Tag Archives: The West

Crichton’s ‘Dragon Teeth’ and the fossil frontier

According to his widow, the seeds of Michael Crichton’s posthumously published Dragon Teeth began to germinate in the 1970s.  That was long before the appearance of his most famous work about an island theme park with genetically engineered dinosaurs.  But Dragon Teeth is not so much a forerunner of Jurassic Park as a spiritual cousin to his other works of historical fiction, The Great Train Robbery and Pirate Latitudes.  Just as his techno-thrillers have enough scientific ballast to create a sense of verisimilitude that no other modern suspense novelist has surpassed, Dragon Teeth is grounded in the history of science and the late nineteenth-century West.  This is a story based on actual events, populated by figures who were once very real.

Image from michaelcrichton.com

Most prominent among these historical figures are rival naturalists Othniel Charles Marsh and Edward Drinker Cope, whose bitter professional and political feud dominated American paleontology in the late nineteenth century.  The relationship between Marsh and Cope was initially cordial, with the two men collecting specimens together and naming species for one another.  In the 1870s, however, their collegiality gave way to competition, and finally open conflict.  They bribed one another’s collectors, employed spies, sabotaged each other’s professional and political appointments, and smeared one another in the public press.  The “Bone Wars,” as historians of science term the feud, ended only with Cope’s death in 1897.  In their haste to beat one another to the punch, Cope and Marsh rushed their assistants’ discoveries into print, generating taxonomic confusion that present-day paleontologists are still trying to sort out.  But their competition did bring to light dozens of new species, including some of the dinosaurs that are dearest to the popular imagination: BrontosaurusApatosaurusStegosaurusAllosaurus, and Triceratops.

Crichton’s protagonist is William Johnson, privileged son of a Philadelphia family and a Yale freshman who signs on to a Marsh expedition in 1876.  Stranded in Wyoming, he falls in with a collecting party led by Cope and heads to the badlands in search of dinosaurs.  Johnson is Crichton’s creation, but Cope did lead a fossil hunt into the badlands in America’s centennial year.  Many of the incidents related in the novel did indeed occur on that expedition, as chronicled by the enterprising bone hunter (and devoted Cope disciple) Charles H. Sternberg in his 1909 autobiography.  Sternberg appears as a secondary character in Dragon Teeth; so do other individuals who signed on to dig for Cope.

Other, more conventionally well-known historical figures, localities, and episodes from the history of the trans-Mississippi West also figure in Dragon Teeth.  In fact, it would be accurate to call this book a “fact-based Western novel” in addition to a work of historical fiction.  The battlegrounds of the Bone Wars were the great fossil beds of the trans-Mississippi frontier, and the discovery and exploitation of these fields coincided in time with the “Old West” of cowboys, Indians, and buffalo.  In his effort to get Cope’s specimens back East, Johnson crosses paths with gunslingers, hostile tribesmen, raucous boomtown miners, swindlers, and bandits—all the conventional perils that popular memory associates with the American West.

The book employs American frontier mythology in another sense, too.  Johnson goes West not out of scientific curiosity, but to satisfy a wager with a classmate.  For Crichton, as for so many other writers who have made the frontier their subject, the West is thus a place of seasoning, a dangerous environment in which a fellow might test his mettle and make something of himself.

If the novel’s account of Cope’s ’76 expedition hews to the historical record, the book does take some liberties.  Crichton himself lists some of them in an author’s note.  Most puzzling—to me, anyway—is his attribution of a notable dinosaur genus to Cope’s expedition that is familiar to paleophiles as a Marsh discovery.  Crichton states that Sternberg’s autobiography claimed this animal for Cope, but I take Sternberg’s remark as an attempt to claim priority for Cope’s dinosaur work in general, rather than crediting him with bringing he specific animal in question to light.  Crichton also seems to place this discovery in sediments from the Cretaceous Period, when the animal lived millions of years earlier, during the Jurassic.  In addition, the characters in Dragon Teeth use the correct absolute dates for the fossils they find, but the development of radiometric dating techniques came after the events in the novel.  (As late as the early twentieth century, some paleontologists ascribed a date of only three or four million years to the last dinosaurs.)  Finally, Crichton’s Sternberg has no qualms about using profanity.  Given the man’s intense and sincere religiosity, the strikes me as unlikely.

But these are quibbles, the stuff of paleo-geekery.  Dragon Teeth is an absolute delight.  It doesn’t feature as much of the rumination on the possibilities and limitations of science, technology, and knowledge that is a Crichton hallmark, but it’s an engaging yarn.  I think good historical fiction should be a bit like an artistic reconstruction of an extinct animal.  You take the hard bits of verifiable evidence, you flesh out the bones with some careful inference, and then you let your imagination go to work.  That’s what Crichton accomplished with this book.  The story bounces along like a stagecoach through a landscape full of thrills and wonders.  And as with all of Crichton’s posthumously published books, turning the last page will leave you with a bittersweet feeling—you’re elated by the ride you’ve just taken, but you remember that you were in the hands of a singular creator who left us far too soon.

