Let’s commemorate the Battle of Princeton by defending the place where it happened

Today is the 239th anniversary of Washington’s victory at the Battle of Princeton.  Unfortunately, it’s also a day in which Princeton Battlefield is under threat.  Despite concerns from preservationists, historians, hydrologists, and now state lawmakers, the Institute for Advanced Study shows no signs of slowing down in its effort to build faculty housing at the site.

Why not commemorate the battle’s anniversary by taking a few minutes of your time to help protect the place where it happened?  Here are a few easy things you can do.

James Peale’s depiction of the battle.  From the collections of the Princeton University Art Museum via Wikimedia Commons

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Filed under American Revolution, Historic Preservation, Museums and Historic Sites

Site B?

What follows might seem like several hundred words of pointless navel-gazing, but I’m in a bit of a quandary, and sometimes it does me good to think out loud.

I have this thing for dinosaurs.  Perhaps you’ve noticed.

Lately I’ve been mulling over the idea of starting a second blog on which I can expound as I please on my dinosaur obsession—my own personal Site B, if you will.  Actually, I’ve toyed with the notion for some time, but I’ve given it more and more thought over the past few months.

Sometimes I give my inner dino fanboy free reign here at PitP with my periodic Gratuitous Dinosaur Posts, but all the social media experts say that bloggers should be focused.  You get and keep an audience by talking about what you know, carving out a niche, and attracting the readership of like-minded individuals.  I’m much less particular about content curation over on my Twitter account, but the longer-form nature of a conventional blog calls for a bit more consistency.

Tossing out too many dinosaur posts alongside the usual historical discussions would give this blog a sort of messy, disjunctive nature that I want to avoid.  As Tertullian might have asked, “What hath Isla Nublar to do with King’s Mountain?”  I mean, they both have visitor centers, but other than that…

jurassicpark.wikia.com

 

tripadvisor.com

Of course, blogs are an extension of a writer’s personality.  They work best when you spice them up with your own interests and quirks, which is one reason blogging differs from many other forms of writing.  Many successful bloggers leaven their sites with opinions on politics, sports, movies, the human condition, and other topics that don’t necessarily relate to the author’s usual subject matter but are nonetheless of general interest to many readers.

For example, most of the folks who read George R.R. Martin’s blog share an interest in fantasy and science fiction (and killing off major characters), but Martin’s a football fan as well as a writer, and he uses his site to ruminate on the sport.  Here in the historical blogosphere, Brooks Simpson also posts about sports from time to time.  And there are a few Springsteen fans in the historical profession who sprinkle their blogs with material about the Boss.  Leavening a history blog with reflections on sports, politics, and pop culture makes sense, because these are things about which many folks—including history aficionados—like to argue.

When it comes to history and dinosaurs, however, we’re talking about two subjects of a more specialized, rather nerdish nature.  Those of us who are nerds will often encounter people who share one of our nerdish proclivities, but it’s rare indeed to find many people whose nerdishness overlaps with one’s own in two or more areas.  I’m sure there are other individuals out there who geek out over both early American history and paleontology as intensely as I do, but I don’t think anybody’s really clamoring for a blog aimed specifically at us.

All of this would indicate that I should keep my dinosaur geekouts to a minimum herein, and concentrate instead on matters relevant to American history, which is what most of you are probably looking for when you stop by.

Just for the heck of it, though, here’s a Kentrosaurus. By LoKiLeCh (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC BY 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

But since the urge to talk about ginormous extinct reptiles is hard for me to resist, I’m increasingly tempted to give myself some space to talk about dinosaurs and fossils on a separate blog.  Indeed, there is a vibrant and active community of paleobloggers whose work I’ve been enjoying, and I’d love to connect with fellow paleophiles in the same way that I’ve been able to share my historical interests with you fine people.

Why not go ahead and take the plunge?  For one thing, a lot of the paleoblogs are run by actual paleontologists, science journalists, or other folks who have some expertise in the field.  Me?  I’m no expert.  I’m just a geek who likes talking and learning about the stuff.  A paleoblog of my own would probably consist mostly of me enthusing, “LOOK AT THIS THING HERE!  ISN’T IT AWESOME?!”  I do a lot of that on Twitter already.  Maybe whatever I’d have to say in longer form wouldn’t really be worth saying.    Some people might be interested in an amateur’s semi-informed reflections on paleo news, dinos in pop culture, dino-related nostalgia, and so forth, but I don’t have the training to weigh in on scientific controversies.

Time is another factor.  As you might’ve noticed, new posts got somewhat sparse around here over the past few months due to my school obligations.

Here’s one other thing that makes me hesitant to start a separate dino blog.  Since a blog should reflect something of the writer’s personality and proclivities, I sort of feel like this blog—which is, after all, one of the ways I present myself to the world—needs at least a little dinosaurian content.  The terrible lizards have been such an important part of my life that I wouldn’t be me without them.  Odd as it may sound, without any mention of dinosaurs, I’d feel like something was missing from this site, like I’d left a fundamental aspect of myself behind somewhere.  Likewise, doing a dinosaur blog free of history posts might feel a bit odd, since I’d be leaving out the stuff I spend most of my time thinking about.

