Tag Archives: historical memory

Will ‘Free State of Jones’ change any popular notions of the Civil War?

The trailer for Free State of Jones is out.  In case you haven’t seen it, here you go.

It’ll be interesting to see if this movie has any effect on popular notions of the Civil War, the South, and the Confederacy.  People have a tendency to equate the “Civil War South” with the Confederacy.  Using “the South” as shorthand for “the Confederacy” in the context of the Civil War is something we all do from time to time, but it’s important to remind ourselves that the two weren’t synonymous.

The Civil War divided Southerners just as it divided the nation as a whole.  This wasn’t just true in the sense that some states in the South never seceded; it was also true of many people living within Confederate territory.  For many Southerners faced with conscription, shortages, home guards, and requisitions of goods, the idea of rallying around the Confederate flag became more and more distasteful as the war dragged on.  And, of course, some Southerners in Confederate-held territory were never crazy about secession to begin with, as was the case for many people here in East Tennessee.

It’s also noteworthy to see a movie depicting blacks and whites engaged in anti-Confederate resistance.  The point here is not to fashion some myth of interracial amity in the nineteenth-century South.  The point, rather, is to consider black Southerners as Southerners—in other words, as real people with some degree of agency living in the South, rather than an inert mass simply awaiting the war’s outcome.  In other words, when we speak of a divided Civil War South, it’s easy to forget that white Southerners weren’t the only potential source of anti-Confederate dissent within the region.

I think a cinematic reminder of these Southern divisions in the Civil War would do us all some good, whatever region of the country we hail from.  A lot of neo-Confederates equate critiques of the C.S.A. with attacks on the South as a whole.  I can heartily agree with them that a lot of Americans carry unjustified and pernicious prejudices regarding this region, but remembering that “the Confederacy” and “the South” weren’t synonymous might help us all examine the C.S.A. a little more dispassionately.  Conversely, folks from the North who let the darker aspects of the South’s history determine their attitudes toward the region and its people might rethink those attitudes after seeing Newt Knight’s story.  Even in the 1860s, there were Southerners doing unexpected things.

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David Barton’s new TV gig

America’s favorite pseudohistorian now has his own show on the three-ring circus that is the Trinity Broadcasting Network.  That’s a formula for comedy gold—not as much as all that gilding on TBN’s sets, perhaps, but still quite a bit.

He’ll be in good company over there.  TBN evidently has a thing for self-appointed experts with dubious credentials.  One of their shows used to feature would-be creation scientist Carl Baugh, whose claims are so fatuous that even his fellow young Earth creationists have denounced him.

Barton’s apparent immunity from criticism never ceases to amaze me.  You’d think a guy who has been shown to be wrong as much as he has would eventually lose a little credibility.  I suppose when the criticism is coming from “a few dedicated liberal individuals,” you can afford to shrug it off.

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From coonskin caps to lightsabers

In a few days, Disneyland is closing some attractions—most of them in Frontierland—to make way for construction of a new Star Wars themed area.  The Disneyland Railroad, Davy Crockett’s Explorer Canoes, Mark Twain Riverboat, Sailing Ship Columbia, and Tom Sawyer Island Pirates’ Lair will be out of commission for at least a year, while the Big Thunder Ranch Jamboree, Petting Farm, and a frontier-themed BBQ restaurant are shutting down for good.

All the American Wests collide in Frontierland, from Twain’s Mississippi to the desert Southwest. By Chuck, aka SolGrundy on Flickr – https://www.flickr.com/photos/solgrundy/ (https://www.flickr.com/photos/solgrundy/380968586/) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

It’s somewhat fitting that Disney is replacing parts of Frontierland with Star Wars, because it reflects some long-term changes in the relationship between popular culture, childhood, and historical memory.

