Students in my Civil War Memory course finally finished watching Gone With the Wind. With all of the discussion and analysis it took us two weeks to get through it. It was well worth it and for the most part they really enjoyed it. We are now transitioning to the Civil War Centennial and the movie, Shenandoah. As part of their preparation for this movie I had students research the centennial and analyze newspaper articles from the period. Today we discussed how both the civil rights movement and the Cold War influenced how Americans remembered and commemorated the war in the 1960s. Having been released in January 1965, just six months after Congressional passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Shenandoah clearly reflects this broader cultural and racial shift. In contrast with earlier films such as Gone With the Wind and Birth of a Nation this film does not glorify the plantation South. This strong anti-Lost Cause theme emerges early in the film. Consider the scene around the diner table. Charlie Anderson is challenged by one of his sons who argues that the family can no longer ignore the war. The father asks his sons if they desire to own slaves. He then goes on to ask: “Now suppose you had a friend that owned slaves and suppose somebody was going to come and them them away from him. Would you help him fight to keep them.” One son insists that he would not and notes that, “I don’t see any reason to fight for something that I don’t believe is right and don’t think that a real friend would ask me to.” The dinner table reflects the broader moral issues that Americans were struggling with at the time. But even apart from the issue of civil rights the movie fits neatly into the ongoing ideological war with the Soviet Union. There is a moral clarity that comes through in this scene that reinforced America’s sense of its own place as leader of the free world.
This anti-Lost Cause theme returns in the above scene when Charlie Anderson confronts a Confederate officer hoping to recruit the Anderson boys. Somehow we are supposed to imagine that six strapping young Virginians were able to avoid conscription for two years. Anderson defends the necessity of keeping his sons on the farm by insisting that his farm was built “without the sweat of one slave.” The shift from GWTW is striking in Anderson’s refusal to make any sacrifice to slaveholding Virginia or the Confederacy. This unwillingness to identify specifically with slavery removes it from the ongoing debate about civil rights. I am confident that my students will enjoy this movie and I am looking forward to the class discussions.
I am not too surprised that my students are enjoying Gone With the Wind. The discussions have been pretty good thus far. For Monday they must bring in a newspaper article about the movie and share it with the rest of the group. I am hoping that they come in with articles from different decades so we get a sense of how the movie was received/interpreted at different times. Today I began the class by playing Hattie McDaniel’s Oscar acceptance speech for best supporting actress in 1939. I asked my students to think about the sharp contrast between the woman who accepted the award and the character she plays in the movie. There is something very sad and disturbing about this scene once we acknowledge that McDaniel was given an award for her ability to depict a character that was the product of a racist society – one that satisfied the needs of white America. I want to know what it was like for Hattie McDaniel and the other black actors to have to depict these characters on film. To what extent were they aware of the racist stereotypes that lay behind these characters? Are McDaniel’s tears in her acceptance speech any indication of this realization. I am so curious about these and other question that I decided to purchase a biography about her.
This year is the 70th anniversary of Gone With the Wind and this week my Civil War Memory class will watch it. Depending on how they respond to it we may even watch it in its entirety. There are so many thought provoking scenes, which will allow us to address a number of interpretive threads that have been passed down in our collective memory. With Birth of a Nation already under their belt they will also be able to begin to track certain themes in popular culture during the first part of the twentieth century.
In addition to viewing the movie, students will have to write an analytical review that addresses questions that I have provided. This time around they will also have to spend some time on one of our school’s databases that includes newspapers from around the country. They will have to integrate reviews and editorials into their essays. We will start with the following blog post from the Atlanta Journal-Constitution to get the juices flowing.
Today is the first day of the new trimester and I am once again teaching a course on Civil War Memory. I have two sections with a total of 12 students. Hopefully, the small sections will make for even more interesting discussions. This is a reference sheet that I put together for one of my Teaching American History talks from a few months back. It includes a few of the scholarly materials that I’ve utilized as well as some ideas for the classroom. Let me know if you try out any of my proposed classroom projects and please feel free to share what you do in your own courses. Continue reading “Teaching Civil War Memory”→
Iam in the process of finalizing my elective for the next trimester, which begins after we return from Thanksgiving break. It’s a course that I am calling Civil War Memory. Last year I taught it as a straightforward readings course and this year the plan was to use it as a platform for doing some digital history. Unfortunately, I am nowhere near to being ready to teach this kind of course. I simply don’t feel comfortable enough with some of the technology necessary to make this a successful course. Hopefully I can implement it next year. This leaves me with the question of how to structure this year’s course. As successful as last year’s version of the course was, I prefer to stay away from a readings course. So, I am planning on teaching a course that emphasizes Civil War memory and popular culture through film. This way, I can still utilize the books that have been ordered, especially Blight’s Race and Reunion, along with selections from recent books by Gary Gallagher and Brian Wills.