Tag Archives: historical memory

More alternate Civil War histories? Look away!

I assume we’ve all heard that the guys behind Game of Thrones are doing an alt-history series where the Confederacy survives into the present day, and that the entire Twittersphere ripped HBO a new one over it.

We don’t yet know how well the show would grapple with the subject matter, but that interview in which one of the GoT guys seemed to have difficulty recalling the name of the Battle of Antietam doesn’t inspire confidence, does it?

Setting aside questions of historical sensibility or whether a series about modern-day legal slavery would be in good taste, one of the reasons it strikes me as a dumb idea is the fact that we’ve seen the whole Confederacy-wins-the-war premise done So. Many. Times.  The only alt-history scenario that’s more worn-out is the notion of an Axis victory in WWII.  There are so many novels based on the idea that you could build your own Fort Sumter using only the ones written by Harry Turtledove.  In fact, a Civil War setting for alternative history of any kind is pretty stale; it’s got its own Wikipedia page, for crying out loud.

Now comes news that Amazon is developing its own alternative offering—an alt-alt-history, I suppose you could call it—which “focuses on freed slaves who form their own country, New Colonia, out of the states of Mississippi, Alabama and Louisiana, given to them as reparations for the country’s original sin.”  At least that’s a somewhat original twist.

If you ask me, though, storytellers need to start thinking outside the box when it comes to alt-history settings.  They’ve got centuries of the human past to play with.  Give the 1860s and 1940s a rest.

 

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The battle over Shaw’s body

When the news broke that the Massachusetts Historical Society had obtained Robert Gould Shaw’s sword, I started looking up some information on the burial of his body to see what I could find out about how the sword made its way back to the family.  The story of Shaw’s burial in a common trench (on this exact date in 1863, actually) with the bodies of his men is one I’ve known since high school, and I’d always assumed it was pretty well settled.

It turns out that’s not the case.  In fact, there’s a longstanding controversy about why Shaw’s body ended up in a common grave, and over what the party responsible for the burial said about it at the time.

Robert Gould Shaw, via Wikimedia Commons

The story that appears in quite a few secondary works is that Confederate Brig. Gen. Johnson Hagood ordered Shaw’s burial in a common grave as an act of intentional desecration, since Shaw died leading African American troops.  In the version I first read as a high school student, Hagood dismissed questions about Shaw’s resting place with a contemptuous remark: “We buried him with his n*****s.”

Johnson Hagood, via Wikimedia Commons

In the original account on which the story is based, however, Hagood’s words are slightly different.  Our eyewitness was John T. Luck, a Union surgeon captured on the day of Shaw’s burial and held at Ft. Wagner.  Here’s how he told the story in an 1865 letter to the editor of Army and Navy Journal:

While being conducted into the fort I saw Colonel Shaw, of the 54th Massachusetts (colored) Regiment, lying dead upon the ground just outside the parapet.  A stalwart negro had fallen near him.  The rebels said the negro was a color-sergeant. The Colonel had been killed by a rifle-shot through the chest, though he had received other wounds. Brigadier-General Hagood, commanding the rebel forces, said to me: “I knew Colonel Shaw before the war, and then esteemed him. Had he been in command of white troops, I should have given him an honorable burial. As it is, I shall bury him in the common trench, with the negroes that fell with him.”  The burial party were then at work; and no doubt Colonel Shaw was buried just beyond the ditch of the fort in the trench where I saw our dead indiscriminately thrown. Two days afterwards a Rebel surgeon (Dr. Dawson, of Charleston, S. C, I think) told me that Hagood had carried out his threat.

It’s more or less along the lines of the story as I first encountered it, but with a few differences.  Here Hagood orders Shaw’s burial in a common grave as a postmortem insult, but makes his remark before the burial happens, and without the racial slur that makes the other version seem especially vile.

Whether Haywood himself used the slur in reference to Shaw’s burial or not, it seems that somebody in the Confederate ranks did, or at least that many Unionists thought so, because the phrase was already appearing in Northern sources during the war.  An 1864 article in Macmillan’s Magazine claims that “when the Federals asked for his body the day after the fight, ‘Colonel Shaw!’ they said, ‘we buried him below his n*****s!'”  Joseph Thomas Wilson’s 1890 book The Black Phalanx attributes the phrase to a Confederate major.

