Crossing into euphoria

Greetings from Washington Crossing, PA!  I’ve settled in for my fellowship here at the David Library of the American Revolution, and I’m blissfully happy.  If there’s a perfect place to do research, I think I’ve found it.

What makes the DLAR exceptional is the concentration of material.  Rather than making a half-dozen trips to far-flung repositories, you can sit under one roof with thousands of books and microfilm reels at your fingertips.

I’m especially lucky to be here while the library is hosting a series of lectures by former fellows.  On Wednesday Holger Hook discussed his new book on violence in the Revolution, which I think will be an important corrective to the notion of a restrained, limited War of Independence.  Next week we’ll hear from Judith L. Van. Buskirk, who will talk about her work on African American soldiers.

Since there are so many important Rev War sites within an hour’s drive—and one just a mile down the road—I’m hoping to do a little historical touring while I’m here.  For now, though, it’s time to dive back into this incomparable collection.

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Filed under American Revolution, Research and Writing

The past isn’t a foreign country in ‘Wonder Woman’

Everybody seems to love the new Wonder Woman movie.  There’s quite a bit that I like about it myself, especially the depiction of Diana’s personality.  And it’s nice to see a DC movie where the atmosphere isn’t so gloomy—the literal, physical atmosphere as well as the mood, I mean.  

One thing that irks me, though, is the movie’s sense of history.  It doesn’t have one.

Gal Gadot and Chris Pine, the stars of ‘Wonder Woman,’ at the 2016 San Diego Comic Con. By Gage Skidmore from Peoria, AZ, United States of America (Gal Gadot & Chris Pine) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Wonder Woman made her comics debut in 1941, a couple of months before America’s entry into World War II.  But the movie takes place near the end of the First World War, with strategists and politicians on both sides expecting an imminent armistice.  When Steve Trevor crashes into the waters off Themyscira, he’s fleeing the kaiser’s men rather than the Führer’s.  I’m not sure why the filmmakers opted for a WWI origin; maybe they wanted to distinguish their movie from Captain America: The First Avenger.

A couple of decades may not seem like a big shift, but there’s a world of difference between 1918 and 1941.  Any time traveler from 2017 would experience much more profound culture shock in the WWI era than the WWII one.  I’m not just referring to the external conditions of people’s lives, like technology and clothing, but also to the internal conditions: the ways that people of different classes, genders, and other categories conceived of themselves and related to one another.

The 1910s were much less recognizably modern than the 1940s, and much more “foreign” from the standpoint of the present day.  There’s little sense of this “foreignness” in Wonder Woman other than the hairstyles and costumes.  For a movie set a century ago, it’s notably ahistorical.  This is especially true of Steve Trevor himself.  None of his dialogue or his characterization would be inappropriate for an airman/intelligence officer of WWII.  For that matter, none of it would be out of place for a man of our own time.  

It’s interesting to contrast Wonder Woman‘s Trevor with the characters in another movie released this year, The Lost City of Z.  Portions of that film take place during WWI; in fact, both Wonder Woman and Lost City have battle sequences in which troops go over the top and into the hellscape of no man’s land.  But while Trevor is more or less interchangeable with a twenty-first-century American, Lost City‘s Percy Fawcett is very much a man of his time and class.  Indeed, the mores of the Edwardian British upper class figure in Lost City‘s plot.  Fawcett’s questionable family background hampers his advancement. It’s the story of a time and place when pedigree mattered a great deal.  Its characters’ attitudes and outlooks are distinct from our own.  Wonder Woman‘s Steve Trevor, by contrast, could be your next-door neighbor.