For kids of my parents’ and grandparents’ generation, the American frontier was the setting for a lot of the mass media they consumed and the toys they played with, whether they were listening to cowboy-themed radio shows in the 1930s or watching the wildly popular Davy Crockett serial on the Disneyland TV series in the 1950s.  The Crockett serial starring Fess Parker was so popular that it became a bona fide part of the Zeitgeist for children of the 1950s.  According to the L.A. Times, at the height of Crockettmania, parents were buying 5,000 coonskin caps per day.  The same article reports that Disney moved some $300 million in Crockett-themed merchandise before the whole thing ran its course.  I ran that figure through some inflation calculators.  Turns out $300 million in 1955 would be the equivalent of $2.6 billion in 2015.  To put that in perspective, it’s more than the 2013 merchandising revenue from Spider-Man, the Avengers, Batman, and Superman combined.

I can’t think of any historical-themed franchise aimed at kids from my generation or since that has had that kind of popularity.  Sure, I had a few Western-style cap guns, pirate swords, and toy rifles when I was a kid.  But the dominant media and toys of my childhood took fictional universes as their setting, not the frontier or some other historical era.  Instead of Crockett and the Swamp Fox, we had He-Man and Han Solo.  By the time my generation of kids came along, moviemakers and toy manufacturers had traded in the West for Eternia and Tatooine.  Same thing goes for today’s kids, whose cultural touchstones are the fictionalized worlds of Star Wars, Harry Potter, and so on.

I don’t intend this to come across as a “kids-these-days-don’t-know-their-history” rant.  It’s not that children of the seventies, eighties, nineties, and 2000s were any more susceptible to mass marketing or any less susceptible to a fascination with the past.  It’s just that the media and products aimed at kids have changed.  There aren’t any historical TV shows that can command the kind of market share ABC’s Disneyland show had sixty years ago, when there were fewer channels and the whole country was watching the same programs.

And despite the popularity of “historical” shows like the Crockett and Swamp Fox serials, I don’t think anybody would argue that they helped kids of the 1950s to develop any sort of historical sensibility.  The people and events depicted in these old programs bear little in common with their historical counterparts.  Indeed, Frontierland itself isn’t even a fictionalized depiction of any particular time or place.  Instead, it’s an imaginative evocation of all the different Wests of our imaginations: the palisaded forts of Crockett’s trans-Appalachian frontier, the steamboats of Twain’s Mississippi, the saloons and dance halls frequented by cowboys and gunslingers, and the dusty mining towns of the Southwest.

Still, exposure to a fictionalized past can help spark an interest in the real one.  Perhaps a history-themed entertainment franchise with the sort of popularity enjoyed by Harry Potter or Star Wars would create a new generation of budding historians.  As things stand now, though, I doubt that a major theme park built in the 2010s would devote an entire themed area to the frontier.  An amusement park with a Frontierland made sense in the 1950s, but the West just doesn’t have the same hold on kids’ imaginations that it did in the days of Roy Rogers and Fess Parker.  The past isn’t the mass-marketed playground it used to be.

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

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

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

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

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

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History at the movies in 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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“To give the truth of the thing”

After months of anticipation, I finally got to see Ron Howard’s In the Heart of the Sea on Thursday night.  The great age of Yankee whaling has always fascinated me, and the 1820 tragedy of the whaleship Essex is the stuff of which great movies are made, so I was really looking forward to this one.  Unfortunately, I left the theater feeling a little let down.

Part of the problem is the fact that the filmmakers fumble the ball when it comes to the very aspects of the story that have the most dramatic potential.  It’s almost as if Howard and company lose interest in their own movie once that malevolent sperm whale rams the Essex and sends it to the bottom of the Pacific.

It was that event which inspired the climax of Melville’s Moby-Dick, but what was the ending of Ishmael’s fictional adventure was only the beginning of the Essex crew’s months-long ordeal of exposure, starvation, despair, cannibalism, and (for nearly two-thirds of them) eventual death.  Curiously, though, the film gives the crew’s experiences after the sinking an almost cursory treatment.  It’s like reading a CliffsNotes version of Nathaniel Philbrick’s book: the story’s highlights are there, but there’s no heart.

But the main thing that irked me about the film is its treatment of the relationship between history and myth.  Putting this into words requires dropping quite a few spoilers, so read what follows at your own risk if you’re planning on seeing the movie (which I still recommend, despite my disappointment with it).

The marketing for the movie really hammered the connection between the Essex tragedy and Melville’s novel.  BASED ON THE INCREDIBLE TRUE STORY THAT INSPIRED MOBY-DICK, the posters proclaimed.  It’s not a bad PR move to link the film with such an instantly recognizable title.

