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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The best of the best from my seminar reading lists

Well, my coursework is done, so from here on out it’s just comps and the dissertation.  I’ve still got quite a lot of reading to do between now and the end of the road, of course, but the end of classes means one chapter in my career as a graduate student is over.

As one of my professors remarked this past semester, grad school gives you the opportunity to be exposed to more books than you’ll ever be able to read again in such a short period of time.  With that in mind, I thought it might be fun to look back over the books I’ve been assigned to read and select one exceptionally good title from each course.  Think of this post as…




A few preliminary remarks are in order before we get rolling.  I’m only including reading seminars in American history.  That means no books from research seminars, foundational courses in theory and methodology, more practical-driven courses (such as classes on teaching the world history survey or professionalization), and courses in world or European history.  I read many fine works in these classes, but since American history is my thing, I’m going to stick with the stuff I know best.

I should also add that I’m only including required texts from these courses, so books I read for purposes of presenting an individual report or for a historiographic paper aren’t eligible for inclusion.  Maybe I’ll do another round someday and pick up all those loose ends.

Now, without further ado, here are my picks.  We’ll start with the courses I took way back when as an M.A. student.

Topics in Early American History.  This was the first graduate course I ever took.  Competition in this category was especially stiff, since my professor had us read many of the classics in the field.  But if I had to pick the one book from the required reading that was most exceptional, I’d probably go with Edmund S. Morgan’s American Slavery, American Freedom.  Morgan addresses the great paradox of American history: How did a slave society come to enshrine freedom and equality as its most important ideals?  It turns out not to be such a paradox after all.

Topics in American Military History.  It’s hard for me to be impartial when it comes to Charles Royster’s A Revolutionary People at War: The Continental Army and American Character, 1775-1783.  It’s long been one of my all-time favorite works of historical scholarship, so it was probably bound to be my top pick among all the books I read for my military history class.  Royster asks and answers many of the most important questions the Continental Army’s existence implies about the Revolution.

Topics in Modern American History.  William Cronon’s Nature’s Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West is one of the most well researched and elegantly presented history books I’ve ever read.  You wouldn’t expect an examination of the relationship between geography, the commodification of resources, and urbanization would be this engrossing.

Civil War and Reconstruction.  I got quite a bit out of The Confederacy as a Revolutionary Experience, by Emory M. Thomas.  Thomas argues that the Civil War didn’t just separate the North and the South, but also wrought an internal revolution within the South itself.  Ironically, a war fought to preserve a particular way of life proved to be a powerful agent of change.

Jeffersonian America.  Gordon Wood’s The Radicalism of the American Revolution was a very close runner-up to beat Edmund Morgan’s book in my first category.  Fortunately, it popped up again on the required reading list for this course, so I can give it the props it deserves.  Wood explains what was so revolutionary about the Revolution, an event that turned the hierarchical, organic world of colonial America into a society we might recognize as much closer to our own.

History of American Religion.  Christine Leigh Heyrman’s Southern Cross: The Beginnings of the Bible Belt is a model of historical argumentation.  She demonstrates how radical evangelism posed a formidable challenge to the early South’s familial, masculine, and racial ideals.  In order to win over southern planters, evangelical preachers had to adapt.  Those adaptations created the evangelicalism that many people associate with the region today.

That covers my M.A. courses.  Moving on to my doctoral coursework…

U.S. and the World.  I think I can speak for everybody who took this class when I say that Kate Brown’s Plutopia: Nuclear Families, Atomic Cities, and the Great Soviet and American Plutonium Disasters is both enlightening and hard to put down.  With vivid, elegant prose, Brown tells the parallel stories of two Cold War communities—one in the U.S., the other in the Soviet Union.  Both communities were built for one purpose: the production of plutonium.  In each case, the inhabitants enjoyed a level of prosperity much greater than that of their neighbors.  But both the people in these communities and those who lived downwind and downstream from them paid a fearsome price for this high standard of living.

Native American History.  William Cronon makes the list again for his now-classic Changes in the Land: Indians, Colonists, and the Ecology of New England.  It’s one of the foundational works of environmental history, and also one of the very best.  The European conquest of the New World marked a transformation in the ways America’s inhabitants interacted with the physical environment.  I think every aspiring historian should read this book as an example of how to present and sustain a clear, forceful, and persuasive argument.