In their anthology of stories of American heroes, Theodore Roosevelt and Henry Cabot Lodge quoted Hagood’s words as they appeared in Luck’s account, but also noted that the more venomous remark became a Union rallying cry:

General Haywood [sic], commanding the rebel forces, said to a Union prisoner: “I knew Colonel Shaw before the war, and then esteemed him. Had he been in command of white troops, I should have given him an honorable burial. As it is, I shall bury him in the common trench, with the negroes that fell with him.” He little knew that he was giving the dead soldier the most honorable burial that man could have devised, for the savage words told unmistakably that Robert Shaw’s work had not been in vain. The order to bury him with his “n*****s,” which ran through the North and remained fixed in our history, showed, in a flash of light, the hideous barbarism of a system which made such things and such feelings possible. It also showed that slavery was wounded to the death, and that the brutal phrase was the angry snarl of a dying tiger. Such words rank with the action of Charles Stuart, when he had the bones of Oliver Cromwell and Robert Blake torn from their graves and flung on dunghills or fixed on Temple Bar.

Perhaps some Confederate used the phrase in response to the requests some Unionists made about Shaw’s body on his family’s behalf, and in the telling it was misattributed to Hagood himself, with Luck’s account and the quote with the slur getting mingled together.

But there was also a debate over whether Luck’s account of Hagood’s words was true.  Indeed, Hagood denied that he singled out Shaw for a common burial at all, let alone that he intended it as a desecration of memory.  Here is Hagood’s 1881 reply to an inquiry about Luck’s story and Shaw’s burial, as quoted in Luis F. Emilio’s 1891 history of the 54th Massachusetts (italics in original):

On the day after the night assault and while the burial parties of both sides were at work on the field, a chain of sentinels dividing them, a person was brought to me where I was engaged within the battery in repairing damages done to the work. The guard said he had been found wandering within our lines, engaged apparently in nothing except making observations. The man claimed to be a naval surgeon belonging to gunboat ‘ Pawnee ;’ and after asking him some questions about the damages sustained by that vessel a few days before in the Stono River from an encounter with a field battery on its banks, I informed him that he would be sent up to Charleston for such disposition as General Beauregard deemed proper. I do not recall the name of this person, and have not heard of him since, but he must be the Dr. Leech [Luck?] of whom you speak. I have no recollection of other conversation with him than that given above. He has, however, certainly reported me incorrectly in one particular. I never saw or heard of Colonel Shaw until his body was pointed out to me that morning, and his name and rank mentioned. … I simply give my recollection in reply to his statement. As he has confounded what he probably heard from others within the battery of their previous knowledge of Colonel Shaw, he may at the distance of time at which he spoke have had his recollection of his interview with me confounded in other respects.

You further ask if a request from General Terry for Colonel Shaw’s body was refused the day after the battle. I answer distinctly, No. At the written request of General Gillmore, I, as commander of the battery, met General Vogdes (not Terry), on a flag of truce on the 22d. Upon this flag an exchange of wounded prisoners was arranged, and Colonel Putnam’s body was asked for and delivered. Colonel Shaw’s body was not asked for then or at any other time to my knowledge. . . . No special order was ever issued by me, verbally or otherwise, in regard to the burial of Colonel Shaw or any other officer or man at Wagner. The only order was a verbal one to bury all the dead in trenches as speedily as possible, on account of the heat; and as far as I knew then, or have reason to believe now, each officer was buried where he fell, with the men who surrounded him. It thus occurred that Colonel Shaw, commanding negroes, was buried with negroes.

Emilio, who was a veteran of the 54th, didn’t buy Hagood’s attempt to evade responsibility.  Even if his denial of Luck’s account was valid, the fact that someone pointed out Shaw’s body, Emilio argued, “should have secured [Shaw] a fitting sepulture, or the tender of his body to his friends. This burial of Colonel Shaw, premeditated and exceptional, was without question intended as an ignominy.”

