Monday, November 26, 2012

Harris on Lincoln: A Review (of sorts)

Over the last several days, I have been receiving a lot of notes asking if I had any comments on Steven Spielberg's, Lincoln. As it turns out - I do. Since Lincoln's release I have determined that there are roughly two sets of reviewers that  approach films contending with historical interpretation. Generally speaking, and I am certain that you will find exceptions to my sweeping strokes here, film critics tend to review with an eye toward performance and the portrayal of humanity against the often larger-than-life nature of the story's protagonists and  secondary characters.  They also are likely to judge whether the filmmaker captured the essence of the period in question: lighting, scenery, interiors, and other such crucial visual elements allowing the movie patron a genuine glimpse of said period. Historians, on the other hand, will be on the lookout for historical content and context. They will be sure to point out moments of accuracy and other scenes that are the mark or distorted. Of course, you should probably not be surprised to find historians' comments critical of what did and did not make the historical cut.

I generally wear both hats when I see a period piece - this was indeed the rule when I saw Lincoln on opening day at the Hollywood Cinerama Dome. I tend to agree with film critics' assessment of Daniel Day-Lewis, Sally Field, and other actors' performances. Day-Lewis portrays an all too human Abraham and Field a convincingly troubled Mary - I expected as much from such tremendously talented actors. I also have to agree with historians such as Eric Foner for noting the lack of context when it came to the abolition movement broadly defined. And I found Megan Kate Nelson's discussion of the awkward dialogue between the film's black and white characters insightful. As of yet, I have not come across anyone discussing self-emancipation - but I am sure it will come up eventually.

But my thoughts have moved in a different direction since I saw Lincoln. I think of the weeks leading up to the film - the anticipation was really something to behold in the Civil War Internet world. From all the social media whoop-dee-do emerged a short and hardly seen interview with Steven Spielberg and Daniel Day-Lewis - a Q&A following a pre-screening of the film guessed it, a film school. Spielberg especially was sensitive to the fact that he was presenting a very narrow view of a vast historical subject. He equated it (and I am paraphrasing here) to looking through to the other side of a fence through a tiny nail hole. His intention was to depict a sliver of history - not the history. I will admit  (as have my colleagues) that the opening scene with Lincoln in conversation with Union soldiers was hard to watch...forced and uncomfortable - but perhaps this was a cinematic device used intentionally to set an uneasy backdrop for a story that ultimately asks some difficult and hard to define questions about the nature of freedom. I will also admit that I have been harshly critical myself of historical films that get it wrong (i.e. Gettysburg, Gods and Generals). Lincoln does not get it wrong, it simply takes on a narrow scope. I will have to say that the film - in terms of the segment of history it intended to present (as opposed to the history that some might expect) - was a smashing success. Spielberg's mission was to provide a snapshot of the trying problems in early 1865 concerning a piece of legislation and to understand one man's struggles confronting them. It was a film about a man, his close circle of contemporaries, and an event, not about a movement. Steven Spielberg is admittedly not operating under any pretense that he is an historian, so I suspect that historians should not judge his film using our own rigorous standards, but rather, examine the film for its cultural import in the 21st century. Why is a film about Abraham Lincoln so important today? Are we still struggling with unresolved issues? Are political, racial, sectional, and cultural divisions embedded in our collective body politic? (hint: yes) Perhaps this is why Spielberg's films so resonates with such a vast audience.

As it is, the film can work as an inspirational stepping off point. I have connected with a number of people who have less than a passing interest in Civil War history who are now intrigued by the era, by Lincoln, and by the war in general. I even hear tell that books have been purchased. I call that a win.


Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Hush'd Be the Camps Today

HUSH'D be the camps to-day,
And soldiers let us drape our war-worn weapons,
And each with musing soul retire to celebrate,
Our dear commander's death.