Early America and the Atlantic.  Another modern classic: Ira Berlin’s Many Thousands Gone: The First Two Centuries of Slavery in North America.  This book has the distinction of appearing on the required reading lists of more courses than any other title I’ve been assigned in grad school; it’s been assigned in three of my classes.  That ought to tell you something about what a worthwhile investment it is for anybody interested in early America, slavery, and the history of race.

Independent Study on the American Revolution.  Lots of good books to choose from here, too, but I think my favorite is Michael McDonnell’s The Politics of War: Race, Class, and Conflict in Revolutionary Virginia.  The Revolution wasn’t a unifying experience for the Old Dominion.  Far from it.  In fact, mobilization exposed the rifts between gentry, middling farmers, and the lower sort.  The need for manpower forced Virginia’s elites to make concessions to middling whites, and bred resentment among those poorer men who bore the burden of filling the ranks.  I love this book for McDonnell’s thorough research and the care with which he reconstructs the relationship between waging war and the political order.

Gender as a Category of Analysis in American History.  So before the 1960s, homosexuals were so far back in the closet they were essentially invisible, right?  Wrong.  In Gay New York: Gender, Urban Culture, and the Making of the Gay Male World, 1890-1940, George Chauncey uncovers an American gay culture that was both active and visible decades before Stonewall.  What I found most remarkable about this book, however, was not so much the fact that Chauncey has discovered a lost world, but the detail with which he reconstructs it.  Even if you’re not interested in LGBT history, you should read this book to admire the array of sources Chauncey employs to resurrect a slice of the past many Americans have forgotten.

Classic and Contemporary Readings in African American History.  The standout title from this class, at least for me, is Steven Deyle’s Carry Me Back: The Domestic Slave Trade in American Life.  When we hear the phrase “slave trade,” most of us think of the traffic in human bodies between Africa and the Americas.  It’s easy to forget how ubiquitous the internal trade was before the Civil War, and how profoundly it shaped the course of American history.  Deyle puts the domestic slave trade back at the center of the story where it belongs with research that is downright awe-inspiring in breadth.

By selecting only one book from each class, I’ve left out a lot of fantastic stuff, but I think these titles are the cream of the crop.  If you’re a fellow grad student, maybe you’ll see something here that will help you out.  And if you’re neither a student nor a historian, I encourage you to dive in anyway, so you can enjoy some of the best the discipline has to offer.

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Filed under American Revolution, Civil War, Colonial America, Graduate School, Historiography

The McClung Museum will be the epicenter of awesomeness in 2016

Somebody pinch me.  Seriously.  I’m not on cloud nine; I’m on cloud twenty-seven or twenty-eight.  Maybe higher than that.

Fallen from Edenic perfection though it is, this world affords us a great many fine things, including the companionship of family and friends, sublime sunsets, good BBQ, and free access to Shakira videos on YouTube.

Of all the pleasures we’re granted in life, however, two of the greatest are undoubtedly the study of these subjects:

  1. Dinosaurs
  2. The early history of East Tennessee

Imagine, then, how ecstatic I was to learn that the next two special exhibits at the McClung Museum of Natural History & Culture here in Knoxville will be…


June 4, 2016–August 28, 2016

This exhibition showcases the world of modern paleontology, introducing a dynamic vision of dinosaurs and the scientists who study them. New discoveries and technologies reveal how dinosaurs lived, moved and behaved. Find out how advanced technologies allow scientists to look at fossils in fresh ways. Examine realistic models and casts, and see dinosaurs walk, run and move their long necks in fantastic computer simulations.



September 7, 2016–January 8, 2017

In honor of Knoxville’s 225th anniversary, this exhibition explores the city’s heritage as seen through archaeological discoveries in the “Heart of the Valley.” Using historic artifacts unearthed in and around Knoxville, along with historical images, maps, documents, and oral histories, the exhibition tells the story of Knoxville’s development from a frontier settlement to an industrialized city.

Dinosaurs and East Tennessee history.  It’s like if you made a Venn diagram of awesomeness, and plopped the McClung Museum’s rotating exhibit gallery right down in the middle.

Could it get any better?  Oh, yes, indeed, it could.

A few days ago I opened an e-mail from the Department of History’s director of graduate studies.  My assistantship assignment for next semester came in, and I’ll be working for…wait for it…the McClung Museum.


Here’s a pretty close approximation of how I reacted.

