Chris Bouton: Welcome back to our weekly Slack Chat. For this week, we thought we’d do something a little lighter in subject matter by talking about our favorite works of historical fiction. To set some boundaries, I’d say that historical fiction can include literature, film, or other media that addresses a historical event, person, or time period.
I’ll kick things off with a favorite historical movie on mine; 12 Years a Slave.
Erin Bartram: I have still never seen this. I had to ILL it because my local public library didn’t have it, and it took months to get it, and when it finally arrived, it was finals season and I never watched it
Chris: It’s the best representation of American slavery that I’ve seen on film. It captures the horrors of enslavement and Michael Fassbender does a fantastic job portraying Edwin Epps’ casual and cruel dehumanization of his slaves.
He lurks about at night, invites his slaves to dance for him in the middle of the night in his house, and casually beats them. It’s a realistic depiction of the wonton cruelty and power of slaveholders.
Shocking that I started with a movie about slavery.
Erin: This what I’ve heard from historians, and it makes me more likely to watch it. I think people think historians are persnickety about depictions of the past because we get really hung up on whether people’s collars were right. But I think we’re bothered by the way things like slavery are portrayed because whitewashing and softening it is dangerous.
Chris: It’s especially powerful as a rebuttal to the Moonlight and Magnolias romanticism of the Old South.
I can’t stand to watch a single minute of Gone with the Wind.
Erin: For me, if it serves as a touchstone for my students that displaces Django Unchained, that would good.
The movies we’ve just cited show the range of what we can even call “historical fiction”
Chris: The violence against African-Americans in Django Unchained is the only realistic part of it.
The opening crawl of that movie had a factual error in it.
It seems like all of QT’s movies are the same white male violent fantasy dressed up in new garb, increasingly “historical” garb
Chris: It placed the Civil War in the wrong year and then suggested that slaves escaping from bondage in Texas would flee to the North.
Chris: They wouldn’t go North, they’d go west or towards Mexico.
Yeah, that took me out of the movie immediately.
Erin: I mean, this is why people are unwilling to give the Confederate writers the benefit of the doubt
Chris: We’ll see what happens with Confederate, especially since those guys aren’t finished with Games of Thrones yet.
And the immediate backlash the announcement caused.
I realize my complaints about Django may be pedantic, but they weren’t hard things to check.
And that’s what annoys me about it, how easy they were to fix.
Erin: I mean, such obvious errors at the start suggest that the people making the film see history as a thing to play with, not to understand
Chris: Right, and there was also a mention that the slaves in the coffle could testify against the white slavetraders in court. Which of course, they couldn’t.
Erin: I think this is what I’m often thinking about when I’m watching/reading historical fiction.
Is setting something in the past just a way to put it in a different world without doing the labor of world-building?
Is the story deeply informed by the historical conditions its supposedly drawing on?
Chris: That last question is especially important.
All of those Mel Gibson history movies fail at that. The Patriot, Braveheart, they’re just the same movie/themes of revenge and grotesque violence transported to different time periods.
Erin: I don’t have a particular love for historical fiction, but I like the genre that is historical sci-fi/fantasy, if that descriptor makes sense. Things set not in this world but in societies that resemble some parts of the human past.
Coetzee’s Waiting for the Barbarians springs to mind
Or a children’s book like Natalie Babbitt’s The Search for Delicious
Chris: Yeah, I don’t read a lot of historical fiction. That probably has something to do having to read so much history that reading historical fiction isn’t different enough from what I do normally.
Erin: Yep. I think what I consume more, tho still not much, is contemporary adaptations of older books
Even with books set in the moment in which they were written, contemporary adaptations are sort of doubly removed from the historical moment they discuss
I was just thinking of Austen novels and the O’Brien books there are a million of – the Master and Commander guy
- A) Do Austen adaptations pass the Bechdel test as much as movies set in our own period?
- B) Do historical settings allow some creators to produce all-male works for an audience that wants them and have it “justified?”
Chris: Regarding B), sci-fi settings allow authors to play with gender roles (for good and bad). I read a lot of Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series when I was a teenager. I stopped reading it because it was clear that he had no intention of finishing the series and as I later realized he had deeply sexist views of women.
Erin: Oh yeah, I definitely read things like that. But then I read things like Dreamsnake by Vonda McIntyre which was awesome. I suppose a lot of the post-apocalyptic sci-fi/fantasy I read when I was younger played with the same things historical fiction can.
I did finally watch the 2004? adaptation of Gaskell’s North & South this summer, which I loved.
I think it’s a good example of the difficulty of making things historically accurate and appealing.
Chris: Well the 80s version with Patrick Swayze is terrible.
Erin: No “love story” from the 19th century would read as a love story to 20th century audiences, the same way any real depiction of 19th century American slave society would be almost too much for audiences.
Oh no no! Not that one!
I mean the 19th century novel about industrial England
It’s so confusing
Chris: Oh, different thing. My bad
Erin: I have not seen the one with Swayze (and Jonathan Frakes?) but I have heard it’s wretched
Chris: North and South is really bad, but it is the reason that Jonathan Frakes grew a beard.
Erin: Every cloud has a silver lining
Chris: He played the sleazy brother of the Northern lead character. Frakes sold defective shells to the Union army.