So I don’t know.  Plenty of reasons to take the leap and start up a second Interwebs endeavor, and plenty of reasons not to.  Since you fine folks are the ones subjected to my periodic saurian indulgences, I’d welcome whatever feedback you have.

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Princeton Battlefield Society keeps up the fight

Here’s the latest news in the ongoing effort to preserve Princeton Battlefield.  Looks like the Institute for Advanced Study might have ignored some important environmental restrictions, which could impact the construction that threatens the battleground:

Members of a Senate committee said they want to get to the bottom of whether wetlands are on a site where the IAS is preparing to build 15 units of faculty housing on about six acres of its land adjacent to Battlefield State Park.

Sens. Bob Smith (D-17), Linda R. Greenstein (D-14) and Kip Bateman (R-16), all members of the senate Environment and Energy committee, sent a letter to DEP commissioner Bob Martin asking him to put a hold on the project until the committee hears from the DEP on the wetlands issue. For its part, the DEP said it does not issue stays, something that was up to a judge to do.

The letter went out the same day that Bruce I. Afran, the lawyer for the Princeton Battlefield Society, and other advocates went before the committee arguing that there are wetlands on the development site, an area they say is of historic value given that fighting took place during the battle of Princeton in January 1777.

In his remarks before the committee, Mr. Afran said that Amy S. Greene, a hydrologist, was retained by the IAS to do a wetlands survey in 1990, a report that found wetlands in the middle of where the IAS is planning to build. A subsequent survey in 1999, by another firm for the IAS, found no wetlands in the same area.

Mr. Afran contended that the IAS did not disclose to the DEP the original 1990 survey indicating the presence of those wetlands when it sought clearance from the agency for its housing project.

To him, that represented “a pattern of deception” to conceal the information from the DEP, which, in 2000, granted the IAS a “letter of interpretation” saying there are no wetlands in the construction area.

Mr. Afran said that in 2011, the Battlefield Society had hired Ms. Greene to contest the IAS application before the then-regional Princeton Planning Board. Her survey found the same wetlands that she originally had identified in 1990. Ms. Greene also testified at Monday’s hearing to support her findings.

He also said that a 2012 soil report by the IAS engineer also found wetlands but that the IAS did not turn over the information to DEP.

For his part, Sen. Bateman said the DEP revisited the site a few weeks ago and claim it sticks to its original interpretation.

“This issue, I would think, would be either black or white,” he said. “Either the wetlands are there or they’re not.”

 Yeah, you’d assume this would be a pretty straightforward question.  Then again, you’d also assume people would have enough decency not to build faculty housing on an important Rev War battleground.

Those disappearing wetlands aren’t the only thing shady about this whole affair:

The Battlefield Society came close to defeating the project when it went before the Delaware and Raritan Canal Commission in January. A commissioner, Mark Texel, director of the state Park Service who is Mr. Martin’s representative on the board, initially abstained from the vote, which led to the development failing.

He changed his mind a month later, moved to have the DRCC reopen the matter and then voted for it. At Monday’s hearing, Mr. Afran claimed that Mr. Texel did so based on “political pressure.”

Mr. Afran claimed that in September Mr. Texel, in the presence of Mr. Afran and two other people, said he was sorry for the revote that he had asked for but explained that he had gotten a call from Mr. Martin’s office.

“He made it clear to us that he was pressured into that revote decision by the commissioner’s office,” Mr. Afran told reporters after the hearing.

“We’re disputing that characterization of the conversation, and it’s just hearsay,” said DEP spokesman Larry Hanja.

Note also that the IAS turned down a $4.5 million offer from the Civil War Trust to secure the land in question.  These guys are serious.  Good thing the Princeton Battlefield Society is showing just as much tenacity as the people who are out to churn up priceless historic ground.

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All I want for Christmas is a visitor center

Here’s the item at the top of my holiday wish list: Marble Springs State Historic Site really, really needs a visitor center.

Actually, we’ve needed one for a very long time, and the Tennessee Historical Commission has been trying to secure an appropriation to build us one for some time now.  A few days ago the Knoxville News-Sentinel ran an article on our ongoing effort to get this facility built and why it matters:

The Tennessee Historical Commission is asking for $2.2 million in state funds to build a 7,200-square-foot visitors center with exhibit, classroom and theater space along with a parking lot and improved entrance signs. The money also would fund the archaeology required before a building, likely located on a rise near Gov. John Sevier Highway, would be constructed.

The commission, which is Tennessee’s historic preservation office, recommends the request be part of the 2016-17 state budget. Gov. Bill Haslam announces his budget early each year, generally in February.

Marble Springs is the 35-acre South Knoxville farmstead of John Sevier, a Revolutionary War hero and East Tennessee pioneer who became Tennessee’s first governor. Owned by the state since 1942, the site is operated by the nonprofit Gov. John Sevier Memorial Association. Some 8,000 people — including 2,000 schoolchildren — visit the location each year.

This isn’t the first time the Marble Springs request has been a THC priority. Records show that it’s been a requested need since 1988, said [THC Historic Sites Program Director Martha] Akins. “We have been wanting a visitors center for Marble Springs for as long as I can remember,” she said.

