

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When the legend becomes Wikipedia, print the legend

I was at the grocery store the other day and ran across Bill O’Reilly’s Legends & Lies: The Real West, the companion volume to the ten-part TV series.  O’Reilly’s name is in the title, but the cover lists David Fisher as writer, so I’m assuming Fisher did the heavy lifting.  Anyway, it’s selling like crazy.

Nobody in their right mind should expect a glossy, heavily illustrated TV companion book to be a model of scholarly rigor.  But it looks like O’Reilly/Fisher really phoned this one in, even by the lackadaisical standards of pop history.

Check this out (sorry about the pic quality; snapped this on my phone in the store):

Yep, that’s Wikipedia on a list of “especially trustworthy” websites.  Wikipedia, for crying out loud.

Now you can all rest easier, knowing that your kids’ middle school research papers meet the same benchmarks as bestselling history books.

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Can academic historians get writer’s block?

Not long ago I finished reading Paul Silvia’s How to Write a Lot: A Practical Guide to Productive Academic Writing for one of my classes.  Silvia is a psychologist, and some of the book is aimed specifically at people working in that discipline, but I’d recommend it to anybody who has trouble cranking out the theses, dissertations, journal articles, and books on which our livelihood supposedly depends.

There is, however, one passage of the book with which I take issue.  It’s the part about writer’s block.  Silvia doesn’t believe in it, at least as far as academic writers are concerned (p. 45):

Academic writers cannot get writer’s block.  Don’t confuse yourself with your friends teaching creative writing in the fine arts department.  You’re not crafting a deep narrative or composing metaphors that expose mysteries of the human heart.  The subtlety of your analysis of variance will not move readers to tears, although the tediousness of it might.  People will not photocopy your reference list and pass it out to friends whom they wish to inspire.  Novelists and poets are the landscape artists and portrait painters; academic writers are the people with big paint sprayers who repaint your basement.

Writer’s block, he says, just means you’re not writing.  All you need to do is start.  It sounds pretty straightforward.  In my experience, alas, that’s not how it works.  I think we’ve all had those occasions where we’re sitting in front of the computer, ready and willing, but the words and ideas just wouldn’t come.

Academic writers have to figure out how to articulate complex ideas and abstract concepts, tie them together, organize them, and present them persuasively.  We write to solve problems and to explain to others how we’ve arrived at our solutions.  You can’t do that without a little inspiration.  You can’t even come up with the problems themselves without inspiration, without a certain spark of creativity and insight that isn’t always forthcoming.

We might not be artists, but successful writers of any sort need something to say, and they need to know how to say it.  That sort of thing isn’t always on tap, even when you’ve got the discipline to sit down at a keyboard.

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The Battle of New Orleans on the big screen


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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Should history books cost an arm and a leg?

Over at the always-interesting Boston 1775 blog, J.L. Bell draws our attention to an interesting new title on gossip in American history.  Unfortunately, as he notes, a copy of the book will set you back nearly a hundred bucks.

Hefty price tags aren’t unusual when it comes to academic books.  Many university press hardcovers cost upwards of forty dollars.  If you’re only going to sell a few copies of a book to large research libraries, it makes sense to slap a high price on each copy.

But what about readers who want copies of these pricey academic books?  Many of them are probably going to be academics themselves, and they can get a free book from a journal looking for a review or a complimentary desk copy from publishers who want to sell to students.  Other potential readers—grad students, bloggers, independent scholars, reenactors, and history buffs—will either have to cough up some serious dough or wait for copies to start showing up in used bookstores or on Ebay.

One of my professors refuses to submit her manuscripts to one very prominent academic publisher because their books are so expensive.  She feels an obligation to make her work accessible and useful to people beyond the academy.

If your primary concern is writing for an academic audience, or if publication is just a means to some professional end (job, tenure, promotion, accolades), then you can afford to be unconcerned about your book’s cost. But I think it’s worth asking whether historians have an obligation to do whatever they can to ensure that interested lay readers can afford their books.

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