Guest Post: HBO’s Westworld and the Realities of Living History

Cam Shriver is a Post-Doctoral Research Associate with the Miami Tribe of Oklahoma, working in the Myaamia Center at Miami University. He has a PhD from Ohio State University, and his research focuses on surveillance among Native and European communities in early North America.

westworldWhen I began watching episode one of HBO’s new show Westworld, I was prepared for something in the Western genre. I had seen a trailer that included horses, Indians, and a stereotypical Old West landscape. I was pleasantly surprised. Not only is Westworld in the mold of previously-successful HBO projects, it also forced me to think about the prospects of living history. “Living history” simulates and interprets the past. Attractions assert history-as-entertainment. In that vein, successful museums must constantly keep exhibits fresh, introduce new initiatives, storylines, and characters, and generally give visitors a reason to return. The same problem faces the Westworld theme park, as technicians and writers strive to provide an ever-more entertaining and realistic experience. The show raises a perplexing question: how “real” should we get? Continue reading

Guest Post: Nate Parker’s Birth of a Nation (2016) in the Classroom

Today’s guest poster, Stephanie J. Richmond, is an Assistant Professor and coordinator of history programs at Norfolk State University in Norfolk, VA. She is a historian of gender and race in the Atlantic World. The following review contains spoilers and discussion of sexual assault.

the_birth_of_a_nation_2016_filmMany historians of race and slavery in early America were very excited when the wide release of Nate Parker’s new film on the Nat Turner rebellion was announced following its rave reviews at last year’s Sundance Film Festival. With the recent surge in Hollywood depictions of slavery (12 Years a Slave, WGN’s series Underground, and even Django Unchained), films have become an important part of teaching African American history. The best of these films and tv series give students an understanding of the psychological impact of slavery on both enslaved and free African Americans, illustrating many of the tactics of control and exploitation discussed in textbooks and classrooms. I had the opportunity to see the pre-release version of the film in April 2016 when Parker’s production company held screenings for HBCU faculty in several cities around the country. Several colleagues and I attended the screening and got our first glimpse at Parker’s version of a history that is both local and national. After the screening, production assistants recorded our reactions to the film, and took detailed notes on our critiques of the film both as a work of popular entertainment and its historical inaccuracies and misrepresentations, of which there were many. My own feelings on the film and its usefulness in the classroom are complicated and have changed significantly since my first viewing of the film in April. (In full disclosure, I have seen the film twice, both times at events put on by Parker’s production company).

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Guest Post: How We Love to Hate Puritan New England

Guest poster Mark Mulligan is a graduate student in history at the College of William and Mary. His research interests include American religious history, the history of the British Atlantic, and colonial New England history. This post also contains some mild plot spoilers.

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It appears that as an early Americanist and a horror fan, I am in good company. News of the push back of a sequel to The Ring franchise from April to October recently devastated me. Admittedly, a Halloween release will fare better at the box office, but Paramount Pictures turned my comps carrot into a prospectus carrot.[1] But the genre offered compensation in the form of a horror film that takes place in seventeenth-century New England, where I intend to locate my dissertation. As such, I am delighted that the Junto invited a conversation on the film The Witch. Continue reading

Guest Post: Discovering Witches

Alexandra Montgomery is a PhD Candidate in history at the University of Pennsylvania. She studies Indigenous and European boundary-setting and colonization schemes in the far northeast during the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. The following review contains some very mild thematic spoilers.

imagesAs both a horror nerd and an Early American historian, I have been excited about writer/direct Robert Eggers’ debut feature The Witch for quite some time. Excited might be a bit of an understatement: the first time I saw a poster in a theatre I shrieked, and I have been faithfully following the strangely endearing and decidedly bizarre Twitter of the film’s sometimes-antagonist goat, Black Philip, for several months. So, naturally, I was thrilled when my friend and fellow Early Americanist Lori Daggar offered to take me and Kelsey Salvesen to a press screening of the film (the film will be released officially on February 19). Continue reading

History and the Seeds of Memory: Reflections on Ric Burns’ The Pilgrims

pilgrims_pbsamexperienceIn his now classic study of early nationalism, historian Benedict Anderson wrote “I propose the following definition of the nation: it is an imagined political community—and imagined as both inherently limited and sovereign. It is imagined because the members of even the smallest nation will never know most of their fellow-members, meet them, or even hear of them, yet in the minds of each lives the image of their communion…. Communities are to be distinguished, not by their falsity/genuineness, but by the style in which they are imagined….”[1] While Puritan society was not a “nation” in the sense that Anderson meant it, his reflections nonetheless are evident in Ric Burns’ documentary, The Pilgrims. Burns seeks not to merely retell the Thanksgiving story, but to understand why Plimouth Rock and the popular Thanksgiving story (much of which is inaccurate) is such a pervasive part of the American origins story.

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Guest Post: Bastard out of Nevis: Lin-Manuel Miranda’s “Hamilton”

We are pleased to feature a guest post from Benjamin Carp (@bencarp), the Daniel M. Lyons Professor of American History at Brooklyn College, CUNY. Carp is the author of both Defiance of the Patriots: The Boston Tea Party and the Making of America and Rebels Rising: Cities and the American Revolution.

“I want the historians to respect this.” –Lin-Manuel Miranda, according to Ron Chernow

Alexander Hamilton, by John Trumbull (after painting by Giuseppe Ceracchi, 1801); National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution; Gift of Henry Cabot Lodge

In the lobby of the Public Theater, two statues flanked the doorway—the likenesses of Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr stretched out their arms and aimed their dueling pistols at one another, and it was hard not to feel as if I was standing in the middle. Lin-Manuel Miranda, the son of Puerto Rican immigrants, wrote the musical Hamilton and stars in the title role. He portrays the first Secretary of the Treasury as a “bastard, orphan, son of a whore and a Scotsman” and an immigrant striver made good; throughout his career, Hamilton is arrogant about his talents but perpetually insecure about his place. As told by Miranda, Hamilton is both self-made and self-unmade, wry and seductive and yet constantly raging against anyone who might hold him back. Continue reading

Guest Post: The Revolutions in the Margins of AMC’s “Turn”

Don Johnson is a Ph.D. candidate in History at Northwestern University. His work explores how ordinary Americans experienced the major political and military events of the Revolutionary era in the course of their everyday lives, and how those experiences shaped actions and changed world-views going forward. Don’s dissertation, now nearing completion, examines the social dynamics of six port cities occupied by the British army during the Revolutionary War.

TurnThe AMC series Turn ended its first season last month with mixed reviews. The consensus seems to be that the series, which tells the story of the Culper spy ring during the American Revolution, has a strong cast, good production values, and promising subject matter but ultimately fails both as a drama and as an accurate representation of history. Popular reviews have mostly found the narrative arc slow and frustrating, while the show’s numerous departures from the historical record have inspired an entire blog devoted to separating fact from fiction. As The Junto’s Roy Rogers put it in his review of the first three episodes back in April, these narrative and historical failings made the series in large part “just another morality play—The Patriot in the guise of Mad Men.”

While Turn‘s main storyline falls far short of doing justice to the fascinating story of the Culper spies, in its background characters and neglected subplots lie many of the complex and diverse experiences of ordinary Americans. Continue reading