I can’t even begin to convey how challenging it is to run a site without proper visitor facilities.  That’s especially true for an outdoor, multi-building site like ours.  For one thing, when visitors arrive, they don’t really know where they’re supposed go first.  All of our historic buildings and our log trading post look really similar, so unless we flag them down, guests tend to wander around aimlessly, looking for someone to buy admission from.

Second—and this is a really big deal—interpretation of the site’s history is much, much harder without a visitor center.  We can’t really orient visitors to what they’re going to be seeing without an exhibit space or an introductory film.  Guests need to begin their tour with some appreciation for who John Sevier was, what role he played in early Tennessee history, and where Marble Springs fits into the overall story.  Without an orientation space, we have to do all that orally as part of the tour itself, which isn’t the most effective way to use the site as the teaching tool it could and should be.

Third, without an exhibit space, our artifact collection is off-limits to visitors.  Archaeologists have conducted extensive work at the site over the years, but we don’t have a space to store or display the items they’ve excavated; instead, the University of Tennessee keeps these artifacts locked away for safekeeping.  Some of the objects that we do keep on site, such as personal items that belonged to Sevier, aren’t currently accessible to the public.

Finally, the lack of a visitor center severely restricts our ability to utilize the site in a multi-purpose fashion.  Site rentals for weddings, civic group meetings, and scouting events give us some added income, but not nearly so much as we’d have with a modern meeting space, better restrooms, and other facilities.  It would really be a game-changer.

If any of you Tennessee readers out there could let your elected officials know that this is a project worth supporting, I’d really appreciate it.

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

As if millions of violins suddenly played “Ashokan Farewell,” and were suddenly silenced

This would’ve been a lot funnier if they’d used black-and-white images and a Shelby Foote impersonator, but it’s still worth a chuckle.

FWIW, I saw The Force Awakens yesterday, and thought it was pretty good.  Not mind-blowing, not great, not very good…but pretty good.  The story structure’s off-kilter; it’s like a three-act film with the third act lopped off, which gives the whole thing a truncated and incomplete feeling.  And I don’t think they invested enough in the new characters’ arcs, except for Rey.  But it was an entertaining movie, and definitely an improvement on the abysmal Attack of the Clones.

This might sound odd coming from a history aficionado, but I would’ve enjoyed the prequels a lot more if Lucas had displayed less historical sensibility in making them.  The original trilogy works because it draws on basic, elemental, universal notions of storytelling: destiny, love, light vs. dark, good vs. evil.  The prequels, by contrast, involve disputes over trade routes, backroom parliamentary maneuvers, decaying institutions, and debates over political precedent and the dangers of centralized power.  That’s the stuff of good history, but it’s not necessarily the stuff of great myths, not without careful attention to the human element.

Of course, historians are trained to ignore the human element and the universal in their writing.  That’s not a bad thing, not at all.  It’s fundamental to what distinguishes history from other forms of engaging the past.  History is fundamentally about inquiry and explanation, not storytelling.  We shouldn’t abandon empirical research and sophisticated interpretation for emotion and narrative.  But it does help explain why so many people would rather learn about the past from folks like Ken Burns and Shelby Foote, who know a thing or two about drama, the human element, and telling a good story.

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History at the movies in 2016

For a couple of years Hollywood was giving us history bloggers plenty to talk about, with acclaimed films like 2012’s Lincoln, Argo, and Django Unchained and 2013’s 12 Years a Slave.  That hasn’t been the case in 2015.  I think I only saw a couple of history-related movies this past year, none of them particularly memorable.  Or maybe we all spent so much time blogging and tweeting about that Hamilton musical that we just missed all the films aimed at history buffs.

Some of the movies headed for theaters in 2016 take American history as their subject matter, though, so let’s take a look.

The Revenant.  This one hits select theaters on Christmas Day, but doesn’t get a wide release until Jan. 6.  It’s based on Michael Punke’s novelization of a true incident in the life of fur trapper Hugh Glass.  After joining an 1823 expedition into the American West, Glass barely survived a nasty bear mauling only to be abandoned by his companions, forcing him to endure a 200-mile trek to Fort Kiowa in present-day South Dakota.  The legendary mountain man Jim Bridger was a member of the same party.  The trailer’s fantastic.

The Witch.  A horror movie set in 16th-century New England seems like a no-brainer, but I don’t know that anybody has made one until now.  Looks pretty scary!  (Suggested tagline: In space canst no man heare thou screame.)

The Free State of Jones.  Matthew McConaughey plays Rebel deserter Newt Knight, who waged a mini-Civil War against Confederate authorities in Mississippi.  No trailer for this one yet, but here’s a look at the historical background.

USS Indianapolis: Men of Courage.  They did a made-for-TV movie about the Indianapolis back in the early nineties, and one of the writers of Jaws pitched the idea of building a prequel around the sinking.  (It probably would’ve been better than the Jaws sequels we eventually got.)  Mario Van Peebles directs this new version.  A local news crew visited the set during filming in Mobile, AL.

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“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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