Bill Oberst Jr. on the Making of Sherman’s March

Sherman_marching_with_his_troopsThis is a guest post by Bill Oberst Jr. who played William T. Sherman in the History Channel’s movie, Sherman’s March.  The show will air tomorrow evening at 9pm.  I want to take this opportunity to thank Bill for agreeing to share his thoughts about the making of the movie along with his very poignant thoughts about memory and Sherman.  My review of the movie will follow later today or tomorrow morning. 

Playing William Tecumseh Sherman for The History
Channel’s Sherman’s March was an
exercise in dichotomy.  Often, no significant character development is required for
a documentary portrayal. The standard documentary format calls for more
re-enacting (i.e., characters performing motions that visually reinforce the
narration; their dialogue audible only in snippets) than acting. But writer and
director Rick King was
attempting a new hybrid of documentary and drama. Using words from the
historical record, he had created several bonafide dramatic scenes with real
interaction and dialogue.

Which brings me back to dichotomy. I was born and raised in South Carolina, and grew up hearing stories (many apocryphal) of the march. There was both sadness and glee in the telling
of these inherited tales, nearly all of which were told from a woman’s point of
view (rapes and near rapes; the ripping open of feather mattresses with sabers;
the disinterment of recently buried loved ones, etc.) The old women at church told us that our belly buttons were "where the Yankee shot you."

Year later, when I read Faces
of The Enemy: Reflections of the Hostile Imagination
by Sam Keen, I thought of Sherman and wondered
if he (or the idea of him) had served some unifying purpose in the Southern
reframing of the late conflict, fragments of which were still around when I was
a kid. So encountering him as an actor was ironic.

The promos for this project featured a simplified version of
the question regarding Sherman:
"Hero or Terrorist?" (there are other choices, of course, but too
many choices make for bad sound bites). I thought that Rick King’s script lent
itself to the notion that Sherman was a bit of both. Under Rick’s direction I played him as both.

And so, as Sherman and his officers watch the burning of Atlanta, I tried to flash
a haunted look across his eyes before he turns to his men and justifies the
destruction. As he speaks to the elder statesman of a slave community, I tried
to play his assertion that "We are your friends" with a hint of glib
transparency, given Sherma’s
well-known views on the inequality of the races. Rick had written a
conscientious and compassionate script; a sort of prequel to his 2005
documentary Voices
In Wartime
The victim’s point
of view was never far out of the frame.

Whether such nuances come across in the context of flipping
channels on a Sunday night in America is another question. I have made my living portraying historical figures in
their own words onstage (and teaching about them in schools) for a dozen years,
and have seen our collective capacity to accept ambiguity and duality decline
along with our attention span. I have read Twain’s acerbic War Prayer
to students and performed it for adults, only to be met with the same puzzled
expressions at the tale’s seemingly contradictory last line. I have stood
onstage as John F. Kennedy speaking of an America that is respected “as much
for its civilization as for its strength,” and have known instinctively that
they only heard the strength part. And that’s on a stage with real people no
more than twenty feet away. The difficulty of presenting a layered portrait of
a contradictory human being to 21st century Americans is infinitely
greater when historical figures are subjected to the standard documentary
treatment or worse, the one-note docudrama treatment.

At this writing, I haven’t seen the finished program. But I
love history, and for the sake of that love, I hope Sherman’s March
rises above the standard. I hope it represents an evolution in the form. I hope
it raises more questions than it answers. A war, even a long-ago one, is not a product. It is the collective story
of real people who could never forget the hell that they lived through. We owe
it to them to remember, and to try and get it right.


Academic Careers Wiki

From Rob MacDougall’s Old is the New New:

What happens when you harness the collective gossip power / angst / desperation
of thousands of job-hungry PhDs? When you take the kind of post-rejection
Kremlinology and sour grapes that we all engage(d) in during our job hunts and
wiki-fy it? It is, potentially, a lot more powerful than wistful first person columns in the Chronicle of Higher Ed. There’s room
for all sorts of hurt feelings here, not to mention breaches of confidentiality
and professional conduct. But there’s also potential to shine some badly-needed
light on a process often conducted in conditions of extreme ignorance and fear.
“Sunlight is the best disinfectant,” said Louis Brandeis. Let the sun shine in.

Say hello to Academic Careers Wiki.  I guess it was just a matter of time given that the concept is so simple: create a message board that can be used by newly-minted Ph.D’s who are scrambing for a limited number of jobs and who experience all kinds of frustration and angst.  Now I have absolutely no experience in the college job market and after checking out some of these postings I am grateful for that fact.  Still, I find this whole thing to be very interesting and for some people potentially helpful.  Individuals can share their interview experiences and other pieces of relevant information with one another.  For example, check out the postings on job openings in Nineteenth-Century America/Civil War, which include positions at Gettysburg College and UNC-Pembroke:

Gettysburg College AHA interview scheduled
Dec. 4; rejection letter received 12/13
anyone heard anything else
here?A friend said that everyone has
interviewed on campus, as of 2/22, and that they will decide soon

Position was not filled they plan to try again next year this is a joint Civil
War Africana Studies, Civil War types get smart on Africana Studies if you want
Let’s be clear: Civil War types from ivy league
schools or who fit the profile of a targeted hire. Searches where the actual
contents of a C.V. supply the criteria for a first-round cut exist, but not at
places like this.