What’s especially curious is that the makers of Wonder Woman seem pretty uninterested in exploiting their period’s special relevance to everything that makes their title character singular.  Wonder Woman posed quite a challenge to prevailing attitudes about femininity in 1941, but imagine what a radical figure she would’ve been in 1918, before the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment.  You’d think a movie about a superhuman warrior woman that takes place in an era when women’s lives were so circumscribed would milk that fact for all it’s worth.  But the film’s engagement with 1910s gender norms is surprisingly light.  There’s a passing reference to women’s suffrage, an amusing scene in which Diana tries on a corset and underskirt for the first time, and another in which her presence inside an all-male conference room causes an uproar.  That’s about it.  I’m not trying to argue that the filmmakers should have concentrated more on Diana’s challenge to 1918 gender norms.  I just find it surprising that they didn’t engage that angle more, given their choice to set the story in the 1910s rather than the 1940s or 2010s.

I’m well aware that critiquing this movie on the basis of its historical sensibility is somewhat beside the point.  It isn’t really a “historical” film in the same sense that The Lost City of Z is.  Nobody goes to Wonder Woman to immerse themselves in the 1910s.  The filmmakers’ only real duties were to be true to the central character and to tell a good story.  But the notion of the past as a foreign country is a favorite theme of mine, so I get miffed when filmmakers and storytellers assume that people have always been more or less like us.  Some of Wonder Woman‘s most enjoyable moments are the ones in which Diana finds herself a fish out of water in a world of men.  But if any of us found ourselves in WWI-era Europe, we’d likely feel out of place, too.

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Crichton’s ‘Dragon Teeth’ and the fossil frontier

According to his widow, the seeds of Michael Crichton’s posthumously published Dragon Teeth began to germinate in the 1970s.  That was long before the appearance of his most famous work about an island theme park with genetically engineered dinosaurs.  But Dragon Teeth is not so much a forerunner of Jurassic Park as a spiritual cousin to his other works of historical fiction, The Great Train Robbery and Pirate Latitudes.  Just as his techno-thrillers have enough scientific ballast to create a sense of verisimilitude that no other modern suspense novelist has surpassed, Dragon Teeth is grounded in the history of science and the late nineteenth-century West.  This is a story based on actual events, populated by figures who were once very real.

Image from michaelcrichton.com

Most prominent among these historical figures are rival naturalists Othniel Charles Marsh and Edward Drinker Cope, whose bitter professional and political feud dominated American paleontology in the late nineteenth century.  The relationship between Marsh and Cope was initially cordial, with the two men collecting specimens together and naming species for one another.  In the 1870s, however, their collegiality gave way to competition, and finally open conflict.  They bribed one another’s collectors, employed spies, sabotaged each other’s professional and political appointments, and smeared one another in the public press.  The “Bone Wars,” as historians of science term the feud, ended only with Cope’s death in 1897.  In their haste to beat one another to the punch, Cope and Marsh rushed their assistants’ discoveries into print, generating taxonomic confusion that present-day paleontologists are still trying to sort out.  But their competition did bring to light dozens of new species, including some of the dinosaurs that are dearest to the popular imagination: BrontosaurusApatosaurusStegosaurusAllosaurus, and Triceratops.

Crichton’s protagonist is William Johnson, privileged son of a Philadelphia family and a Yale freshman who signs on to a Marsh expedition in 1876.  Stranded in Wyoming, he falls in with a collecting party led by Cope and heads to the badlands in search of dinosaurs.  Johnson is Crichton’s creation, but Cope did lead a fossil hunt into the badlands in America’s centennial year.  Many of the incidents related in the novel did indeed occur on that expedition, as chronicled by the enterprising bone hunter (and devoted Cope disciple) Charles H. Sternberg in his 1909 autobiography.  Sternberg appears as a secondary character in Dragon Teeth; so do other individuals who signed on to dig for Cope.

Other, more conventionally well-known historical figures, localities, and episodes from the history of the trans-Mississippi West also figure in Dragon Teeth.  In fact, it would be accurate to call this book a “fact-based Western novel” in addition to a work of historical fiction.  The battlegrounds of the Bone Wars were the great fossil beds of the trans-Mississippi frontier, and the discovery and exploitation of these fields coincided in time with the “Old West” of cowboys, Indians, and buffalo.  In his effort to get Cope’s specimens back East, Johnson crosses paths with gunslingers, hostile tribesmen, raucous boomtown miners, swindlers, and bandits—all the conventional perils that popular memory associates with the American West.