Seriously, I couldn’t be more excited.  I haven’t been able to get my hands dirty with museum work in quite a while, and the fact that I get to do it at a Smithsonian-affiliated institution with a fossil exhibit and a special exhibition on Knoxville’s history makes me absolutely giddy.

Oh, one more thing.  The archaeology exhibit will feature some artifacts from excavations at Marble Springs, which is fantastic, because we haven’t really had an opportunity to showcase this stuff at the site.  If you’re interested in seeing some of these traces of John Sevier’s plantation, be sure to stop by this fall.  Admission to the McClung Museum is free, and it’s one of the most fascinating ways to spend some time in the Knoxville area.


Filed under Appalachian History, Archaeology, Gratuitous Dinosaur Posts, Museums and Historic Sites, Tennessee History

UTK historians are making news

We’re wrapping up another semester at UTK, and our history faculty (both current and emeritus) has been making headlines.

With all the brouhaha over the $20 bill, Jacksonian scholar Dan Feller has been in the news quite a bit lately (like here, for example).  A few days ago he talked to NPR about the tumultuous presidential election of 1824 and how it helped make our modern party system.

Stephen Ash, author of a book about the bloody racial episode in Memphis in 1866, lent his expertise to another recent NPR story, this one about an effort to erect a state historical marker dedicated to the massacre and paid for by the local chapter of the NAACP.  The Tennessee Historical Commission, which oversees the state markers program, approved text for the signage that referred to the massacre as a “race riot.”  Historians and members of the community objected to the phrasing, so the NAACP decided to erect its own signage rather than go through the THC program.  Personally, I much prefer the language on the NAACP’s private marker.  In this case, I think the phrase “race riot” carries connotations that would obfuscate what happened in 1866, whereas “massacre” more accurately conveys the nature of the actual event.

Julie Reed, who taught one of my all-time favorite grad courses, has a new book out.  She examines the Cherokee Nation’s social welfare efforts during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries and their influence on U.S. government policy.

Finally, Shannen Dee Williams, whose seminar I had the privilege of taking this past semester, has been appointed to the Organization of American Historians’ Distinguished Lectureship Program.

We’ve got fantastic professors.  I’m lucky to get to learn from these folks!

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Houdini, Doyle, and dinosaurs

Perhaps you’ve heard of the new TV show Houdini and Doyle, in which history’s most famous magician and the creator of Sherlock Holmes team up to solve cases that may or may not involve supernatural forces.  The premise might sound outrageous, sort of like a steampunk version of The X-Files, but Harry Houdini and Arthur Conan Doyle were friends.  And in true X-Files fashion, one member of the partnership was a skeptic, while the other was a true believer.  Doyle was a committed spiritualist who publicly vouched for the authenticity of mediums and psychics; in one case, he went so far as to pronounce a set of faked photos of fairies to be genuine.  While Houdini found the prospect of communicating with the dead intriguing, his experiences with fraudulent mediums who claimed they could put him in touch with his dead mother left him disillusioned, and he began a one-man crusade against them.

Now, twentieth-century debates over supernatural phenomena fall pretty far outside my historical wheelhouse, and when I go off on tangents like this it’s usually because there’s a dinosaur connection.  And hoo boy—is there ever a dinosaur connection to the story of Houdini and Doyle’s friendship.

It all goes back to a remarkable film Doyle presented at a meeting of the Society of American Magicians at New York’s Hotel McAlpin on June 2, 1922, during an American lecture tour on spiritualism.  After an introduction by Houdini, who was the society’s president, Doyle made a few remarks about his belief in mediums.  A decade’s worth of investigation, he said, had convinced him that one really could communicate with the dead, and he appreciated the efforts of magicians who debunked those fake mediums—”human hyenas,” he called them—that discredited honest spiritualists everywhere.  But “when a conjurer does occasionally attack spiritualism as a whole,” he claimed, “he deals in a subject which he does not understand.”

A front-page story in the next day’s New York Times described what happened next:

The author then asked permission of Mr. Houdini to give his strange exhibition.  He gave no idea in advance as to its character, but said nothing to discredit the suggestion that he considered the coming exhibition to be genuine.

“If I brought here in real existence what I show in these pictures, it would be a great catastrophe,” he said.

