". . . 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

Saturday, December 18, 2010

The Virginian Rides Again on AMC

Recently I learned that the network which brought us the lauded historical fiction series, Mad Men, will be presenting us more fictional versions of history:

[ Hell On Wheels is at its heart a vengeance story about an ex-Confederate rebel hunting the Union soldiers who killed his wife, as well as a gritty Western that takes place in the lawless, eponymous traveling camp of the title. ]

You can see why this distresses anyone who knows anything about the history of that period and what preceded this era of American history?  Worse, since it is the network of Mad Men, who most people believe gets most things right (though I've seen some really glaring period errors, particularlily dealing with 'women's things'), people are going to think this series will be telling it like it was too, which means perpetuating the outright lies, revisionisms and falsification fantasies that began about the Civil War and slavery long before South Carolina seceded or fired on Fort Sumter or War was declared by Abraham Lincoln's congress.

Do we need to say that civilian deaths at the hands of Union soldiers were very, very, very few, and that a Confed officer's wife was killed by a Union soldier because she was married to a Confed officer -- there are no records of this happening.  There are records of Union soldiers being courtmartialed and / or executed for mis-treating civilians, though there were few instances, considering this was an army and all -- and mostly those were for mistreating the 'contraband,' those slaves who stole themselves away and tried to join or followed the Union army. The real killing and plundering of civilians was carried on though the entire war by Nathan Bedford Forest's (who was a slave trader and founder of the KKK) and Stuart's special troops, Quantrill's "Raiders," etc. -- partly because the Confed was chronically short of everything, including payment for the troops.  One of the many reasons it was such a disaster that Lee's army wasn't attacked during the retreat to Virginia after Gettysburg is that the Army of Virginia was way lumbered by the thousands of free blacks the troops had stolen to sell back home.  Many of these raiders carried on after the war as they'd been doing, like Jesse James, etc.

I read again, er, listened to Owen Wister's The Virginian on cd this fall while working out. It's all there in that ur construction of the Western: the protagonist, handsome (the homo-eroticism with which the narrator describes and reacts to the protagonist is unrivaled even by Melville) chivalrous, silent except when he's got something to say, exuding the power of mighty skilled violence, honest; the pretty easterner school marm who falls immediately for his ultra masculine dangerous good looks; the wealthy lawyer rancher - politician; the rattlesnake traitorous cattle rustler; vigilantism; the community dancing the reels where highjinks are enacted by protagonist and best friend who goes to the bad; the saloon and the poker game; most of all it's got "smile when you call me that."  It's all there, every bit of this revisionist fantasy of what it means and meant to be a Southerner, including the in-your-face hatred of anything that isn't a white man.  This is WHITE MAN's country, is repeated more than once in the novel.

I spent a couple of summers watching westerns and keeping count of how many of the protagonists were confederates who had a personal beef with the Union: I found only ONE protagonist who wasn't.  And now, this.  The reason the Confederacy rules Hollywood, is that so many of the major players at the beginning of the industry were Southerners, whose fathers may have fought in the Civil War.  This was certainly true of D.W. Griffith, whose father was a founding father of the KKK.  They include Merian C. Cooper, creator of King Kong. As a public relations campaign on behalf of the glorious mistreated South, this has worked brilliantly for decades. Gone With The Wind is essntially an updating and retrofit of the vile Birth of a Nation, which is taken from the Dixon novel, The Klansman, to make it less offensive to the sensibilities of Mitchell's time. So strong is this tradition of American history that even directors like John Ford can start wanting to be a southern, a Virginian, which he kind of did for a while, even though he was from New England stock. The latest to don the Southern heritage mantel is Joss Whedon, which is one of the reasons Firefly is such a wreck in terms of world-building, and the characters one-dimensional.  Like "a vengeance story about an ex-Confederate rebel hunting the Union soldiers who killed his wife," building a creation on un-examined mendacity, this is the lazy way to give depth, i.e. the vaunted back story, for a character, to explain motivation and excuse any evil, ugly horrible action the character might do.

The Viriginian and Birth of a Nation still rule Hollywood, still wreaking historical, social and political damage.


K. said...

Birth is a trying film: Arguably the most influential and important piece of moviemaking ever coupled with truly vile politics and racism. Same with GWTW: Terrific moviemaking (in the first half anyway) along with Vivian Leigh's great performance coupled with what is really pretty slick propaganda that probably had more long-term impact than Birth, just because the racism is portrayed more benignly.

Do you remember The Virginian TV program? Check out George C. Scott reading "The Ballad of Reading Gaol" in 1962! (At 2:10)

Foxessa said...

The link to Scott's reading doesn't work.

I never saw the television series called The Virginian.

It's perhaps surprising how little television I've seen.

Love, c.

K. said...

Try this:

We saw it in an Irish airport hotel room last summer. Talk about surreal.

Foxessa said...

That one has no audio! :)

Getting funny now.

Love, c.