Category Archives: American Studies

Happy birthday, Frederick Law Olmsted


Frederick Law Olmsted, c.1890, courtesy of the National Park Service, Frederick Law Olmsted National Historic Site.

Sunday, April 26th, marks the birth date of Frederick Law Olmsted. No short list of the most important and influential Americans of the nineteenth century would omit the name of Frederick Law Olmsted: mid-century agricultural reformer; sharp-eyed observer of slavery and slave society before the Civil War; mainstay of the United States Sanitary Commission; and the nation’s leading landscape architect and park designer—the creator of Central Park in New York City and leading conservator of Yosemite in California. Olmsted’s hundreds of projects preserved the natural world and placed the built environment comfortably aside natural beauty.

Within days of Olmsted’s birthday, Johns Hopkins University Press will publish Frederick Law Olmsted: Plans and Views of Public Parks, edited by Charles E. Beveridge, Lauren Meier, and Irene Mills. This project, in the works for 40 years, highlights Olmsted’s drawings and plans in large format and glorious color. Lavishly illustrated with over 470 images—129 of them in color—this book reveals Olmsted’s design concepts for more than 70 North American public park projects through sketches, studies, lithographs, paintings, photographs, and comprehensive descriptions.

A recent Boston Globe review of Frederick Law Olmsted: Plans and Views of Public Parks called the volume a “visual compendium of Olmsted’s work, taking readers on a visual tour through some of America’s most significant public landscapes.”

“Enlightening and lavishly illustrated . . . Whether your interest is in Olmsted and his work, landscape architecture in general, the development of nature-based recreation, or American history, Frederick Law Olmsted: Plans and Views of Public Parks can provide a substantial expansion and deepening of your thoughts in your area of interest, as well as help connect it to other related (and perhaps even previously unconsidered) areas of study.”—The Well-read Naturalist (Full review may be read here.)

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Also new from Johns Hopkins University Press is The Papers of Frederick Law Olmsted: The Last Great Projects, 1890–1895, edited by David Schuyler, Gregory Kaliss, and Jeffrey Schlossberg. This concluding volume of the monumental Papers of Frederick Law Olmsted captures some of Olmsted’s signature achievements, including Biltmore, George W. Vanderbilt’s massive estate near Asheville, North Carolina, and the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago. Chicago Tribune Architecture Critic Blair Kamin called this final volume “A fascinating new door stop of a book . . . [whose] revealing glimpses into the mind of America’s greatest landscape architect take on fresh relevance.”

We who care about American history benefit greatly from the work of the historians—Charles McLaughlin, Charles E. Beveridge, and many others—who, since the 1960s, have devoted themselves to the selection of Olmsted’s most significant papers, annotating them, and seeing them to publication in The Papers of Frederick Law Olmsted.  Here we have, in wonderful combination, first-rate scholarship, distinguished book publishing, and the memorable work of an extraordinary American.

On Tuesday, August 4th at noon, Lauren Meier will speak about Frederick Law Olmsted at 92nd Street Y. For details, please click here.










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Jacob Lawrence and the Great Migration

Guest post by Peter Rutkoff

A new exhibit, “One-Way Ticket: Jacob Lawrence’s Migration Series and Other Works,” opens today at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. We invited Peter Rutkoff, c0author of  Fly Away: The Great African American Cultural Migrations, to offer this appreciation of Lawrence and his work.

Jacob Lawrence post
I marvel at the circumstantial miracle that allowed a twenty-three-year-old African American from the South to create the artistic masterpiece of the Great Migration. I equally marvel that such a wonderful creative series—sixty panels that “read” like the pages in a children’s book—has never found a permanent home. Instead, as we will soon witness at the Museum of Modern Art, the Great Migration Series only negotiates short-term stays at any single place before it re-divides and shuttles back to its other residences.

Jacob Lawrence painted the history of African America. And by the time the Rosenwald Foundation awarded him a fellowship for the Migration Series, he had already completed three sequences of paintings on Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglass, and Toussaint L’Ouverture. These precursors, the historical ancestors of African America, allowed Lawrence to tell the epic story of migration and transformation that changed us all.