And anybody who glanced at the cast list on IMDB before the movie’s release would’ve known that the Moby-Dick angle would come up in the film, since Melville is one of the characters (portrayed by Ben Whishaw, the same actor who plays Q in the new Bond movies).

The historical Melville did indeed cross paths with a few people who had close ties to the Essex tragedy.  While at sea as a crew member of the whaler Acushnet, he met the son of Owen Chase, first mate on the Essex‘s final voyage and the main character in Howard’s movie.  William Chase loaned Melville a copy of his father’s published account of the disaster; Melville recalled that reading it “had a surprising effect upon me,” and he included a quote from it in the “Extracts” at the beginning of Moby-Dick.   Years later, after his novel’s publication, Melville visited the Essex‘s home port of Nantucket and met the ill-fated ship’s captain, George Pollard.

Thomas Nickerson’s sketch of the whale’s attack on the Essex. Nantucket Historical Association via Wikimedia Commons

These incidents apparently weren’t sufficient for the makers of In the Heart of the Sea.  Rather than having Melville meet Chase’s son during a gam or Captain Pollard after Moby-Dick‘s publication, the movie has a fictional framing device in which Melville travels to Nantucket while working on his book to interview Thomas Nickerson, the Essex‘s former cabin boy.  In the film, the aged Nickerson has refused to speak of the tragedy to anyone.  He reluctantly agrees to tell his story to Melville only because his wife persuades him that they need the money.

As I’ve said before, I don’t mind dramatic license in historical movies when it’s used to good effect, but it irks me when filmmakers substitute a fictional episode for the truth when the truth would serve just as well.  I think that’s the case with the movie’s fictional meeting between Melville and Nickerson.

Is the notion of Melville hearing the tale from Nickerson any more dramatic than what actually happened, when the young would-be writer read a copy of Chase’s account given to him by the first mate’s own son, aboard a whaler, and (as Melville himself recalled) “so close to the very latitude of the shipwreck” itself?  I don’t see how the movie’s fictional framing device is an improvement.  In fact, since Chase is the film’s protagonist, it makes more sense to tell the story from his perspective rather than Nickerson’s, although the former cabin boy later wrote his own account of the disaster.

And while the fictional Nickerson-Melville interview provides many poignant moments, surely Melville’s actual encounter with Captain Pollard was just as poignant as anything the filmmakers could have contrived, if not more so.  By the time Melville met Pollard, the former whaling master was a broken man.  On his next voyage after the Essex tragedy he captained a ship that ran aground and sank off Hawaii.*  Marked as a cursed man, he never took command of a whaling ship again.  He spent his last years as Nantucket’s night watchman.  “To the islanders he was a nobody,” Melville wrote of the aged captain.  “To me, the most impressive man, tho’ wholly unassuming, even humble—that I ever encountered.”

Even more puzzling to me was another bit of dramatic license.  The filmmakers evidently decided that “the incredible true story that inspired Moby-Dick” needed to include Moby Dick himself.

In the film, the Essex hits a dry spell in which their prey is scarce; frustrated, the captain and mates stop over in South America, where they meet a group of fellow whalers who have come from an area in the southern Pacific swarming with sperm whales.  But the other crew also warns them that a malevolent white whale is also prowling those waters.  Undaunted, Pollard and his crew strike out, only to come face-to-face with the mottled white whale himself—the very whale, as it turns out, who rams the Essex and dooms her crew to their long ordeal on the open sea.  The mottled whale reappears periodically throughout the movie, apparently pursuing the stranded crew across hundreds of miles of ocean for reasons that are never clear.  The overall effect is to turn what was already a gripping story of survival into something like Jaws—or perhaps the 1977 film Orca, in which Richard Harris does battle with a killer whale out for revenge against the man who killed its mate.

There really was a historical white whale nicknamed Mocha Dick who acquired a fearsome reputation around the waters off South America in the early 1800s.  That was another source of inspiration for Melville.  But since the movie touts itself as the “incredible true story” behind Moby-Dick, why re-fictionalize the Essex tragedy by adding in the very same elements that Melville did?  The film promises us the kernel of historical truth behind a great work of fiction, only to obscure that truth behind fictional embellishments taken from the novel.  It seems like a horribly unnecessary step backward.