No more for him life's stormy conflicts,
Nor victory, nor defeat- no more time's dark events,
Charging like ceaseless clouds across the sky.
But sing poet in our name,

Sing of the love we bore him- because you, dweller in camps, know it truly.

As they invault the coffin there,
Sing- as they close the doors of earth upon him- one verse,
For the heavy hearts of soldiers.

Walt Whitman - May, 1865

Friday, November 16, 2012

Frederick Douglass on Black Soldiers

Once Lincoln gave the go ahead for the enlistment of black soldiers, prominent African Americans such as Frederick Douglass were asked to help with recruitment. Douglass was delighted and sent two of his sons to join the ranks of the now famous 54th Massachusetts. It quickly became apparent that black soldiers would not be treated equally with whites: less pay, no chance for advancement, and menial duty. Speaking to a group in Philadelphia, he explained that despite such treatment, the enlistment of black soldiers was a significant event.

"This is no time for hesitation...Once let the black man get upon his person the brass letters, U.S.; let him get an eagle on his button, and a musket on his shoulder, and bullets in his pocket, and there is no power on the earth or under the earth which can deny that he has earned the right of citizenship in the United States. I say again, this is our chance, and woe betide us if we fail to embrace it."

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

A Utilitarian View Of The Monitor's Fight

Plain be the phrase, yet apt the verse,
More ponderous than nimble;
For since grimed War here laid aside
His painted pomp, 'twould ill befit
Overmuch to ply
The rhyme's barbaric symbol.

Hail to victory without the gaud
Of glory; zeal that needs no fans
Of banners; plain mechanic power
Plied cogently in War now placed -
Where War belongs -
Among the trades and artisans.

Yet this was battle, and intense -
Beyond the strife of fleets heroic;
Deadlier, closer, calm 'mid storm;
No passion; all went on by crank.
Pivot, and screw,
And calculations of caloric.

Needless to dwell; the story's known.
The ringing of those plates on plates
Still ringeth round the world -
The clangor of the blacksmiths' fray.
The anvil-din
Resounds this message from the Fates:

War shall yet be, and to the end;
But war-paint shows the streaks of weather;
War yet shall be, but the warriors
Are now but operatives; War's made
Less grand than Peace,
And a singe runs through lace and feather.

Herman Melville -

Monday, November 12, 2012

All My Exes Live In Texas

Well, they don't really (I just like the song)  - but if they did, they might be waist deep in a right proper secession movement. As of this morning (November 13, 2012) the good people of the state (perhaps soon to be Republic) of Texas have amassed well over 60,000 signatures petitioning the United States government to allow a peaceful secession from the United States. To find out more and see for yourself what has motivated these Lone Star patriots, click HERE. The number of signatures is growing exponentially and I am looking forward to further developments.


The Portent

Hanging from the beam,
Slowly swaying (such the law),
Gaunt the shadow on your green,


The cut is on the crown

      (Lo, John Brown),

And the stabs shall heal no more.

Hidden in the cap

      Is the anguish none can draw;

So your future veils its face,


But the streaming beard is shown

      (Weird John Brown),

The meteor of the war.

- Herman Melville, 1859


Sunday, November 11, 2012

Veterans Day

It [was] not a war to save the Union alone, it [was] a war to make the Union worth saving.
- William P. Hogarty, Union veteran


"For every Southern boy fourteen years old, not once but whenever he wants it, there is the instant when it's still not yet two o'clock on that July afternoon in 1863, the brigades are in position behind the rail fence, the guns are laid and ready in the woods and the furled flags are already loosened to break out and Pickett himself with his long oiled ringlets and his hat in one hand probably and his sword in the other looking up the hill waiting for Longstreet to give the word and it's all in the balance, it hasn't happened yet, it hasn't even begun yet, it not only hasn't begun yet but there is still time for it not to begin against that position and those circumstances which made more men than Garnett and Kemper and Armistead and Wilcox look grave yet it's going to begin, we all know that, we have come too far with too much at stake and that moment doesn't need even a fourteen-year-old boy to think This time. Maybe this time with all this much to lose than all this much to gain: Pennsylvania, Maryland, the world, the golden dome of Washington itself to crown with desperate and unbelievable victory the desperate gamble, the cast made two years ago."

