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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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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The dilemma of talking about Appalachian poverty

Every once in a while a major media outlet rolls out a story on poverty in Appalachia.  A little while ago The Guardian took a crack at it.  The result is pretty standard for the genre.

In fact, journalists have been making similar copy out of Appalachia since the nineteenth century.  What sets these more recent examples apart is the emphasis on drug addiction and the decline of the coal industry.  (I’ve always found it ironic that one of the stereotypes about Appalachia is the idea that it’s a primitive region where time stands still, when in fact it’s the ideas people have had about Appalachia that have remained remarkably consistent for over a hundred years.)

Poverty is a tough issue to deal with in any context, but addressing poverty in Appalachia is especially thorny.  On the one hand, there are parts of Appalachia in which poverty is a very pervasive and systemic problem, one that bears talking about.

On the other hand, one problem that Appalachians of pretty much all socioeconomic backgrounds face is the prevalence of stereotypes.  And one of the most common stereotypes about the region is the notion that it’s uniformly and singularly poverty-stricken.  So by talking about the problem of Appalachian poverty, it’s easy to contribute to the problem of Appalachian stereotypes.

Furthermore, one of the reasons poverty in Appalachia is hard to address is the fact that many Americans simply tend to ignore what goes on in the region.  And one of the reasons people ignore it is because they think it’s just a place full of incurably poor people.  It’s quite a dilemma.

The only way out of it, I think, is to ensure that when we talk about poverty in Appalachia, we don’t let ourselves adopt the sort of despairing tone that too often characterizes these sorts of discussions, in which poverty is a problem too wide and too deep to try and fix.  And, crucially, Americans must always remember that when they’re talking about poverty in Appalachia, they’re talking about their own fellow countrymen.

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Lloyd Branson’s art at the East Tennessee Historical Society

The East Tennessee Historical Society just opened a special exhibit on Lloyd Branson, one of this region’s most prominent artists of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.  The exhibit runs through March 20 and then heads to the Tennessee State Museum in Nashville.

If you’re a regular reader of this blog, you’ve encountered Branson’s work before.  The banner image running along the top of this website is from his painting of the Overmountain Men’s muster at Sycamore Shoals, the event that started the march leading to the Battle of King’s Mountain.  The original painting is part of the Tennessee State Museum’s collection, but it’s on loan to ETHS for this exhibit.

Some sources—including yours truly—have reported that Branson also painted the Battle of King’s Mountain itself, but that this work went up in flames when a Knoxville hotel burned down in 1916.  But it looks like the lost King’s Mountain canvas wasn’t a Branson work after all.  Adam Alfrey of ETHS tells the Knoxville News-Sentinel that contemporary newspaper reports attributed the painting to James W. Wallace, one of Branson’s students.

That’s not much consolation for the torched painting, though, because Wallace was a fine artist, too.  He did a number of works on regional and historical themes, including a really nice painting of the signing of the Treaty of Holston.  I’m dying to know what his depiction of King’s Mountain looked like.

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Barton and Jefferson ride again

Back when Thomas Nelson withdrew David Barton’s The Jefferson Lies from publication, Barton claimed that Simon & Schuster would release a new edition in 2013.  Whatever arrangement he thought he had with S&S must have fallen through, because it never happened.

Two years on, it looks like he’s finally found somebody to reissue it: WND Books, the publishing arm of WorldNetDaily.

If the PR is any indication, it seems that Barton and his associates, like the French monarchists before them, have learned nothing and forgotten nothing:

Despite the wildly popular success of the original hardcover edition, a few dedicated liberal individuals campaigned to discredit Barton’s scholarship and credibility, but to no avail.

Wait, to no avail?  Dude, they found so many errors and misrepresentations that the original publisher pulled it from circulation.  That’s kind of why you’re writing this ad copy for a new edition in the first place, remember?

Nice try with the circumstantial ad hominem, too.  “A few dedicated liberal individuals” sounds so much better than “numerous historians and evangelical commentators.”

I will say, however, that the new cover looks a lot sharper than the old one, so it’s got that going for it.

(Hat tip: Warren Throckmorton)

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