Let us talk about Sleepy Hollow

I am an unabashed fan of badly realized history in books, TV and movies.  I started my U.S. survey this semester with the opening scenes from National Treasure, I legitimately enjoy Deborah Harkness’s All Souls Trilogy (though, to be fair, the history in that is spot-on, with the exception of the witches, demons and magic bits) and, predictably, I really liked the new Sleepy Hollow TV series premier.  It’s not that I think that badly done history is something that ought to be celebrated, its that a lot of the romanticized historical genre (in which historians lead dramatic and dangerous lives, or in which discovering something about the past is crucial to the advancement of the plot) seem to willfully get things wrong (again, Harkness is the exception here).  The opening of National Treasure for example, involves one Charles Carroll, a signatory of the Declaration of Independence from Maryland, as the keeper of a long-held secret clue to find a treasure originally hidden by the Freemasons (who, apparently, morphed from the Knights Templar, but I’ll leave the problems with that to a medievalist).  So quoth the film:

“It didn’t reappear for more than a thousand years when knights from the First Crusade found hidden vaults beneath the Temple of Solomon. You see, the knights who found the vaults believed that the treasure was too great for any one man, not even a king. They brought the treasure back to Europe and took the name… the Knights Templar. Over the next century, they smuggled it out of Europe and formed a new brotherhood known as the Freemasons, in honor of the builders of the Great Temple. War followed. By the time of the American Revolution, the treasure had been hidden again. By then, the Masons came to include George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, Paul Revere. They knew they had to make sure the treasure would never fall into the hands of the British, so they devised a series of clues and maps to its location. Over time the clues were lost or forgotten, until only one remained. And that was the secret that Charles Carroll entrusted to young Thomas Gates.”

The problem?  Charles Carroll was a Catholic – the richest Catholic in Maryland, in fact.  He would not have been a Freemason.  It’s not like there weren’t myriad other ways to start the story in National Treasure.  The hoarded gold could have been taken from Spanish privateers, or (as in the sequel) some kind of Aztec treasure.  So, my friends and colleagues have asked, what?  Bad movies, bad TV shows are made all the time with less than plausible premises.  But I think that the willful manipulation of history – what seems to be the intentional getting-it-wrong, is often quite revealing.  In setting up National Treasure the way they did, the writers were implicitly making an argument about the long, noble and storied history of the United States – tying American liberty to the glory of the crusades to the nobility of the Templars to the antimonarchicalism of the Freemasons.  Much of this is just flat-out wrong, but it’s wrongness serves a rhetorical purpose, and stakes a particular claim about America’s place among other glorious causes.

The visual pun in this poster is also fantastic.

So, when I came across Sleepy Hollow yesterday, I was quite taken with the myriad things that show got wrong, and wonder what that wrongness means about the kind of American myth the writers are trying to tell.  (As a totally un-ironic and genuine aside, I’m thrilled that the main character is a woman of color – and that her superiors are, respectively, an African-American and Latino man – and that none of this is treated as surprising or weird within the world of the show.  It’s sad that having a diverse cast is a cause for celebration, but there it is)  Perhaps the biggest error from an historical perspective is that Ichabod Crane’s wife is (a) a real witch, (b) was apparently burned for witchcraft in 1782 and then (c) buried in a church graveyard with a notice to the effect of her witchery on her tombstone.

The witch trials at Salem took place about 100 years earlier, and while people accused of witchcraft were still being killed in Europe in the 1740s, formal trials in America had ceased by the beginning of the 18th century.  On top of that, people who were excommunicate, which I’m fairly sure being convicted of witchcraft would have made Crane’s wife, didn’t tend to get church burials.  Ultimately, this piece of anachronism is sort-of solved by the fact that Crane’s wife isn’t really dead, but trapped in a witchy forest, and in her grave is the horseman’s skull, which must be kept from him at all costs.

But, by creating a world in which witch burnings continued into the early republic, the show’s writers seem to be suggesting two things.  The first, is that the world of early America was less rational than we tend to think, and that the Hudson River Valley was particularly irrational.  The second, is that the problems of Colonial America persisted at least until after the Revolution, and with the re-awakening of the Headless Horseman in 2013, into the present day.  Or maybe they just thought being accurate wouldn’t make such a good story – but I still think that these inaccuracies, willful or no, paint a very interesting picture of Colonial/Revolutionary America, and tell us something interesting about American historical memory.

Hunger as politics

I’m just back from ACIS’s 2013 meeting, where, inevitably, famine and hunger strikes were often on the agenda.  I’m also in the process of designing a course on popular politics, which I’ve conceiving of as means of acting politically open to those traditionally excluded from formal politics. This semester, I’m also sitting in on a class on humanitarianism at NYU, which pushes me pretty far out of my 19th century comfort zone.  We’ve been talking a lot about whether enumerated rights give oppressed people resources to fight their oppression, or whether oppressive regimes will always find ways to loophole their way out of those enumerated rights (as an aside, I just finished We Wish To Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families, which is rife with heartbreaking examples of the ways in which the international community convoluted itself to avoid acknowledging genocide in Rwanda).  So, both in light of the panels I heard this weekend, and in light of this class, this op ed in today’s New York Times is particularly apposite.  If we agree that freedom from want is (or should be) a universal right, what do we make of the freedom to willfully starve onesself?