Erin: I think the reason I liked North & South much better than a lot of period dramas I’ve seen is that a good chunk of it dealt with issues of labor and politics and poverty, and they had impacts on the story, they weren’t just there as backdrop. It is far more grim.
The main couple didn’t just have a series of misunderstandings over nothing, they had seriously different understandings of how the world worked, neither of which were without problems.
Chris: I think we agree that the best historical fiction uses the specific historical time period for something more than just background.
Something that engages with that historical person/moment however you want to put it to advance some sort of argument or story.
Erin: I think striking the right balance is very hard.
Chris: That’s why there’s so much bad historical fiction.
Erin: Even though I know the realities of the past, I remember watching the 2000 adaptation of The House of Mirth and just screaming “oh ffs just get a job!”
I mean, the imperative to have some sympathetic white character for white audiences to cling to is the thing that pulls me out of movies set in so many parts of the US/UK colonial past
Chris: Right, that the only way a modern audience can understand the past is through a present analogue.
Erin: That’s probably why Americans love movies about the Irish fighting off British colonial oppression
Chris: It also leads to so many terrible white savior narratives.
I’m looking at you Tom Cruise in the Last Samurai.
Spoiler alert: somehow the last samurai is Tom Cruise.
Chris: In terms of historical fiction, I gravitate more towards movies and musicals, mostly because I’m interested in experiencing history through other media especially in a visual sense.
Erin: Me too
Even before Hamilton, lots of historians loved 1776, again despite its inaccuracies and problems in interpretation
Chris: I’m going to gush about Stephen Sondheim for a minute here.
Chris: That’s second.
Erin: I haven’t listened to that in ages
Chris: It’s a strange musical about the arrival of the Perry expedition and the opening of Japan. But it’s told from the Japanese perspective, using Japanese musical forms.
It almost never gets revived because it’s such an idiosyncratic piece. Though I saw that there was a month long revival on Broadway a few months ago.
Starring George Takei
There’s a song in Pacific Overtures that I love called “Someone in a Tree” and it’s about the drafting of the Treaty of Kanagawa.
There’s no historical record of what occurred in the treaty house and the song addresses how do you what happened if there’s no record of it.
The song takes the form of an old man recounting his memory of sitting in a tree overlooking the treaty house and he’s accompanied by a younger version of himself and later a soldier stationed under the treaty house. The old man and his younger self argue about their memories.
And it has this wonderful line that I love: “Without someone in a tree / Nothing happened here”
The idea that for an event to have happened, someone had to be there.
Erin: And that’s amazing – not just engaging with the past, but engaging with how we make/know the past
Chris: And if he weren’t there, then who’s to say what happened
Exactly, the song is about how we create the past
Erin: I think you take that and what he does in Assassins, and you see a creator who is engaging with the past and the nature of historical thinking in a way that historians really like
Chris: Yes, I love Assassins.
“Lincoln who got mixed reviews / Because of you John now gets only raves” is a brilliant line
Because it’s true!
Erin: It’s an examination of “historic” figures in the way historians use the term – interesting and impactful – rather than as a descriptor of great men
Chris: The Ballad of Booth is about how Booth tries to shape his own historical narrative and fails.
Erin: “Unworthy of Your Love” is one of my favorite ballads and it is so messed up
“The Gun Song” is about connectedness and complicity
I was fortunate enough to see the 2004 revival with Neil Patrick Harris and Michael Cerveris, that ran for a few months at Studio 54, and at the time, I didn’t love that they’d added in “Something Just Broke,” about the reaction to the Kennedy assassination
But in the past six months, the song has grown on me
Chris: I thought that song was about people in different time periods reacting to the various assassinations?
I’ve never seen Assassins staged.
Erin: It is right near the end, after the Narrator becomes Lee Harvey Oswald
Before the reprise of Everybody’s Got the Right
But again, it’s thinking about how individual experience becomes dominant narrative, and the importance of “Where were you when” in engaging with the recent past
Chris: For our parents it was the Kennedy assassination, for us it’s 9-11.
Erin: Yep – and 9/11 is the thing I use to show the “distance” between me and my students, despite us being in the same generation
Is our consensus that all historical fiction should be Sondheim?
Chris: I’m okay with that
Or at least employ the same critical analysis and thematic development
Erin: Assassins also features my favorite depiction of a president – Big Bill McKinley enjoys beef and stamp collecting!
Chris: McKinley is so generically American in that song
“In his spare time he enjoys collecting coins!”
Erin: oh yes, it was coins
Chris: McKinley in that song is espousing the version of the American dream that we all hope to aspire to
Erin: I would like to be able to afford to buy beef, it’s true
Chris: The Horatio Alger, pull yourself up by your own bootstraps narrative, that the show acknowledges isn’t real
Erin: The ways in which Assassins and Pacific Overtures ask the audience to question not only their ideas about the past but their ideas about history really make the musicals stand out from everything else we’ve talked about here. (edited)
I have done stuff with Assassins in my teaching before, and now I want to bring it back.
Chris: That’s probably why we like them so much. They’re also ingenious pieces of music.
He also worked with the same playwright for both those musicals, John Weidman.
Weidman also is a writer for Sesame Street.
Erin: That is excellent.
Chris: Weidman has a degree in history from Harvard as well.
So I guess to sum up, we really like Sondheim?
If you’ve made it this far reading the chat and you haven’t gone and listened to this, stop right now and do it!
Chris: That’s the reward for reading this far.