Luis F. Emilio, via Wikimedia Commons

One of Emilio’s Confederate sources did admit that some of Ft. Wagner’s defenders engaged in “desecration of the dead,” despite the officers’ attempts to prevent it.  Here’s an extract from a letter he received from H.W. Hendricks in 1882:

The morning following the battle [Shaw’s] body was carried through our lines; and I noticed that he was stripped of all his clothing save under-vest and drawers. This desecration of the dead we endeavored to provide against; but at that time — the incipiency of the Rebellion — our men were so frenzied that it was next to impossible to guard against it; this desecration, however, was almost exclusively participated in by the more desperate and lower class of our troops. Colonel Shaw’s body was brought in from the sally-port on the Confederate right, and conveyed across the parade-ground into the bombproof by four of our men of the burial party. Soon after, his body was carried out via the sally-port on the left river-front, and conveyed across the front of our works, and there buried. . . . His watch and chain were robbed from his body by a private in my company, by name Charles Blake. I think he had other personal property of Colonel Shaw. . . . Blake, with other members of my company, jumped our works at night after hostilities had ceased, and robbed the dead. . . . Colonel Shaw was the only officer buried with the colored troops. . . .

If Hagood did indeed order all the dead interred as quickly as possible, one wonders why some Confederates carried Shaw’s body into the fort, across the parade ground, and into the bombproof before taking it back out again.  And did this happen before or after Hagood’s order to bury all the Union dead in trenches?  Perhaps it wasn’t Hagood who singled out Shaw for burial alongside the other members of the 54th, but Confederate soldiers acting on their own initiative who took Shaw’s body back outside the fort and dumped it in a common grave alongside his men.

Emilio’s book also reveals how Shaw’s sword made its way back to his family.  It turned up in a Virginia house during the war, and then got shipped north.  Emilio also reports that a Confederate officer named A.W. Muckenfuss bought Shaw’s sash from a soldier at Ft. Wagner and later sent it to Boston.  (Muckenfuss served in the 1st Battalion, South Carolina Infantry, the same unit as H.W. Hendricks.)

Between Luck’s account and Hagood’s reply, this is a classic case of two primary accounts in direct contradiction, so it’s probably impossible to establish with any certainty whether the Confederate general singled out Shaw for an ignominious burial.  Today, Shaw has not one but several monuments erected to his memory: a plaque on his grandfather’s tombstone at Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge, another in Harvard’s Memorial Hall, and of course the magnificent memorial by Augustus Saint-Gaudens on Boston Common.

In any case, whether Hagood or anyone else intended the burial in a common trench as a desecration, Shaw’s family took it as a point of pride.  His father rebuffed attempts to have the body found and exhumed.  “We can imagine no holier place than that in which he lies,” he wrote, “among his brave and devoted followers, nor wish for him better company—what a body-guard he has!”

Jarek Tuszyński / CC-BY-SA-3.0 & GDFL [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

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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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Glenn Beck is offering history internships. Seriously.

Ever dreamed of the chance to study history with a guy who thinks the Dead Sea Scrolls are remnants of texts that Constantine suppressed, that Native Americans carved Hebrew inscriptions, and that Parson Weems is a reliable source of information on George Washington?

Well, if you’re between the ages of 18 and 25, you—yes, friend, YOU!—are eligible for a two-week internship at Beck’s Mercury One library.

You’ll have to apply first, of course.  They’re not just taking any Tom, Dick, or Harry from off the street.  But if you make the cut and fork over $375, you get access to Beck’s collection of original documents and “the opportunity to gain a wealth of knowledge from our speakers and guest lecturers.”

While you’re there, maybe David Barton will sign your copy of the book his publisher recalled.  Start getting those CVs ready!

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What’s the difference between a historic site and a historical attraction?

I just ran across an MSN listicle on tourist traps to avoid in each of the fifty states.  The entry for Arizona is the town of Tombstone, which surprises me a little.  Tombstone has its tacky, gaudy aspects, but it’s an interesting place to spend a few days.  I’ve always enjoyed my visits to the Town Too Tough to Die, and the folks there are fantastic.