Surely the most compelling thing about the story behind In the Heart of the Sea is the fact that it’s a true story.  That awesome climax of Melville’s novel really did happen; an enraged leviathan really did send a whaling ship to the bottom of the sea, setting off an ordeal of death, despair, and survival that is remarkable enough on its own without any dramatic license.

I think the filmmakers’ liberties with the Essex story reflect something about the relationship between history, drama, and memory more generally.  Some historical incidents and figures acquire cultural significance when talented writers and filmmakers come along and embellish them, turning them into stories that move people in a way that only great fiction or drama can.  And because the stories move people so deeply, they often want to get at the truth behind them, if only to come as close as possible to touching those fictional characters.  Thus historic sites linked to these embellished stories play up those links in their marketing; likewise for non-fiction books that promise to tell the true stories behind some legend, novel, or popular movie.  But often, when people finally encounter the historical truth behind those stories and characters they love, that truth only disappoints them.  The reason is because great stories rarely just happen.  Great storytellers know how to glean bits of truth from the world around them and remake them into something meaningful by means of their own imaginations.

Melville had that magic touch.  The wreck of the Essex gave him the spectacular ending to the story he wanted to tell.  But the Essex tragedy is one of those rare instances where the truth is just as dramatic and compelling as what the storyteller made of it.  That, I think, is what the filmmakers lost sight of.  We’ve already got Moby-Dick; we didn’t need another fictionalized take on the Essex.  The “incredible true story” on its own would have been…well, incredible.

That’s not to say that all dramatic license is off-limits when making historical movies.  To spin a good yarn, it’s necessary to (as Melville himself put it) “throw in a little fancy.”  But even while writing his novel, he claimed that he aimed “to give the truth of the thing, spite of this.”  I had hoped the filmmakers would “give the truth of the thing” when I sat down to watch In the Heart of the Sea.  Instead, it seems they took the advice of the newsman in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance: Melville’s legend became fact, so they filmed the legend.

*A few years ago, NOAA archaeologists found the remains of this ship, the first discovery of a sunken Nantucket whaler.

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Would a monument cure America’s slavery amnesia?

Blain Roberts and Ethan Kytle call for a national monument to slavery in an op-ed for The New York Times:

White Americans have long used monuments to propagate a flawed understanding of slavery and its role in the Civil War. When Charlestonians raised a memorial to the South Carolina statesman John C. Calhoun in 1896, they praised his dedication to truth, justice and the Constitution — ignoring his devotion to slavery, which he famously called “a positive good.”

Hundreds of similar monuments convinced generations of white Southerners, and others, that the Confederacy had gone to war to defend states’ rights, liberty and the Southern way of life. Anything but slavery.

Rather than relegating slavery to the margins of memory, we must place it front and center. Decades ago, scholars demolished claims that slavery did not cause the Civil War and debunked fairy tales about faithful slaves and doting masters. New research has gone further, exposing how American capitalism and democracy — once thought to be antithetical to slavery — emerged hand-in-hand with it.

Our nation’s capital is replete with memorials to presidents and veterans. Why not raise a slave monument alongside them? Congress actually entertained the idea in 2003, when the National Slave Memorial Act was introduced, but ultimately authorized the Smithsonian Museum of African American History and Culture instead.

There seem to be two impulses at work here, one commemorative and the other pedagogical.  I think a national monument to slavery would only address the former.

Monuments are great if you want to commemorate and pay tribute.  They constitute a visible, public statement about what a community thinks is important about its past.

As educational devices, though, monuments aren’t exactly the most effective instruments.  If the aim is to counter mythical Lost Cause narratives or to propagate knowledge about the links between slavery, democracy, and capitalism, then the sort of sustained and serious public history effort we can expect from the NMAAHC will do far, far more good than a memorial on the National Mall.

I hasten to add that I don’t think a national slavery monument is a bad idea.  I just don’t think it would address the issues regarding public understanding of the history of slavery that Roberts and Kytle have identified.

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