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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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Talking history at UT this fall

Here are three upcoming lectures at the University of Tennessee you might be interested in if you’re a a history aficionado.

First up is the 2016 Charles O. Jackson Memorial Lecture, held every fall semester in honor of a former faculty member in the Department of History.  This year’s speaker is Dr. Elliott West, Alumni Distinguished Professor of History at the University of Arkansas and past president of the Western History Association.  His books include The Contested Plains: Indians, Goldseekers, and the Rush to Colorado (winner of the Francis Parkman Prize) and The Last Indian War: The Nez Perce Story.  Dr. West will be discussing the West before Lewis and Clark.  This talk is this coming Monday, Oct. 3 at 5:00 p.m. in UT’s Howard Baker Center, room 103.

Later this fall, the McClung Museum is hosting two lectures on Knoxville’s history in conjunction with the new exhibit on historic archaeology and in celebration of the city’s 225th birthday.  On Sunday, Oct. 30 at 2:00 p.m. Jack Neely will present “Subterranean Knoxville: The Buried Narrative of a Distracted City” in the museum’s auditorium.  Neely has written a number of books on Knoxville’s history, including Market Square: A History of the Most Democratic Place on Earth and Knoxville: This Obscure Prismatic City.  He is also a longtime journalist, a regular contributor to the Knoxville Mercury, director of the Knoxville History Project, and the guy who probably knows more about this city and its past than anybody.

On Sunday, Nov. 6 at 2:00 p.m. Kim Trent of Knox Heritage will be at the museum to discuss historic preservation in Knoxville.  The folks at Knox Heritage have been working on behalf of this city’s historic structures for years, and they do some great stuff.

All three of these events are free, so if you’re in the Knoxville area, come by for a little historical edification.  And if you haven’t seen Knoxville Unearthed yet, you can check it out while you’re here.

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Filed under Appalachian History, Historic Preservation, Tennessee History

When does it count as “American history”?

Here’s an excerpt from a post by Erin Bartram that really hit home for me:

To put it bluntly, I’ve observed the following patterns in how we casually talk and write about individuals in the past.

  • men tell us about “America,” women tell us about women
  • New Englanders tell us about “America,” Southerners and Westerners tell us about regional culture
  • Protestants tell us about “America,” Catholics tell us about Catholicism and maybe also the Irish
  • white Americans tell us about “America,” non-white people tell us about…a variety of things, but rarely America

It’s obviously not as simple as that, but I think when we’re confronted with a dominant versus a non-dominant group, our analytical brains go in different directions; for the dominant group, we go broad, and for the non-dominant group, we go narrow.

Bingo.  I think we all have a tendency to think of “American history” as having a sort of default setting, and that default setting is basically the history of white guys on the northeastern seaboard.  If you’re not white, not a guy, and not a resident of the northeastern seaboard, then we assume that your history is a part of American history, but it’s not really synonymous with “American history.”  Instead, we assume that it’s some particularized subset of history: women’s history, black history, regional history, gender history, Western history, etc.

In terms of race and sex, I’m a member of two dominant groups.  One of the few senses in which I’m historiographically non-dominant is in terms of geography.  I’m from southern Appalachia, so I tend to notice this sort of unconscious “default setting” for American history when it bears on region.  I think even people who are used to thinking about history in a sophisticated fashion tend to assume that Appalachian history is strictly regional history; it doesn’t really count as “American history.”  And yet when you see how extensive Appalachia really is…

By Jax42 at en.wikipedia (http://www.arc.gov/images/regionmap.gif) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

By Jax42 at en.wikipedia (http://www.arc.gov/images/regionmap.gif) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

…it’s hard to justify the assumption that the history of this region doesn’t speak to American history as a whole.  It’s a pretty good-sized chunk of the country.

Same thing goes for Western history.  Think about the last college survey text you looked at.  Was material on the West more or less limited to chapters on the trans-Mississippi frontier and Populism?  Did the more general chapters on large-scale developments and eras in “American history” take the West into account?  They certainly should have, because once you exclude what we dismissively call “the West”…

By Grayshi, Roke (Own work, File:BlankMap-USA-states.PNG) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)], via Wikimedia Commons

By Grayshi, Roke (Own work, File:BlankMap-USA-states.PNG) [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

…”America” suddenly looks a whole lot smaller.

The issue isn’t that there are concerns that are rightly specific to or more pronounced in Appalachian history, Western history, women’s history, black history, Catholic history, and so on.  Any discipline will develop specializations, and historians who specialize will inevitably engage in scholarly conversations that will be of particular interest to others in the same sub-field.  The issue, rather, is our tendency to see certain sub-fields as nothing but sub-fields while turning others into stand-ins for the discipline as a whole.  “American history” isn’t synonymous with the history of white Protestant guys in the northeastern U.S.  And the best way to drive that point home, I think, is for everyone who works on the history of non-dominant groups to be as bold and daring as they can when it comes to thinking about how their projects speak to the entire discipline of American history.  Don’t think of yourself as a scholar of a marginalized subject; think of your subject as a vehicle to approach American history from a different perspective.