UNC Pembroke this is new (started Feb. 2) it’s late 19th, early 20th
There may be an inside candidate for this job. This person is
presently an adjunct associate professor at UNC-P and specializes in this area.
According to sources close to the search, this info is correct. _I thought this
was Berry’s position (see above)._ This news breaks my
If Berry is leaving, its not out of the realm of possibility that
UNCP got the cash to replace him and add someone. They’ve gotten pretty
aggressive at staking a larger part of NC and SC’s college student base;
especially since it has gotten tougher (over the last decade or so?) for
in-state kids to get into UNC/NC State hence, more folks at UNCP, et al. There
are definitely two different openings, and Berry definitely is not coming back.
I’m not sure where he landed, but he was on leave (sabbatical?) this year. I find it hard to believe that UNC-P is becoming the school of
choice for Chapel Hill/NC State rejects. Isn’t it the lowest-ranked of the UNC
Regardless of what you think its ranked within the UNC system:
they are hiring, they recognize that they have a regional role to play and are
looking for the best cadidates to fullfill that mission, they are growing, and
the UNC system has been for some time filtered more in-state students away from
UNC/NC State into the regional campuses in a general sense, so as to make room
for academic superstars from out-of-state and from other nations. UNC-Asheville,
UNC-Wilmington, the rest of the what, dozen or so, universities in the UNC
system have, by and large, seen increasing enrollments (for a lot of different
reasons)in the last twenty years. And by the way, it is disgusting that you
refer to UNCP students as "rejects." I agree. I have no connection to the UNC
system, but I found that word disturbing as well. Judging by what I have seen on
the website and by how I have been treated by the chair of the search committee
for the CW job, I’d rather be here than anywhere else I applied, including
Gettysburg. Any news on this search? Has anyone heard from the
SC since 3/15?
Nothing 4/4 phone interviews have started4/5
friend of mine invited to campus on 4/13.

I spent a little time browsing different categories and what I was surprised by was the minimal amount of emotional ranting – guess you can get a blog for that.  Most of the postings offer constructive criticism of the interview process as well as helpful pointers and updates on the status of individual searches.  It almost seems to work as a grading system for individual departments, and while it is intended to be used by job seekers individual departments would be wise to consult every once in a while.  In fact, I know one graduate director in an economics department who checks in fairly regularly and finds the information to be helpful.  In the end it seems like a fantastic way of self-empowerment during a process that I assume can be a lonely experience.

Absolutely fascinating.


What Would An Obama Presidency Mean to Civil War Memory?

One of my readers responded to yesterday’s post on the forthcoming Civil War Centennial study by firing off a private email.  Though the email was relatively brief this reader gave me a great deal to think about in connection with how the Civil War will be remembered in a few short years during the sesquicentennial.  For this reader "the [centennial] observance was a celebration in plastic soldiers and cool pictorials in
Life Magazine, any political considerations were far above my buzz-cut
little head."  Indeed, little has changed  within the more popular audiences that attend reenactments, Civil War Roundtables, and read the popular magazines.  This stands in sharp contrast with the direction of recent scholarship of the Civil War, Reconstruction, and black history generally. 

What I failed to consider, which was pointed out in the email, is the possibility that the sesquicentennial observances may coincide with the election of our first black president.  How will that shape the national narrative that will arise out of political speeches, state sesquicentennial commission plans, and other observances?  My friendly emailer asks:

As the bellowing over the Confederate battle flag seems to be nearing
crescendo, how relevant will Confederate heritage appear four years from
now?  And with, perhaps, a black president, how empty will any Confederate
legacy be revealed to be?

The more I think about it the more it seems obvious that an Obama presidency could radically reshape our understanding of the Civil War, Reconstruction and the rest of the American history right down to the Civil Rights Movement.  We’ve already seen – and I assume this will emerge in Cook’s study – how a push for black civil rights in the 1950s and 60s served to challenge the work of various centennial commissions.  This led to a noticeable waning in enthusiasm among white Americans for centennial celebrations by 1963.  The difference this time around could be that with Obama potentially elected in 2008 that this will leave plenty of time for the nation to begin to rethink its history and the place of slavery and emancipation within the overall narrative.  Think about it: We will hear about how far the nation has come since before the Civil War.  Part of that narrative will highlight the Civil War as leading to emancipation through the sacrifice and bravery of black soldiers themselves along with the actions of countless others.   It is reasonable to expect that the work of various organizations involved in setting up events for the sesquicentennial would be influenced to some extent by this natural curiosity as to how the nation has come to elect its first black president.  In short, the "emancipationist legacy" of the Civil War would return to center stage. It has the potential of becoming overly celebratory; however, my interest is in the way the nation’s focus would be shifted.