“These pictures are not occult,” he continued.  “In the second place, this is psychic because everything that emanates from the human spirit or human brain is psychic.  It is not supernatural.  Nothing is.  It is preternatural in the sense that it isnot [sic] known to our ordinary senses.

…”I would like to add, to save myself from getting up again, that, if permission is granted for me to show this, they will speak for themselves.  I will answer no questions regarding them either for the press or the others present.”

Doyle’s “strange exhibition” turned out to be a reel of motion picture footage.  And while it had nothing to do with spiritualism, it did involve bringing up the dead:

Monsters of several million years ago, mostly of the dinosaur species, made love and killed each other in Sir Arthur’s pictures.  Prehistoric brutes that resembled rhinoceroses magnified many times, equipped with enormous horns that pointed forward like those of the unicorn, drove dinosaurs away from feasts on one another.  One monster, like a horned toad of monumental proportions, presented an impenetrable surface of armor plate to attacking reptiles and moved along in safety.

…His monsters of the ancient world or of the new world which he has discovered in the ether, were extraordinarily lifelike.  If fakes, they were masterpieces.

While Doyle refused to answer questions about the film, he did tell the magicians, “It is the effect of the joining on the one hand of imagination and on the other other hand of some power of materialization.  The imagination, I may say, comes to me.  The materializing power comes from elsewhere.”

That “materializing power,” in fact, was stop motion animation.  The footage was a test reel of animator Willis O’Brien’s work for the film adaptation of Doyle’s own 1912 novel The Lost World, in which explorers find live prehistoric animals atop a South American plateau.  O’Brien had made short films with stop motion dinosaurs before, but the 1925 version of The Lost World was the first feature-length dinosaur movie.  (Incidentally, it was also the first in-flight movie shown to airline passengers, during an Imperial Airways flight out of London.)

Doyle’s 1922 visit to New York marked the dawn of the dinosaur movie craze, but it also marked the end of his relationship with Houdini.  That summer, the two men and their families visited Atlantic City together.  Doyle’s wife, who claimed to be a medium herself, offered Houdini an opportunity to communicate with his dead mother in a private séance.  Houdini accepted, but the results left him as unconvinced as ever.  When Houdini later admitted to Doyle that he did not think his mother had actually contacted him in Atlantic City, Doyle was offended.

A few years later, Houdini was a member of a committee appointed by Scientific American to investigate a medium Doyle had publicly vouched for named Mina Crandon.  When Houdini denounced Crandon as a fraud, it was the last straw; the two men’s already strained relationship ended.  Doyle never convinced Houdini that humans could summon the dead, at least not without the sort of trickery that allowed him to conjure up the terrible lizards that night at the Hotel McAlpin.

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Something to upset everybody

Here’s the thing: Andrew Jackson isn’t getting kicked off the $20 bill.  He’s just moving to the back.

In other words, the guy who hated paper currency still has to have his mug plastered on it, while Harriet Tubman has to spend the next few decades sitting .0043 inches from a slaveholder.

Was the Treasury Department trying to make them both roll over in their graves?

Come to think of it, this would make a great premise for one of those odd couple-type comedies where two totally different people have to cooperate to pull off some big heist.  Tubman and Jackson both get so infuriated that they show up to haunt the Treasury headquarters at the same time, then grudgingly decide to work together.  Hilariously awkward antics ensue.  Their efforts finally pay off when Tubman gets her own bill and Jackson scores a position on the front of a new $1 gold coin.  Anybody want to help me pitch this to Warner Bros.?

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Jean O’Brien will discuss memory and Massasoit at UTK

If you’re interested in colonial America, Native American history, or historical memory, you’ll want to attend the UTK History Department’s 2016 Milton M. Klein Lecture.  Jean O’Brien will be discussing the public memory of Massasoit, the seventeenth-century Wampanoag leader most commonly remembered today for his association with the Pilgrims.

O’Brien is Distinguished McKnight University Professor at the University of Minnesota and a co-founder of the Native American and Indigenous Studies Association.  Her publications include Firsting and Lasting: Writing Indians Out of Existence in New England and Dispossession by Degrees: Indian Land and Identity in Natick, Massachusetts, 1650-1790.  She is a past president of the American Society for Ethnohistory, and a recipient of the Western History Association’s American Indian Historian Lifetime Achievement Award.

The 2016 Klein Lecture will be at the McClung Museum on UT’s campus on Wednesday, April 13 at 5:00 P.M.  And it’s totally free!

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