Christian McWhirter on Taking Lincoln and Django Seriously

django-unchained-poster-e1357542813658.jpegI’ve been thinking about the gulf between the public’s response to Spielberg’s Lincoln and Tarrantino’s Django Unchained and the overall commentary coming from professional historians and other public intellectuals.  I’ve commented on this before, but this morning I was pleased to read Christian McWhirter’s review of both movies in The Civil War Monitor.  Actually, it’s not really a review as much as it is a commentary on the value of the movies, which he believes has been overlooked by the academic community.  I couldn’t agree more.  Here are a few passages from McWhirter’s review that stood out for me.

Dismissing Lincoln is to effectively dismiss its vast audience, much of which is surely hungry for precisely the sort of information and interpretation we can provide.

I saw both films in packed theaters and the response to each was overwhelmingly loud and positive. This sort of reaction demonstrates that audience members were emotionally, and I suspect also intellectually, engaged. We cannot dismiss these movies because they do not adhere to the same rigorous standards we apply to historical monographs and documentaries. Instead of fearing the massive reach of bad films, we need to appreciate the potential for good films to help us educate the public and overturn resilient historical myths. Lincoln and Django Unchained will do more to change popular perceptions of American history than they will misinform or confuse. So, relax, enjoy, and ride this train as far as it will take us.

It’s safe to say that these movies will do more to influence popular perceptions of the Civil War and slavery than all the books published in the past twenty years combined.  Unlike others, I fully embrace this fact.  Much of the commentary about these films does little more than highlight individual historians’ current research projects and tells us very little about the films themselves.  It’s not that I have a problem with pointing out shortcomings in historical content, but that they fail to acknowledge why these films are so popular with so many people from a broad range of backgrounds.  Christian hits the nail on the head when he references the emotional and intellectual engagement of their audiences.  We haven’t seriously explored this as of yet.

I’ve spent quite a bit of time trying to figure out how I am going to use these movies in the classroom – assuming that I can use Django at all.  Beyond the classroom I do hope that public historians are also thinking about how they can take advantage of this wave of enthusiasm.  It’s a unique opportunity that could not have come at a better time.  We are smack in the middle of the sesquicentennial having just commemorated the 150th anniversary of emancipation.  The issues and subject matter raised by these two films are incredibly controversial and fraught will all kinds of landmines.  Just getting people to think about them is a challenge and, yet, that is exactly what millions of Americans are doing.  What more could we ask for?

All of us in the historical community should give Spielberg and Tarrantino a big Thank You.

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Disrespecting the Colors

I think I finally understand what flag advocates are getting at when they refer to discrimination against and hatred directed at the display of the Confederate flag.  Let’s see the officials at the VMFA stand up to this guy. Note, this video contains profanity.

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Buy Remembering the Battle of the Crater Direct From the Author

Update: Thanks again everyone. Sold a total of 10 copies on the first day.

CraterYou can now purchase my book, Remembering the Battle of the Crater: War as Murder, directly from me for the low price of $25 plus $3.00 shipping.  Just click the “Buy Now” button below and you will be taken to my PayPal site.  Please use the Contact Form if you would like a signature and inscription.  The University Press of Kentucky prices the book at $35 plus shipping and handling, so I hope that this discounted price for a signed first edition makes the purchase more appealing.   This is what I sell the book for at talks, workshops, etc.

“In this stunning and well-researched book, Kevin Levin catches the new waves of the study of memory, black soldiers, and the darker underside of the Civil War as well as anyone has. That horrible day at the Crater in Petersburg, its brutal racial facts and legacies, all tangled in the weeds of Confederate Lost Cause lore, have never been exposed like this. Levin is both superb scholar and public historian, showing us a piece of the real war that does now get into the books, as well as into site interpretation.”

David W. Blight, author of Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory

I know there are some of you out there who simply can’t afford a hardcover book even at a discounted price.  You will be happy to know that the book will eventually be published in paperback.  Unfortunately, I have no time frame for its release.


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As President Abraham Lincoln Explained…

secession

Jon Carson does a wonderful job of responding to the recent flurry of White House Petitions requesting that individual states be given the right to secede from the Union.

Thank you for using the White House’s online petitions platform to participate in your government.

That sentence alone defuses any credibility that these silly petitions might enjoy.  There is just a little irony in Americans utilizing their Constitutional rights through a website that encourages participatory democracy and that is maintained by taxpayer dollars.