By mia (originally posted to Flickr as USA 247) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

As I noted a few years ago, I bounced around a lot of old gunslinger haunts with my family when I was a teenager, and many of these places straddle the boundary between public history and the kitschy roadside culture that you’d associate with tourist traps.  It might be more appropriate to term some of them “historical attractions” than historic sites in the usual sense.  I should add that I don’t mean to lump all “Old West” or gunfighter-oriented sites into this category; I’ve visited quite a few that take interpretation and curation as seriously as any museum.  But I think it’s fair to say that you’re more likely to get a tourist trap vibe from a site associated with a gunslinger or bank robber than you are at, say, a Civil War hospital.

Is there a clear demarcation between a museum/historic site and a history-oriented tourist trap/attraction?  When does a site that attracts visitors because of its history become something other than a “real” historic site?

Take Graceland, for example—the Volunteer State’s entry on MSN’s list.  (Personally, I can think of quite a few places in Tennessee that are a much bigger waste of your admission fee, but that’s neither here nor there.)  Does Graceland count as a historic site?  It’s on the National Register of Historic Places and is a National Historic Landmark.  Elvis was undoubtedly a figure of tremendous significance, someone who had a tremendous impact on the history of music and American culture.  Leonard Bernstein called him “the greatest cultural force in the twentieth century.”

Of course, he was exceptional in terms of his wealth, fame, and eccentricity.  A visit to his estate isn’t likely to shed any light on the lives of most people of his place and time.  But, as I’ve written elsewhere, that’s true of a lot of “historic” homes.  If exceptional wealth, fame, and eccentricity of a home’s occupant disqualifies it from being a “real” historic site, where would that leave Monticello?

Could be the Jungle Room, or it could be Jefferson’s study. I’ll let you be the judge. By Thomas R Machnitzki (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

Whatever historians think about what distinguishes a “real” historic site from an attraction, what probably matters more is what the visitors are thinking about the places they go.  I suspect a lot of visitors to historical tourist traps still think of the experience as an encounter with history in the same sense of a trip to Williamsburg or Ford’s Theatre.  Some places give them a bigger bang for their buck, but at the end of the day they’re still paying to kill some time while getting a taste of the past.  And if most visitors to Graceland see the trip as a sort of quasi-religious pilgrimage or a chance to pay homage to a figure they admire rather than a chance to learn about history, the same is probably true of a lot of people who visit Monticello or Lincoln’s home.  Public historians’ aims for visitors are one thing, the meanings visitors attach to their experiences quite another.

I don’t mean to imply that attempts to distinguish serious historic sites from historical tourist attractions are doomed to break down, or that at the end of the day public historians and entertainers are all engaged in the same enterprise.  That’s not true, and it’s a dangerous attitude to cultivate.  But minding the occasional fuzziness of the boundary between historic sites and historical attractions is useful precisely because we need to take the distinct aims of historic sites seriously.  Figuring out just what it is that makes them “real” historic sites can help us do that.

So what are your criteria for distinguishing “real” historic sites from historical attractions?  Authenticity?  Education?  Scholarship?  A 501(c)(3) exemption?

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In James K. Polk news…

Polk’s current resting place on the grounds of the Tennessee State Capitol. By Brent Moore from Antioch, TN (President James K. Polk tomb, Nashville) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

It’s not often that Young Hickory has a big news week, but a couple of developments have quite a few people talking about James K. Polk lately.

First up: his corpse might be taking up new quarters.  It wouldn’t be the first time it’s happened.  Like a lot of other historical figures, Polk’s mortal coil has had quite the active career.

He died of cholera at Polk Place, his Nashville home near the site of the present Tennessee State Capitol, just three months after leaving office.  Despite his request to be laid to rest there, he was initially buried in a cemetery on the outskirts of the city as demanded by law for cholera victims.  Shortly thereafter his remains went back to Polk Place for interment, where they stayed for more than forty years.  But in 1893, the bodies of Polk and his wife got relocated to the Capitol grounds and laid to rest beneath a monument designed by the same architect responsible for the Capitol building itself.  It wasn’t where the former president wanted to spend the afterlife, but it was close—just a short distance from Polk Place, which got demolished in 1900.

