Ann DeWitt Still Doesn’t Get It

Update: Check out Andy Hall’s thoughtful analysis of the DeWitt-Weeks book over at Dead Confederates.

I am a high school history teacher, who spends a great deal of time reviewing classroom materials for their historical merit.  For what it’s worth my judgments are based on a solid education and years of reading the best in historical scholarship on the history of slavery, the South, and the American Civil War.  I point this out given Ann DeWitt’s latest response [scroll down] to my continued postings on her flawed historical fiction for children, titled, Entangled in Freedom:

Imagine writing a novel for young adults which (1) espouses the sanctity of marriage, (2) does not contain profanity, (3) promotes earning ones way in America, (4) advocates true friendship, (5) demonstrates the positive progression of America  over the last 150 years, and (6) highlights the strength of the family unit; yet, the novel is dubbed “nonsense”  by a recognized Virginia Civil War journalist and historian.

The above six principles the family narratives of Ann DeWitt.  I have no 19th century written documentation of these six family values because they were passed down to me verbally by my ancestors. I do not secretly hide them but proudly share them with the world.   As parents and/or readers, would you ban such a book from the shelves of bookstores, civil war & history museums, and libraries across America?  Google key words:  entangled in freedom.  Witness a literary ban about the subject of Black Confederate Soldiers happening right before our eyes—in the open—on the internet.

Let’s be clear that no one is trying to “ban” Ms. Dewitt’s and Mr. Weeks’s book.  I am simply using this blog to point out the shortcomings of this children’s book.  Whatever the virtues of this book may be, it does not trump the fact that neither author has any understanding of the history of slavery, race relations, and the role of African Americans in the Confederate army.  The bibliography in this book clearly reflects a lack of serious research into their subject.  I would go as far as to suggest that this book is dangerous and irresponsible and if this blog can help in preventing impressionable young minds from being exposed to it, so be it.

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16 comments… add one
  • Jonathan Dresner Oct 3, 2010 @ 16:19

    Just as an aside, DeWitt’s update before the one quoted above asks

    Has anyone formally applied the Mark and Capture or another widely accepted methodology in determining the population of Black Confederates?

    “Mark and Capture” is a biologist’s method for evaluating existing animal populations. How, exactly, is she proposing that it be applied to historical records, and why, exactly, is she applying animal research models to human populations without considering the differences?

    • Kevin Levin Oct 3, 2010 @ 16:21

      I noticed it as well. It’s incredibly bizarre, but is par for the course in terms of her analysis. Andy Hall also referenced it in his most recent post at Dead Confederates.

      • Jonathan Dresner Oct 3, 2010 @ 17:09

        So he did: I missed it in the litany. And you’re right about it being par for the course for her concept of evidence, and what constitutes proof and argumentation. I’m almost afraid to think too hard about what it means, though, because I can’t see any good answers to that question.

        • Marianne Davis Oct 4, 2010 @ 17:46

          Is anyone else distressed by the whole idea of “mark and recapture” methodology AKA “capture and recapture” or “band and recapture” as it applies to human beings? If these authors are trying to persuade us of the humanitarian side of the CSA, wouldn’t you think they would avoid reminding us of the capture of Africans and the recapture of marked slaves? Mass shudders all around.

          • Andy Hall Oct 5, 2010 @ 4:58

            Marianne, it would be distressing if Ms. DeWitt understood what “mark-and-recapture” actually entails. But I doubt that she does. (Step 1. Build a time machine.) That suggestion is typical of her website, citing or linking to highly particular bits of information or ideas, without (it seems) any real understanding of what those things actually mean, even when those things she cites undermine the larger case she’s trying to make. (For example, a list of scores of pensions issued to African American men, virtually every one of which describes the man’s service as “cook,” “laundryman,” “laborer,” “servant,” etc.) The links and definitions and page after page of various lists give it a veneer of academic depth that, I think, will take in a lot of casual visitors who don’t have the background in the subject area.

            An old friend of mine used to teach middle school history, and was frustrated that the kids in his class had practically zero critical reading skills when they came into his class. Most of them couldn’t use the index in the back of the book to find something, and when called on to pull definitions or descriptions from their textbook, they’d simply skim the pages until they found that particular word, and copy out verbatim that sentence in which they found it — regardless of whether it actually defined or explained anything. They were simply copying out things they found that matched the words they were looking for, without any larger understanding of whether it actually answered the question. I’m sorry to say that I think a similar dynamic may apply here.

            • Kevin Levin Oct 5, 2010 @ 5:01

              This is what worries me as well. The problem is that DeWitt’s site actually looks more professional than most.

  • mcvouty Oct 3, 2010 @ 14:20

    Thanks for the update pointing us towards the analysis on Dead Confederates. Mr. Hall has really nailed it by looking at this from a different perspective.

    Earlier, I was mulling over discussing all the logical fallacies I’ve pulled out of her website and other sources I’ve discovered while doing some research, but I figured it would just be overkill at this point. What it boils down to is, she’s not defending the book anymore — she’s defending herself. I don’t think it is the intention of anyone here to attack her personally, and I hope she at least understands that if she bothers to read all this.

  • J. L. Bell Oct 3, 2010 @ 13:01

    DeWitt is also badly mistaken if she feels her children’s book is unusual in promoting families, friendship, and hard work toward one’s goals. Most fiction for young people these days reflects those values. Few children’s books contain profanity, especially at the age level she’s writing for.

