Tag Archives: historical memory

Lincoln’s short-term legacy

One of the things that surprised me about The Republic for Which It Stands, Richard White’s volume on Reconstruction and the Gilded Age in the Oxford History of the United States, is how large Lincoln’s shadow looms over the whole book.  The previous volume in the series, James McPherson’s Battle Cry of Freedom, ends with Lincoln’s assassination.  White picks up the story with his funeral, and many of the issues he brings to the fore in the body of the book are those in which Lincoln was deeply invested: the trans-Mississippi West as a haven for free labor, national unity reinforced through infrastructure, the fate of African Americans, the ascendancy of the Republican Party, and the struggle to build an egalitarian society of independent producers.

“Abraham Lincoln: The Martyr President,” by Currier and Ives. Library of Congress (LC-DIG-pga-03167).

These problems that dominated American life in the late nineteenth century lay at the heart of the “Greater Reconstruction,” a term White borrows from Elliott West.  The end goal was to propagate homogeneous, prosperous communities of free and independent householders—communities much like Lincoln’s own hometown of Springfield, Illinois.  Springfield, White claims, was “as close as any actual place could be to the template that the North planned to use in recasting the South, as well as the West” (p. 136).

But White’s book is also an account of disillusionment.  At the end of the story, the Greater Reconstruction has failed.  Since the tale begins with Lincoln’s death and revisits so many of the problems he supposedly resolved, the Greater Reconstruction’s failure raises troubling questions about Lincoln’s legacy.

Did Lincoln succeed?  To most Americans, the answer is self-evident.  The Union triumphed, the nation remained united, and legalized slavery came to an end.  Lincoln himself died, but he died a martyr, having completed what he called “the great task” of reaffirming the American promise.  But all this assumes that the story ends in April 1865.

Anti-slavery Whig and eventual Republican that he was, Lincoln idealized free labor.  He considered it a stepping-stone to becoming an independent producer.  “There is no permanent class of hired laborers amongst us,” he once said.  “The hired laborer of yesterday, labors on his own account to-day; and will hire others to labor for him to-morrow.”  Slavery’s end marked the destruction of one great obstacle standing in the way of this ideal of self-advancement.  But for many Americans, the path to full independence and sufficiency remained closed.  The late nineteenth century witnessed some of the most bitter and violent contests between capital and labor.  Contract labor during Reconstruction and the Gilded Age may have been “free,” but in many cases it remained exploitative, and hardly a temporary way station on the road to prosperity and independence.

Nor did the end of slavery mean realization of racial equality.  We think of emancipation as Lincoln’s most enduring legacy.  But subordination of African Americans by means of terrorism, economic dependency, and legalized inequality continued into Reconstruction and the Gilded Age.  It’s more difficult to celebrate the “new birth of freedom” Lincoln proclaimed at Gettysburg when you consider the reversals that came after.

As a Whig, Lincoln envisioned a united nation bound together by transportation and trade.  And as a Republican, he wanted the West to be settled by free laborers and landholders.  Here, too, White and other historians have painted a bleak picture of the decades following the Civil War.  Secessionism collapsed, but sectionalism persisted.  The transportation networks and markets that Lincoln and other Whigs had long wanted penetrated more deeply into the American landscape than ever before, but White claims that the late nineteenth century’s great railroads were more effective at forging interregional links than truly transcontinental ones.  And while the Civil War settled the question of whether the West would be slave or free, the period after the war saw much of the frontier engrossed by monopolists and speculators rather than egalitarian homesteaders.

The upshot here is that if you use 1865 as the end date for the “Age of Lincoln,” then Lincoln was a victorious martyr.  But if you use 1877 or 1898 as a terminal point, his success comes with important qualifications.

Should we make space to deal with the problematic nature of Lincoln’s short-term legacy when telling his story in exhibits, documentaries, and popular books?  On the one hand, it might help address Americans’ amnesia about Reconstruction.  On the other hand…well, the idea of the victorious martyr (shot on Good Friday, no less!) is about as compelling as you can get from a narrative standpoint.

But I think there’s a sense in which the reversals and the unfinished business that followed Lincoln’s death doesn’t diminish his historical stature, but magnifies it.  If it’s true that the “great task” wasn’t completely finished in 1865, it’s also true that it’s not completely finished today.  And that makes the study of Lincoln and his legacy much more relevant than it would be if we could wrap the whole thing up with a bow and relegate it to a chapter of our history long since closed.

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Last stand of the Regulators

Alamance Battleground had been on my bucket list for many years, so I stopped by for a visit on my way back from a research trip a couple of weeks ago.  It’s a small site, but its story is very important to the history of the eighteenth-century backcountry

Settlers in the North Carolina uplands had a great deal to be upset about in the years leading up to the American Revolution.  Underrepresented in the provincial legislature, they were also subject to exorbitant taxation and fees by corrupt local officials who were, in the words of Richard Beeman, “as feckless, venal, and larcenous a lot as existed anywhere in America.”  Exasperated backcountry farmers—”Regulators,” as they called themselves—responded by breaking up courts and engaging in some of the same resistance tactics that seaboard colonists were employing against British taxation.

The revolt came to a head at Adamance, where a force of approximately 2,000 armed Regulators faced off against just over 1,000 militiamen under the command of Gov. William Tryon on May 16, 1771.

Here’s a view from near the Regulator lines, facing toward the position taken by Tryon’s men.

And here’s another, this time facing the Regulators’ position from the opposite side of the field.

After trading volleys with Tryon’s militia, the Regulators broke.  At least nine men died on each side (Tryon’s losses may have been higher).  The governor hanged one prisoner in his camp nearby; six more went to the gallows in Hillsborough the following month.  One of the condemned men appears on the plaque affixed to this monument, which was originally placed at the Guilford Courthouse battlefield in 1901 and moved to Alamance in 1962.