There the matter (and Polk) rested until a current proposal that state lawmakers are considering, which would entail moving the remains again, this time to the President James K. Polk Home and Museum in Columbia, TN.  Polk’s father built the Columbia house in 1816, and the future president lived there until his marriage in 1824.  The site’s curator says the move would accord with Polk’s desire to be buried at home, since the Columbia museum is his only residence still standing (other than the White House).  Joey Hensley, a state senator who supports the reinterment, has also argued that the current tomb is too easy to overlook.

The relocation is one step closer to happening, since the state senate has given its approval.  But both houses of the General Assembly, the state historical commission, and the courts have to agree before anybody starts digging, and the state historian thinks it’s a bad idea.

Personally, I think the sensible thing to do is leave the grave where it is.  In his will, Polk didn’t request burial “at home,” but specifically at Polk Place.  Since Polk Place itself is gone, fulfilling that request to the letter isn’t possible, but the State Capitol is just a short walk from where the house stood.  It seems as appropriate a spot as any, especially since it’s a place of honor at the seat of the state government.  That’s just my take.

The other Polk news item is the publication of another volume of his papers by the fine folks at UT’s James K. Polk Project.  This new volume includes valuable material on the end of the Mexican War and the consequent U.S. territorial gains, one of the most important developments of Polk’s presidency.

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Rethinking history and picturing deep time

Louis Figuier’s 1863 book The World Before the Deluge was a time machine between two covers.  By the mid-nineteenth century, geologists knew that different rock layers and the fossils entombed in them corresponded to distinct periods of time, ages when animals and plants unlike any known to modern man had populated the globe.  Figuier took his readers on a grand tour of these geologic periods—or rather, he did so with the assistance of Édouard Riou, whose evocative engravings brought these extinct environments back to life.

Each engraving showed readers a primordial landscape characteristic of a phase of prehistory.  The result was a sort of highlights reel of earth history, a sequential arrangement of what the historian of science Martin J.S. Rudwick calls “scenes from deep time.”

Riou’s illustrations have long since lost their scientific value, but they still pack a visual wallop.  In this image, torrential rains hammer the surface of a newborn globe:

Trilobites and other marine invertebrates wash up on the shore of the Silurian sea:

The forests of the Carboniferous:

Two dinosaurs, depicted as the stocky and elephantine reptiles that early Victorians assumed they were, engage in mortal combat:

The emergence of large mammals:

A primeval flood inundates northern Europe:

The appearance of (notably white and European) humans:

And finally, a later, “Asiatic” flood, perhaps the one described in Genesis and other ancient texts:

If you’ve ever read a paleontology textbook, visited a natural history museum, watched a documentary on evolution, or stepped into a science classroom, you’ve probably seen a modern variation of these sequential deep time scenes.  Paintings in books, dioramas in museums, and CGI clips on TV often take the form of the “prehistoric highlights reel” that Figuier and Riou helped popularize.

And although the science of paleontology has changed a great deal since the 1860s, the organisms that populate our own scenes from deep time tend to correspond with those Riou associated with specific periods.  The dates assigned to the scenes have changed (and in the case of he dinosaurs, the physiology of the animals has changed, too), but the cast has remained much the same.  The scenes start out with marine invertebrates, then move on to primitive chordates and fish, then amphibians and early terrestrial organisms, then dinosaurs and other Mesozoic reptiles, then mammalian megafauna, and finally humans.  I had a lot of books on prehistoric life when I was a kid, and the sequence of illustrations was pretty consistent across most of them: marine invertebrates, jawless fish, jawed fish, amphibians, dinosaurs, mammals, and Homo sapiens.

This sequence may seem inevitable; after all, it’s the order in which the major groups of organisms appeared.  But there’s a sense in which it’s misleading.  The illustrations tend to be much better at highlighting when groups of organisms appeared or were especially prominent than they are at indicating how long they flourished.

Take reptiles, for example. Many illustrators will throw one in around the late Carboniferous to mark the emergence of the first reptiles, or perhaps include a picture of the sail-backed Dimetrodon in the Permian. Pictures of reptiles then dominate the Mesozoic, and then tend to disappear from pictorial sequences and time charts altogether after the age of dinosaurs.