But just in case you slept through your American history and civics classes Carson follows up with a reminder that the sacrifice paid by Americans during the Civil War and beyond guarantees your right to petition your government.

Our founding fathers established the Constitution of the United States “in order to form a more perfect union” through the hard and frustrating but necessary work of self-government. They enshrined in that document the right to change our national government through the power of the ballot — a right that generations of Americans have fought to secure for all. But they did not provide a right to walk away from it. As President Abraham Lincoln explained in his first inaugural address in 1861, “in contemplation of universal law and of the Constitution the Union of these States is perpetual.” In the years that followed, more than 600,000 Americans died in a long and bloody civil war that vindicated the principle that the Constitution establishes a permanent union between the States. And shortly after the Civil War ended, the Supreme Court confirmed that “[t]he Constitution, in all its provisions, looks to an indestructible Union composed of indestructible States.”

It’s almost as good as the White House response to the Death Star petition.

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Virginia Flagger Arrested

It was just a matter of time.  After months of protesting outside of the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts over the removal of Confederate flags from the grounds of the “Old Soldier’s Home”/Pelham Chapel the Virginia Flaggers have little to show for their efforts.  All attempts to branch out and get involved in other causes – most notably with the opening of the MOC in Appomattox [and here] – have failed to generate support.

Individual Flaggers have challenged VMFA authorities in the past so there should have been little doubt as to how this situation would turn out.

A few months ago I was contacted by someone at the VMFA to talk about how they might handle this protest.  I didn’t have much to offer beyond suggesting that they wait it out, but I did jokingly suggest that they put together an exhibit on the Confederate flag that utilized the Flaggers as a modernist interpretation/performance.    I believe this more than ever after watching the above video. You gotta love those jeans, jacket and sunglasses.

The Flaggers and associated groups will likely milk this for all it’s worth, but it is nothing more than a sign of the organization’s lack of direction and inability to garner support around the substantive issues.

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How Many Books Did You Sell This Year?

crater kentuckyI’ve tried to be as transparent as possible with sharing my experience in seeing a book manuscript through to publication.  Some of you have been with me since 2007, when I first announced that I might have the opportunity to publish what was then only a Master’s Thesis.  As I got closer to publication I wondered about sales.  I knew going in that the book would likely appeal to a fairly narrow audience.  The Crater is not the most popular Civil War battle and the study of historical memory is perhaps an acquired taste.  My decision to sign with one of the smaller academic presses also tempered my optimism, which is not to say that I in any way regret going with the University Press of Kentucky or that I am disappointed with their work thus far. Far from it.

On occasion, however, I did allow myself to speculate as to how a strong social media presence might translate into book sales.  Since I have no frame of reference it was always difficult to arrive at a number, but I thought that my ability to promote the book through my blog, Facebook page and Twitter feed might provide a model for other authors of academic titles who hope to reach a wider audience.  OK, so I thought that somewhere around 1,000 books sold by Jan. 1 was not out of the realm of possibility.

At this point, I am disappointed to admit that this apparently has not happened.  My publisher informed me that since the book was released in early July 2012 it has sold 621 copies.

Now, it could be the case that this is a pretty good showing for a book such as mine.  As I said, I have no frame of reference.  And I should note that overall I couldn’t be more pleased with how the book has been received by many of you as well as by both magazine and journal reviewers.  That I was able to contribute anything at all to a body of scholarship that has taught me much and provided me with countless of hours of enjoyment is sufficient.

The experience has left me with much to think about as I consider future projects.  I see the book format as one tool in my arsenal through which to share my love of history with the general public.  We will have to see whether I have another one in me.  I certainly hope so.  Working with an academic publisher forced me to respond to my peers, who assisted me in improving both the narrative and various interpretive elements.   It is an invaluable aspect of the writing process and having the stamp of approval from such a publisher hopefully gives me a certain legitimacy as I move further.

That said, I can’t help but wonder whether I might be able to take the experience of working with a traditional publisher and apply it to another approach that might result in greater reach – perhaps self-publishing?  I am willing to consider all options.  After all, I don’t need to publish for tenure or promotion.  As an author I want to produce a product that has integrity and see it in the hands of as many people as possible.  What’s the point of suffering through the process of researching and writing if no one is going to read it?

In the meantime, I recently got the go-ahead from the publisher to sell my book directly.  I’ve been buying books with my author’s discount to sell at speaking events.  I am still in the process of setting up a PayPal account, but once it’s you will be able to buy the book for $25 + shipping.

Thanks again to all of you who have bought the book.

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