The book employs American frontier mythology in another sense, too.  Johnson goes West not out of scientific curiosity, but to satisfy a wager with a classmate.  For Crichton, as for so many other writers who have made the frontier their subject, the West is thus a place of seasoning, a dangerous environment in which a fellow might test his mettle and make something of himself.

If the novel’s account of Cope’s ’76 expedition hews to the historical record, the book does take some liberties.  Crichton himself lists some of them in an author’s note.  Most puzzling—to me, anyway—is his attribution of a notable dinosaur genus to Cope’s expedition that is familiar to paleophiles as a Marsh discovery.  Crichton states that Sternberg’s autobiography claimed this animal for Cope, but I take Sternberg’s remark as an attempt to claim priority for Cope’s dinosaur work in general, rather than crediting him with bringing he specific animal in question to light.  Crichton also seems to place this discovery in sediments from the Cretaceous Period, when the animal lived millions of years earlier, during the Jurassic.  In addition, the characters in Dragon Teeth use the correct absolute dates for the fossils they find, but the development of radiometric dating techniques came after the events in the novel.  (As late as the early twentieth century, some paleontologists ascribed a date of only three or four million years to the last dinosaurs.)  Finally, Crichton’s Sternberg has no qualms about using profanity.  Given the man’s intense and sincere religiosity, the strikes me as unlikely.

But these are quibbles, the stuff of paleo-geekery.  Dragon Teeth is an absolute delight.  It doesn’t feature as much of the rumination on the possibilities and limitations of science, technology, and knowledge that is a Crichton hallmark, but it’s an engaging yarn.  I think good historical fiction should be a bit like an artistic reconstruction of an extinct animal.  You take the hard bits of verifiable evidence, you flesh out the bones with some careful inference, and then you let your imagination go to work.  That’s what Crichton accomplished with this book.  The story bounces along like a stagecoach through a landscape full of thrills and wonders.  And as with all of Crichton’s posthumously published books, turning the last page will leave you with a bittersweet feeling—you’re elated by the ride you’ve just taken, but you remember that you were in the hands of a singular creator who left us far too soon.

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Filed under Gratuitous Dinosaur Posts

Historic happenings at Knoxville museums this weekend

There’s plenty for history buffs to do in Knoxville over the next couple of days.

UT’s McClung Museum of Natural History and Culture has a brand new exhibit opening on Friday.  Fish Forks and Fine Furnishings: Consumer Culture in the Gilded Age focuses on the proliferation of consumer household goods that accompanied industrialization, trade, and travel in the late nineteenth century.  The McClung’s permanent collection has a ton of fascinating material from this period, so there should be some really neat objects on display.  The museum is hosting a lecture on the era by historian Pat Rutenberg on July 16 at 2:00, so check that out if you’d like to learn more.

On Saturday and Sunday, we’re having our annual Statehood Day Living History Weekend at Marble Springs.  Admission is free, and we’ll have reenactors and interpreters  on hand for demonstrations and talks at the historic buildings.  If you haven’t been to the site, or if you’ve taken the standard tour but have never been to one of our living history events, this is one of the best occasions to visit.

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Filed under Appalachian History, Museums and Historic Sites, Tennessee History

Headed to the archives

I’m delighted to announce that I’ll be engaged in some archival work this summer, thanks to the generosity of a couple of funding sources.  The David Library of the American Revolution has awarded me a residential fellowship, so I’ll be headed up to Pennsylvania soon to pore over their incredible microfilm collection.  (Hope I can muster the discipline to get my research done while being in striking distance of so many Rev War sites.)