But reptiles didn’t go extinct 65 million years ago.  Nor, for that matter, did the dinosaurs themselves.  Birds are advanced theropod dinosaurs, and living bird species outnumber mammals species by two to one.  Extant reptile species outnumber mammal species, too.  But you wouldn’t know this from looking at pictorial deep time sequences and geologic time scales.  Illustrators are keen on reptiles and birds when they first appear, or when they’re the biggest terrestrial animals going.  Once you hit the end of the Cretaceous Period, however, it’s as if we assume that reptiles and their descendants ceased to exist, or at least ceased to be relevant.  Indeed, we call our own time the “Age of Mammals,” but it would be just as accurate to keep calling it the “Age of Reptiles.”

The artificiality of deep time imagery is even more apparent when you look at fish.  Illustrators highlight fish when they’re the only vertebrates around, but once amphibians show up and start colonizing the land, fish more or less vanish from the pictures.  Likewise, you don’t see many amphibians in illustrations of scenes dating from after the first appearance of reptiles.  And invertebrates tend to disappear entirely once animals with backbones evolve, even though they make up more than 95% of all extant species described so far.

These charts and sequential images also tend to favor terrestrial over aquatic life.  Marine organisms are plentiful in scenes of early eras, when there’s no life on land.  But once terrestrial animals appear, many geologic time scales omit marine life altogether, except for the occasional aquatic reptile from the Mesozoic (presumably included because they look really cool).

You can see the same sequence of organisms in illustrated charts and tables of geologic time.  Take a look at this one produced by CliffsNotes.  Invertebrates for the earliest periods populate the oldest periods at the bottom, and then it’s fish, terrestrial animals, dinosaurs, and mammals.  Not a single invertebrate after the first appearance of insects.

Here’s another one from a professional development site for teachers.  It’s pretty consistent with the one above.  Invertebrates, fish, plants, amphibians, dinosaurs, large mammals, and finally man up at the top.

The point I’m belaboring here is that pictorial sequences of earth history and illustrated geologic time charts are as notable for their omissions as they are for what they include.  There’s a sort of implicit narrative thrust at work here, focused on organisms that are vertebrate, terrestrial, and warm-blooded.  Organisms, in other words, that seem most relevant to our own origins.

Now, I’ve never needed an excuse to discuss extinct organisms here before, but this post isn’t one of my gratuitous prehistoric indulgences.  I raise the issue of scenes from deep time because it offers insights into the ways we think about the more recent, human past.

We might compare the treatment of some historical subjects in textbooks and survey courses to depictions of organisms in pictorial sequences of deep time.  Just as illustrators render some animal groups invisible once a more recent group arrives on the scene, so we tend to render Indians invisible after, say, King Philip’s War, Jacksonian removal, or Wounded Knee.  But Native Americans didn’t vanish after these important turning points.  They might have ended up in a different location, but they didn’t become extinct or irrelevant, any more than amphibians became extinct once animals started laying amniotic eggs.

And the descendants of Spanish colonists in the American Southwest didn’t cease to exist after the mid-1800s, when Anglophone Americans took political control of the region.  They were there the whole time, just as birds kept fluttering along through the mass extinction of 65 million years ago and the emergence of large mammals afterward.

In the same way, just as it’s misleading to ignore marine life and focus exclusively on terrestrial life after the movement of the first organisms into land, it’s also misleading for history books and courses to ignore the Southwest after the passage of the “frontier” era, or to be attentive to southern history only during the Civil War, New South, and civil rights eras.  And our discussions of such important changes as the Industrial Revolution shouldn’t blind us to the fact that most Americans remained tied to agriculture long after the first steam engines started puttering, just as most organisms remained invertebrates long after the first backbones appeared.

Our selective memory of history suffers from the same problems as our selective memory of the story of the life on this planet.  We need to remind ourselves to step away from selective scenes of the past to take in the sweep of the whole drama.  And we need to stop thinking of history in terms of a “highlights reel” of status scenes, and start thinking of it as a totality.

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Filed under History and Memory, Teaching History