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Filed under Appalachian History, Historiography, History and Memory

Frontier types in ‘The Revenant’

It’s nice to see The Revenant getting some attention during movie awards season.  Although it takes quite a few liberties with the Hugh Glass story, it’s a well-made film and a powerful depiction of the hardships and dangers endured by the nineteenth-century fur traders.

One of the things that struck me about the movie is the way its two main characters reflect contrasting frontier archetypes, set apart by their interactions with the West’s original inhabitants.  These archetypes appear and again over the course of the American frontier’s history, from the colonial era through the late nineteenth century.

The Trapper’s Bride by Alfred Jacob Miller, via Wikimedia Commons

For some people, the frontier was a liminal realm where cultural and racial barriers broke down and where a degree of mutual accommodation and hybridity was possible.  Moving and living among Indians, these traders, trappers, and missionaries straddled the border between the worlds in which they were born and the ones they inhabited.  Examples of this type would include the coureurs de bois of New France, who sometimes too up residence among Indians, learned their languages, adopted their dress and customs, and married into their societies.  Another would be Simon Girty, who assimilated into Indian culture and fought with Britain’s Native allies in the American Revolution.

In the film, Hugh Glass (the title character played by Leonardo DiCaprio) comes across as this type of frontiersman.  Formerly married to an Indian woman, he has a mixed-race son and is himself bilingual, as fluent in the language of the Indians he encounters as he is in English.  The film’s Glass thus represents a particular frontier archetype: the white man for whom cultural and ethnic barriers are permeable.

Richard Slotkin has referred to the archetypal “man who knows Indians” in frontier literature.  This figure is often a warrior; he uses his familiarity with Indians to defeat them on their own terms, demonstrating his own superiority in the process.  The Revenant‘s take is a little different.  While Glass has violent encounters with Indians, the point of his ordeal is not so much that he survives by killing Native foes, but rather the fact of his survival itself.  Indeed, his ability to communicate and interact with Indians on something like an equal footing plays an important role in his survival.

If some historians have portrayed the frontier as a zone of adaptation and exchange, other scholars have portrayed it as a realm prone to explosions of bloody conflict.  From this perspective, the frontier was not a place where cultures overlapped and blended, but a place where they collided and ground against each other like tectonic plates.  For many frontier whites, familiarity with Indians bred contempt rather than accommodation.  They had no use for Natives, nor for the easterners who stood in the way of extirpating them.  The work of Peter Silver, David Andrew Nichols, Patrick Griffin, Brendan Lindsey, and Ned Blackhawk reminds us how prevalent this “Indianophobia” could become.  Historical representatives of the Indian-hating westerner would be men such as the Paxton Boys or the perpetrators of the slaughter of peaceful Christian Indians at Gnadenhutten.  An individual example would be John Kirk, Jr., who murdered a group of Cherokees under a flag of truce to avenge the massacre of his own family at Indian hands in East Tennessee during the 1780s.

In The Revenant, the treacherous John Fitzgerald (played to chilling effect by Tom Hardy) is the archetypal Indian-hating frontiersman.  He is suspicious of Glass for his past residence with the Pawnees, and is openly contemptuous of the son Glass fathered with an Indian wife.  Perhaps Fitzgerald’s hatred for Indians is as personal as Kirk’s, since the kerchief he wears on his head covers the scars of a scalping he survived and can still vividly recall.

I don’t know if the filmmakers intended Glass and Fitzgerald to stand in for these two contrasting types of frontiersman, the cultural hybrid and the Indian-hater.  But the degree to which the characters reflect the varied ways whites dealt with the frontier and its Indian inhabitants suggests a greater degree of historical sensibility than we usually get from Hollywood.  In any case, I recommend you see the movie for yourself.

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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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When the legend becomes Wikipedia, print the legend

I was at the grocery store the other day and ran across Bill O’Reilly’s Legends & Lies: The Real West, the companion volume to the ten-part TV series.  O’Reilly’s name is in the title, but the cover lists David Fisher as writer, so I’m assuming Fisher did the heavy lifting.  Anyway, it’s selling like crazy.

Nobody in their right mind should expect a glossy, heavily illustrated TV companion book to be a model of scholarly rigor.  But it looks like O’Reilly/Fisher really phoned this one in, even by the lackadaisical standards of pop history.

Check this out (sorry about the pic quality; snapped this on my phone in the store):

Yep, that’s Wikipedia on a list of “especially trustworthy” websites.  Wikipedia, for crying out loud.

Now you can all rest easier, knowing that your kids’ middle school research papers meet the same benchmarks as bestselling history books.

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