I was also fortunate to receive an Archie K. Davis Fellowship from the North Caroliniana Society, which will give me an opportunity to examine Revolutionary War records in the Old North State.  I’m very grateful to both the DLAR and the NCS for these research funds; I wouldn’t be able to access materials critical to my dissertation without this support.

Oh, and if you’d like to read a short description of my project and look over my CV, you can now do so at the UT Department of History’s website.

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GDP: Rolling out the new armored dinos

Well, that’s another academic year wrapped up.  It’s been a heck of a news week for armored dinos, so let’s kick off the summer with a Gratuitous Dinosaur Post.

Scientists just described a brand-new ankylosaur—those walking tanks from the Cretaceous Period—called Zuul crurivastator.  The species name means “destroyer of shins,” which is appropriate for an animal bearing a massive, bony club at the end of its ten-foot tail.  The genus name comes from the dog creature in the original Ghostbusters movie, and there’s indeed a resemblance.  It’s not just a new dino, but one of the most complete ankylosaur specimens ever found.

And as they say on the commercials, “But wait!  There’s more…”

National Geographic is running a piece on another incredible armored dino specimen.  This one’s a nodosaur, a close relative of Zuul and its kin, but without the tail club.  It, too, is stunningly complete, so much so that it looks less like a fossil and more like an animal that just fell asleep and turned to stone.  The keratin sheaths on its spikes, the individual armored plates, scales, tendons—all beautifully preserved.  What’s especially cool is that researchers might be able to use microscopic structures in the skin to reconstruct its coloration.  It doesn’t have a name yet, but I’ve got a suggestion…

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Leaders, wars, and the survey course

Last week we administered a survey/quiz in our Western Civ course, asking students which of the topics we’ve covered interested them the most.  The results were a little surprising, at least to me.

Jacques-Louis David’s Napoleon, via Wikimedia Commons

The most common answers involved subjects that many academic history tend to downplay: wars and leaders.  More students claimed they wanted to learn about strategies, battles, kings, queens, and presidents than anything else.  They wrote that they’d enjoy taking an entire course on the origins of World War I, the major campaigns of World War II, Napoleon, or the Romanovs.  What captivated these young scholars was the same sort of material that many academic historians dismiss as old-fashioned.

What accounts for these students’ responses?  I think it boils down to two factors.  First, political power—especially the relationship between modernity and monarchy—was an organizing theme that undergirded the course as a whole.  Our professor spent quite a bit of time analyzing the ways personalities, institutions, and change intersected, and he did so in such a captivating manner that students couldn’t help but want to explore these questions further.  In other words, good teaching leads to engagement with the subject matter.  It was a valuable lesson for us TAs, who will be thinking about how to organize our own courses in the future.  As I said a few months ago, the opportunity to observe great professors in the classroom is one of the biggest benefits of grad school.

The second reason so many of the students found wars and leaders so engrossing has to do with the subject matter itself.  At the end of the day, it’s hard to deny that battles, alliances, campaigns, and the lives of powerful men and women are pretty darned interesting.  After all, these were the very topics that prompted the first historians of classical antiquity to take up their pens: Herodotus, Thucydides, Livy, Plutarch, and so on.  And in our own time, the commercial success of military historians and biographers such as Andrew Roberts, Rick Atkinson, Doris Kearns Goodwin, Antony Beevor, and Antonia Fraser speaks to the enduring appeal of this approach.

These were the sort of topics I used to feel guilty about spending time on as an adjunct.  As much as I loved lecturing on Xerxes, Alexander, Catherine the Great, Napoleon, the Crimean War, and Operation Barbarossa, going into detail on leaders and wars always seemed like an indulgence.  Every semester I chipped away at my coverage of conflicts and great men and women.  Maybe I should’ve let them be.  When we start making those hard choices about what to omit from our survey courses, perhaps we should leave space for these subjects that still take hold of the imagination, even the imagination of Generation Z.

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