The fact that a monument to the Regulators’ defeat once sat on North Carolina’s largest Revolutionary War battlefield is significant.  Early chroniclers referred to Alamance as the “first battle of the American Revolution,” with determined farmers standing up to a tyrannical government headed by a royal appointee.  This monument, dedicated in 1880, identifies the combatants at Adamance as “THE BRITISH AND THE REGULATORS,” although the men in Tryon’s ranks were the Regulators’ fellow colonists.

The actual relationship between the Regulators and the Revolution was more complicated.  The rebels had indeed defied a royal governor.  But a good part of the blame for their predicament lay with the eastern Carolinians who dominated the colonial legislature and kept backcountry concerns marginalized in provincial politics.  And it was just such men who, calling themselves Patriots, led the protest movement against imperial taxation.  When the Revolutionary War broke out and these easterners looked westward for support, many backcountry citizens were still nursing grievances from the Regulator dispute.  The same thing happened in South Carolina, which underwent a separate Regulator movement in the 1760s.

The Regulation wasn’t a dress rehearsal for the Revolution.  Instead, it made the Whigs’ task of mobilizing the backcountry more difficult when war with Britain came.  As a result, both Carolinas went into that war divided, and British armies would find some of their most zealous supporters among the backcountry colonists that seaboard Patriots had antagonized.

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Commercializing the Confederacy in museum gift shops

By Joe Haupt from USA [CC BY-SA 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

If you haven’t already, check out Nick Sacco’s thoughtful post on Civil War site gift shops over at Muster.  The potential of gift shop merchandise to trivialize or compromise a museum’s historical integrity is a problem I’ve touched on here in the past.

It’s a much more immediate concern to me now that I’m running a Lincoln/Civil War site.  In fact, at the same time I ran across Sacco’s post, we were dealing with this very issue at the ALLM.  We just received a huge order of stock for our gift shop, which prompted a discussion in the office about merchandise with the Confederate battle flag.

In the past—in the pretty recent past, actually—many Civil War sites would stock souvenirs featuring the flag without a second thought.  Indeed, a lot of sites and museums sold miniature CBFs themselves.  But in the wake of recent violence associated with the flag, and because of closer consideration of the flag’s historical meanings prompted by that violence, museums and sites are proceeding more carefully.  As Sacco notes, the National Park Service has stopped selling standalone Confederate flags.

But what about selling other items with Confederate iconography, like the miniature kepis emblazoned with the flag that Sacco spotted at the General Lew Wallace Study & Museum?  Items like this encourage kids to situate their play in history, directing their imagination into historical channels.  This playful engagement with the past might seem insubstantial, but in many cases it’s the sort of thing that makes future historians and history enthusiasts. Quite a few of you reading this probably started out by role-playing mock battles with toy guns and hats before moving on to books, battlefield trips, and perhaps careers in history. But is a Confederate flag on top of a toy kepi less problematic than one flying from a staff?  A lot of folks would say no; indeed, some might argue that it’s even more problematic. What about those bags of plastic soldiers that are a staple of every Civil War site’s gift shop?

Here’s another example to consider. A few years ago I picked up a t-shirt at a museum in Corinth, MS.  The back features an illustration of the death of Col. John Rogers, who fell after seizing his regiment’s colors in the attack on Battery Robinett.  I bought it partly because, while working in an exhibit, I’d done some research on the photograph of Rogers’s body taken after the battle, and partly just because I wanted a shirt from my trip.  It’s not really a “Confederate flag t-shirt” per se, but the battle flag is a pretty prominent part of the image on the back. Should a museum gift shop rethink stocking an item like that in the wake of Charleston and Charlottesville?

If you’re on staff at a Civil War museum or site, where do you draw the line when it comes to selling items with Confederate iconography?  Does your site have a hard and fast policy in place, or is it handled on a case-by-case basis?  Or is this something that hasn’t even come up for consideration?

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Stopping Reconstruction from falling through the cracks

Kevin Gannon has some worthwhile remarks on teaching Reconstruction.  He notes that one of the reasons we fail to do the subject justice is the way we divide the two halves of the U.S. survey course:

The standard two-semester survey model, for example, can give short shrift to a thorough examination of the postwar era. How many times has Reconstruction been pushed to the last day or two of class because we get behind in the schedule? And many of us start the second semester of the survey with the assumption that students “got Reconstruction” in the first portion? But what if they didn’t? Or what about those students who haven’t taken the first half of the survey?

I agree.  Cleaving the U.S. survey in twain at the 1865 or 1877 mark, as is customary, has consequences.  If you’re teaching the first half and you’re running low on time toward the end of the semester, it’s easy to gloss over Reconstruction.  And if you’re teaching the second half, you’re faced with two unsatisfactory options.  You can pick up the story at the end of the war and launch right into Reconstruction, but that separates the subject from the context out of which it arose.  Or you can leapfrog over Reconstruction and hope that whoever had your students the previous semester got around to it.

Of course, there’s an artificiality and arbitrariness inherent in any periodization scheme, and splitting the survey at any other point would create different problems.  But one thing I’ve done in the past is to begin the second half of the survey with the debate over the nature of Reconstruction between Lincoln and Radical Republicans.  That helps underscore what was at stake in the postwar period, and gets students thinking about Reconstruction as something other than an epilogue to Appomattox, a sort of post-credits scene after the main plot has been wrapped up.

I also think it’s useful to bring in historiography when dealing with Reconstruction in the survey.  Have students read some excerpts from the Dunning School, and then follow up with some DuBois.  This not only gets them thinking critically about the period, but also conveys a sense of history as a contest of interpretations and explanations.

By Waud, Alfred R. (Alfred Rudolph), 1828-1891, artist. [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

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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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