    Since American children’s fiction is almost universally expected to end with a sense of hope, when applied to historical stories that almost always produces an ending with “positive progression,” the notion that the hero’s situation and society will improve.

    None of that has anything to do with the problems of historical inaccuracy, anachronistic behavior, and turgid prose that I’ve seen in the excerpts so far. But DeWitt also seems to lack an accurate view of the field in which she’s working.

  • Margaret D. Blough Oct 3, 2010 @ 8:22

    It would be one thing if the book was presented as counterhistory or fantasy, but Ms. DeWitt and Mr. Weeks’ comments make it clear that it is being portrayed as a roman a clef (a lightly fictionalized version of real people and /or events (see “The Killer Angels” as a notable example of a roman a clef).

    There are more than a fiw studies out now on the law of slavery in Southern states during the antebellum period, and T.R.R. Cobb’s “”An Inquiry into the Law of Negro Slavery in the United States of America” (1858), which he intended to be the definitive legal treatise on the law of slavery, is available in reprint. Based on documents and speeches from the antebellum period, there is no basis in fact for the Weeks/DeWitt view of the master/slave relationship.

  • Andy Hall Oct 3, 2010 @ 7:28

    Imagine writing a novel for young adults which (1) espouses the sanctity of marriage, (2) does not contain profanity, (3) promotes earning ones way in America, (4) advocates true friendship, (5) demonstrates the positive progression of America over the last 150 years, and (6) highlights the strength of the family unit

    None of those things have anything to do with the historical accuracy of the setting or the plot. One could write such a work on any number of topics, and and frame it in a way that is, if not historically documented, at least plausible. Laura Ingalls Wilder is the obvious example of doing this, although she had the advantage of having actually lived the life she described in her writing.

    The above six principles the family narratives of Ann DeWitt. I have no 19th century written documentation of these six family values because they were passed down to me verbally by my ancestors. I do not secretly hide them but proudly share them with the world.

    No one’s asking for documentation of her family values — which, as family values go, are laudable. This statement reveals something much more essential here, specifically that, in Ms. DeWitt’s view, criticizing the historical accuracy of the book is criticizing her family, and her values. She sees it not as criticism of her work, but as a personal attack on her. It’s not the same thing at all. I don’t doubt that Ms. DeWitt is a very well-intentioned and sincere person, but having good intentions is not enough when it comes to presenting a believable and realistic picture of the past.

  • Jonathan Dresner Oct 3, 2010 @ 6:59

    What strikes me most about her six principles, aside from their irrelevance and the obvious attempt to derail the discussion and demonize her critics, is that they’re not well-founded historical ttruths, either, but part of a conservative declensionist mythology.

  • Eric Swanger Oct 3, 2010 @ 6:00

    While DeWitt’s book (and many other young adult novels) contains her six points of fluffiness, the book isn’t actually *about* that fluffiness. And no matter how palatable that fluffiness may be, it doesn’t change what the book is actually about.

    If her book were really about promoting ones way in America, friendship, positive progression and family, well then many huzzahs to Ann. But it’s not.

    She chose to write about a fairly controversial belief in American history that has very little quality research to substantiate it. And then she seems shocked that a historian would take issue with it. Why is that?

    Also, having read a bit of the book, it’s very very poorly written. I don’t think you have to worry about this being interesting to children after the first few pages.

  • mcvouty Oct 3, 2010 @ 5:44

    “Witness a literary ban”?!

    I’m immediately reminded of Jon Stewart’s commentary on Dr. Laura and the N-Word controversy. Nobody is questioning her right to say this crazy nonsense, but nobody has the right to control the response to an idea once it is out there. What’s next? Pulling the book from publication and then accusing Kevin of violating her First Amendment rights?

    And also, if this is actually a family memoir, it sure isn’t reading that way from the excerpts you are posting. I’ve read plenty of Civil War memoirs and they are typically inaccurate and biased and that’s perfectly fine. After all, they are the subjective opinions of people caught up in the fog of war. If this were framed as such…well, it would still sound like a Classic Comics parody, but at least it would be forgivable in context.

  • Marianne Davis Oct 3, 2010 @ 5:39

    Wishful thinking, I know, but I wish we could do more than warn people against exposing children to the book. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to make it such a cause celebre that it would be used in instructional settings as a warning about bad history? We know Ms DeWitt is on the ropes when she tries to assert that your trouble with the book is its treatment of “family values.”
    Ironies abound. She says her book “(1) espouses the sanctity of marriage.” Yet does she mention that slaves may or may not have been able to marry, and that their marriages were no bar to being sold away from one another in an exercise of property rights. “(2) does not contain profanity” All I can say is Huh? “(3) promotes earning ones way in America.” Earning one’s way? By setting bonded people at your labors, or by hiring them out to others? “(4) advocates true friendship” This relationship may be friendship, but to whom does it ring true? Does anyone out there own any of your friends? “(5) demonstrates the positive progression of America over the last 150 years.” Bravo! We have come a long way, and that is worth celebrating. But what about the CSA, founded and consolidated on the institution of slavery and its spread, bespeaks progress? (The mother in me wants to speak to her about the phrase “positive progression,” too.) and finally, “(6) highlights the strength of the family unit.” Please see point one above. What family unit for enslaved people? The bond, perhaps, with their owners?

  • Woodrowfan Oct 3, 2010 @ 4:43

    You’re far kinder to Ms. DeWitt than I would be.

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