". . . But the past does not exist independently from the present. Indeed, the past is only past because there is a present, just as I can point to something over there only because I am here. But nothing is inherently over there or here. In that sense, the past has no content. The past -- or more accurately, pastness -- is a position. Thus, in no way can we identify the past as past." p. 15

". . . But we may want to keep in mind that deeds and words are not as distinguishable as often we presume. History does not belong only to its narrators, professional or amateur. While some of us debate what history is or was, others take it into their own hands." p. 153

Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History (1995) by Michel-Rolph Trouillot

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Academic Historical Scholarship vs. Hollywood View of History

What is this controversey about?

"Over the last few weeks, the writers of a pair of Civil War-era histories about the anti-Confederate inhabitants of Jones County, Miss., have been trading barbs in an unusual public spat. It began when the author of one book, rights to which had been sold to Universal Pictures and the filmmaker Gary Ross, discovered that Mr. Ross had spurred the publication of a new and somewhat sexier work on the same subject."

What is meant here, by 'sexier' is that the trade version (which based itself upon the academic work) is this:

“The State of Jones: The Small Southern County That Seceded From the Confederacy,” a narrative history by the Harvard scholar John Stauffer and the Washington Post writer Sally Jenkins. The book, which on Monday was ranked No. 83 on Amazon’s best-seller list, presented Newton Knight, the leader of the renegade county, as a morally driven hero in the mold of John Brown — but whose appeal was enhanced by his romance with an ex-slave who, in the book’s account, became the love of his life as relations with his white wife cooled.

Whereas, the author of the academic history objects:

. . . . She particularly objected to what she saw as the new book’s tendency to romanticize Mr. Knight and his love life, its insistence on the idea that Jones County actually seceded and its attempt to place Mr. Knight at the Battle of Vicksburg — touches that do not hurt the story’s cinematic potential.

“If they had said this was a historical novel, I could understand it,” Ms. Bynum said in a telephone interview this week, referring specifically to the portrayal of Mr. Knight’s relationship with his mistress, Rachel Knight. Ms. Bynum, in her review, pointed to evidence that what she called Mr. Knight’s “philandering” also led him to father four or more children by Rachel’s own daughter.

What makes this situation even more complicated is that the academic historian, Victoria Bynum, published her history with the North Carolina University Press 8 years ago, which press then sold the rights to it to Universal Pictures. This means, if you are educated in such things, that she got NOTHING out of this deal, university presses being what they are. In the meantime a fellow who worked on the script, a Gary Ross, who you all being who you are, may recognize as currently working on the script for Spiderman 4) got a lucrative deal from Doubleday, for his book, which borrows egregiously frolm Bynum'ss, and then changes the facts so far as they are known.


More than anything else though, me being who I am, I suppose that what chaps Ms. Bynum most is this change of facts: " ... Mr. Knight’s “philandering” also led him to father four or more children by Rachel’s own daughter." For her it's probably how I feel, for instance, about anyone talking about Jefferson's relationship with Sally Hemmings and neglecting to mention that she was his white wife's sister-and-slave.

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