Returning to the passage quoted above it is necessary to point out that the "emptiness" referred to in connection with "Confederate heritage" is not meant to denigrate the very strong desire on the part of Southern whites to remember and acknowledge the service of ancestors.  I’ve said before that there is nothing necessarily wrong or even strange about this personal need to remember.  It is meant, however, to point out that this view reduces both the war years, Reconstruction, and the history of race and slavery in a way that fails to acknowledge salient factors and relevant perspectives as part of the overall historical narrative.  It tends to reduce Southern history and the Civil War to the perspective of white Southerners and equates the Confederacy with the South.  More importantly, Southern history is equated or understood along the overly narrow lines of the four years of the Confederacy.  In short, the narratives coming out of Confederate Heritage groups would be inadequate to explain a black president.

This post is not meant in any way as a justification for a vote for Barak Obama.  The election of a black president would be an important milestone for this country, but in our attempt to understand how we as a nation arrived at this point it also has the potential of radically shifting the way we think about our collective past.

Thanks reader.


News Coverage

It’s much too early to draw any firm conclusions about what happened on Monday at Virginia Tech.  It is enough if we keep the students and families touched by this horrific incident in our thoughts.  Here at my school we are dealing with a slightly different problem.  We have a large contingent of students from Korea who are struggling with a sense of responsibility for what happened.  Perhaps part of this is cultural, but I have to think that the news coverage of this incident is exacerbating the problem.  The news is constantly referencing the shooter’s nationality.  I have to ask what this has to do with what happened.  Wouldn’t it be sufficient to note that he was a student at Virginia Tech?  After all, colleges and universities are international communities.  It would be unfortunate if the constant referencing of the shooter’s nationality was a way of distancing or minimizing the emotions of ownership or responsibility for what happened; in other words, it allows us to say that at least he wasn’t American.

Check out the post over at Hugo Schwyzer.


New Study of the Civil War Centennial

This is a book that I’ve been looking forward to for some time.  Little has been published about the Civil War Centennial celebrations and even less on its continued influence on the way we remember.  Much of what has been published has in fact been written by Robert Cook who is the author of the present study.  Two essay come to mind, including a recent Journal of Southern History article and another which appeared in the edited collection, Legacy of Disunion by Susan Mary-Grant and Peter J. Parish.  Here is the description for Troubled Commemoration: The American Civil War Centennial, 1961-1965 (forthcoming June 2007):

In 1957, Congress voted to set up the United States Civil War Centennial Commission. A federally funded agency within the Department of the Interior, the commission’s charge was to oversee preparations to commemorate the one-hundredth anniversary of the central event in the Republic’s history. Politicians hoped that a formal program of activities to mark the centennial of the Civil War would both bolster American patriotism at the height of the cold war and increase tourism in the South. Almost overnight, however, the patriotic pageant that organizers envisioned was transformed into a struggle over the Civil War’s historical memory and the injustices of Jim Crow. In Troubled Commemoration, Robert J. Cook recounts the planning, organization, and ultimate failure of this controversial event and reveals how the broad-based public history extravaganza was derailed by its appearance during the decisive phase of the civil rights movement.

Cook shows how the centennial provoked widespread alarm among many African Americans, white liberals, and cold warriors because the national commission failed to prevent southern whites from commemorating the Civil War in a racially exclusive fashion. The public outcry followed embarrassing attempts to mark secession, the attack on Fort Sumter, and the South’s victory at First Manassas, and prompted backlash against the celebration, causing the emotional scars left by the war to resurface. Cook convincingly demonstrates that both segregationists and their opponents used the controversy that surrounded the commemoration to their own advantage. Southern whites initially embraced the centennial as a weapon in their fight to save racial segregation, while African Americans and liberal whites tried to transform the event into a celebration of black emancipation.

Forced to quickly reorganize the commission, the Kennedy administration replaced the conservative leadership team with historians, including Allan Nevins and a young James I. Robertson, Jr., who labored to rescue the centennial by promoting a more soberly considered view of the nation’s past. Though the commemoration survived, Cook illustrates that white southerners quickly lost interest in the event as it began to coincide with the years of Confederate defeat, and the original vision of celebrating America’s triumph over division and strife was lost.

The first comprehensive analysis of the U.S. Civil War Centennial, Troubled Commemoration masterfully depicts the episode as an essential window into the political, social, and cultural conflicts of America in the 1960s and confirms that it has much to tell us about the development of the modern South.

It would have been nice to have this book as I finished up my project on memory and the Crater.  Click here for excerpts from pamphlets published by the Virginia Civil War Centennial Commission.  While there were plans at the beginning of the centennial to commemorate the battle of the Crater on July 30, 1964 enthusiasm clearly dropped off owing to the Civil Rights Movement and interpretive divisions within various centennial committees.

1 comment