Hunger strikes are political tools with long shadows – those used by people who have little or limited access to other forms of resistance.  Suffragettes in prison used, and died as a consequence of hunger strikes.  Irish Republican political prisoners starved and died in the H-Blocks.  While the World Medical Association sees force-feeding in response to hunger strikes as a possible assault on bodily integrity, the United States’ policy on the treatment of prisoners stipulates that “It is the responsibility of the Bureau of Prisons to monitor the health and welfare of individual inmates, and to ensure that procedures are pursued to preserve life.” and when “a medical necessity for immediate treatment of a life or health threatening situation exists, the physician may order that treatment be administered without the consent of the inmate.”

My own work is so much about the political utility of acting to prevent hunger, that I sometimes forget the political utility inherent in hunger – and public displays of hunger in particular.

Games and pedagogy (part n)

A good friend tipped me off to Entry Denied an online game? exercise? demonstration? that contrasts the immigration stories that some of us grew up with, with US immigration policy today.  The overabundance of question marks in the previous sentence is because the interface looks like a game, or a choose your own adventure book, but the overall message – that my great great grandfather, E.M. Waldron (who ended up being the contractor for Newark’s city hall and cathedral, and driver for Eamon DeValera when he visited New Jersey) would be denied entry under today’s immigration guidelines – is a decidedly policy one.  Moreover, it’s a policy lesson designed to teach the user a lesson – that current immigration policies are unfair, or at least wildly limited in light of historical ones.

So, does this count as a game? As pedagogy?  I think it might as both, but I’d be really interested in a broader discussion of games masquerading as teaching tools masquerading as policy tools. 

Quick Note: SEA2013 (or, if that tag’s taken, SEA13)

I’m just back from the Society of Early Americanists’ 2013 meeting – which, like NAVSA 2012 was a fantastic series of interdisciplinary panels.  I’m always amazed by the degree to which we historians use the same language as scholars of literature, but often use it to mean such different things.  Fantastic papers by NYU Atlanticists Jerusha Westbury, Dan Kanhoffer, Kate Mulry, Jeppe Mülich and Mairin Odle were seen, alongside equally wonderful ones by Mike LaCombe, Melissa Gniadek, Lauren Klein and Molly Perry, and a whole panel on the process of creating digital archives which I’m very excited to get into sometime soon.

I think, though (aside from the amazing company) my favorite parts of the conference were the conference were the panel on early Georgian foodways, featuring some fantastic locally grown food, and the live-tweeting phenomenon of the whole conference.  The idea of putting my first impressions of a paper out into the inter-ether is, frankly, pretty terrifying, but I was quite impressed by the number of people who catalogued their conference experiences as we went along.

Mapping neighborly spats

Having finished this dissertation project of mine, I’ve been thinking about the big picture view of my research, which has led me to explore mapping and GIS, which in turn has pointed me towards an episode of This American Life on mapping and cartography.  All of this is to say that what I’m about to write about is sort of a stretch, but does actually come out of the dissertating process.

The TAL episode in question talks about a lot of different kinds of maps (odd spatial ones, aural, olifactory) and basically makes an argument that almost anything can work in map form.  So today, as I was walking to the train post-Nemopocalypse, it occurred to me that the bands of unshoveled sidewalks between houses might be read as a map of contested property boundaries.  Neither neighbor wants to shovel any more than they absolutely have to, so these unshoveled spaces seem to indicate divergent expectations about property lines.

Now, back to learning GIS.

Also, I’d be remiss if I didn’t link to Strange Maps when writing about strange maps.

Mass observation

I was living in Cork for the last inauguration, but came home from the archives early to watch.  Though Twitter existed in 2009, trending hash-tags were not yet a “thing,” and one group tried to track impressions of Obama’s first inauguration using the Mass Observation technique pioneered in Britain in the mid-20th century.  The January the 20th project tracked international impressions of the inauguration, and posted them with little analysis.  The original Mass Observation project is searchable by topic, and includes diaries, surveys and photographs.  The dominant themes include “sexual behavior,” “reading habits” and “bird watching.”  Twitter is something like a perpetual modern-day Mass Observation – there were more than 14,000 tweets per minute during today’s inauguration ceremony.  Trending topics included the musical performances, #inaug2013, #fourmoreyears, and FLOTUS’s bangs.

Quick note on breakfast cereal

I love playing around with the idea of realizing different projects in different genres – exemplified for me, by Douglas Adams’ quip about starting a new project:

People wanted me to do a CD-ROM of Hitchhiker’s, and I thought, “no, no.” I didn’t want to just sort of reverse-engineer yet another thing from a book I’d already written. I think that the digital media are interesting enough in their own right to be worth originating something in. Because, really, the moment you have any idea, the second thought that enters your mind after the original idea is, “What is this? Is it a book, is it a movie, is it a this, is it a that, is it a short story, is it a breakfast cereal?” Really, from that moment, your decision about what kind of thing it is then determines how it develops. So something will be very, very different if it’s developed as a CD-ROM than if it’s developed as a book. (From an interview with the Onion AV club, reprinted in The Salmon of Doubt)

Well, the playwright Lucy Prebble just published a piece on the New York Times‘ ArtsBeat blog about gaming and narrative and form and argument.  It’s quite good.