William Faulkner, Intruder in the Dust - 1948

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Death of Abraham Lincoln

Why, if the old Greeks had had this man, what trilogies of plays - what epics - would have been made out of him! How the rhapsodies would have recited him! How quickly that quaint tall form would have enter'd into the region where men vitalize gods, and gods divinify men! But Lincoln, his times, his death - great as any, any age - belong altogether to our own.

Walt Whitman - 1879

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Lincoln - Coming to a Theater Near You

[caption id="attachment_3467" align="alignleft" width="332" caption="Lincoln billboard on Hollywood Blvd."][/caption]

I wish I could remember where I read this, but not long ago, Steven Spielberg made the somewhat presumptuous announcement that he would not release Lincoln until after the 2012 election - so as not to affect the outcome with a political drama set during a very divisive period of our history. Who knows, maybe he was right. Films do have a powerful effect on the public.

At any rate, the election is over and Lincoln is about to hit the theaters. I am personally bracing myself for the onslaught of newly minted Lincoln experts on Twitter and Facebook who will most certainly hold forth on the 16th president based solely on what they see in this movie.

For those of you who might be tempted to walk down this road, I would like to remind you of something else Spielberg said about this film, and about film as history in general. This medium can illustrate only a sliver of of Lincoln's or anyone's world. What we will see will be very specific and will not touch on every historical base. I am interested primarily in what Spielberg has chosen to tell us about the man and the issues with which he contended. It will reveal a great deal about historical memory in the 21st century as it reflects on the 19th. And for the record - judging by the previews, Daniel Day-Lewis will do a bang-up job.


Vote Early, Vote Often

All kidding aside, and whether you vote late and only once, cast your vote.

As yours truly heads out to the polls, I would like to remind all my readers that your vote makes a difference. Today I am casting my ballot to ensure that every single American is guaranteed precisely the same rights and privileges as every other American. Because without that, none of the other issues really matter.


Sunday, November 4, 2012

Too Soon?

In the spirit of levity, I submit for your comments, Lincoln, from Saturday Night Live season 38, episode 6 starring Louis C.K.


Saturday, November 3, 2012

Another Whiskey, Mr. Johnson?

On inauguration day, 1865, Americans heard what Frederick Douglass deemed more akin to a sermon than a speech. He was referring, of course, to Abraham Lincoln's Second Inaugural Address - the main attraction. The opening act was something of a flop.

Andrew Johnson, having recently arrived in Washington City a bit under the weather, had earlier that day consumed several glasses of whiskey (he was from Tennessee, after all) to clear his head and steady his nerves.

Red faced and quite obviously intoxicated, he delivered - after his inauguration as vice president - a rambling and incoherent speech that meandered around glory and democracy until Hannibal Hamlin (Lincoln's first VP) had to cut him off.

Lincoln, incensed, instructed his cabinet to keep an eye on him for the rest of the day.  But he came to his defense nevertheless, stating "I have known Andy Johnson for many years; he made a bad slip the other day, but you need not be scared; Andy ain't a drunkard."

Even so, poor Andy never shook the "drunken tailor" image. And that was just the beginning of his problems.



Thursday, November 1, 2012

Historicize Responsibly

This morning, Brooks Simpson posted this image at Crossroads - courtesy of Kevin Jackson, the self- appointed spokesperson for African-American conservatives. There are so many things wrong with the image's message that I am not sure where to begin. I'll just start by saying that when 21st century politicos try to draw analogies to 19th century (or any other period) historical events, they should really try doing a little reading first. And for the record, I am not attacking the GOP, so those of you who think so can relax. I am attacking bad history.