Imagine those who resided in Lawrence’s imagination, the teachers and mentors who guided him to greatness and informed the beauty and power of his art. His Southern family, those who brought him North from South Carolina and Virginia; his mid-Harlem neighborhood that introduced him to the Harlem Artists Guild, to Augusta Savage’s WPA-funded Harlem Community Arts Center, and to the towering presence of Adam Clayton Powell’s Abyssinian Baptist Church; and to the intellectual nexus of Harlem—the Schomburg Library. And, yet, nothing compared to the intellectual and artistic community that comprised what he called the “dawn patrol.”

Along with his friend, fellow Southerner Romare Bearden, Lawrence joined a small circle of artists and writers in Harlem in the late 1930s. They called themselves the 306 Group, after the address on West 141st Street that Harlem WPA muralist Charles Alston had converted into a studio. They painted and wrote and debated, and as the “dawn patrol” hit all the local spots, including Mom Young’s, where “for twenty-five cents you could get a beer that she made herself in a coffee-can-sized container.”

Often joined by writers Countee Cullen and Ralph Ellison or WPA Negro Theater Unit actors Rex Ingram and Canada Lee, as well as Alston and the young female painter (and Lawrence’s future wife) Gwendolyn Knight, Lawrence and Bearden helped form 306 into a salon of ideas and culture. As members of the Second Harlem Renaissance they saw themselves as black artists embracing modernist aesthetics and racial solidarity.

In this way, Lawrence’s voice, at once visual and historic, spoke of and to the experiences of masses of African Americans who had braved the journey North—one that he understood in epic, indeed biblical terms—during and after the First World War, a half-generation earlier. But he did so at the very dawn of a Second Great Migration whose journey was about to begin with the shattering of peace in 1939.

Jacob Lawrence’s “Migration Series” continued his journey as an historian of Black America, and like so much of art that aspires to greatness, did so in the language of the people who Lawrence so beautifully rendered.

rutkoffPeter M. Rutkoff is a professor of American studies at Kenyon College. He is the coauthor, with William B. Scott, of  Fly Away: The Great African American Cultural Migrations (forthcoming this fall in paperback) and New York Modern: The Arts and the City.

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“History does not record a more horrible crime,” Maryland and the death of Abraham Lincoln

lincoln 3 Guest post by Charles W. Mitchell

“I had never witnessed such a scene as was now presented. The seats, aisles, galleries, and stage were filled with shouting, frenzied men and women, many running aimlessly over one another; a chaos of disorder beyond control.” So recalled Washington attorney Seaton Munroe after racing to Ford’s Theatre on the evening of April 14, 1865, having heard a man on Pennsylvania Avenue scream, “My God, the President is killed at Ford’s Theatre!”

Abraham Lincoln was not popular in Maryland at the outbreak of the Civil War, receiving less than three percent of the votes cast in the state, good for a last-place finish among four candidates. (In November 1864, in a drastically different political climate, he would win more than 55% of Maryland votes.) Much venom was spewed at this “Black Republican,” who, while promising not to interfere with slavery where it existed, had pledged to prevent its spread. As the March 4, 1861, date of Lincoln’s inauguration neared, Maryland and Washington, D.C., were rife with rumors that southern sympathizers and disunionists planned to disrupt the ceremonies. General-in-Chief of the Army Winfield Scott was prepared for any interference with the count of the electoral votes or the inauguration; any such man, he proclaimed, “should be lashed to the muzzle of a twelve-pounder and fired out of a window of the Capitol. I would manure the hills of Arlington with his body!”

Scott had reason for worry. In the early months of 1861, as the newly elected Lincoln was making his way to Washington from Springfield, Illinois, traveling more than 1,900 miles over eighteen railroads, rumors emerged of a cell of Baltimoreans intent on murdering him as he changed train stations in the city on the final leg of his journey. Lincoln’s advisors persuaded him to travel through Baltimore the night before his scheduled arrival—which he did, undisguised (contrary to popular myth). Little evidence materialized to indict anyone, in what was likely little more than fanciful talk—despite the claim by Vermont Congressman Lucius Chittenden in 1891 that “a mob of twenty thousand roughs and plug-uglies” was ready to board Lincoln’s train and stab him to death.

Following the surrender of Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor on April 13, Lincoln called for 75,000 troops to put down the rebellion of southern states and protect Washington, D.C. Northern governors quickly responded, sending their state militia companies southward on trains that arrived in Baltimore— horses then pulled cars from the arrival stations to the B&O’s new Camden Station, for the final leg to Washington. On Friday, April 19, a crowd gathered and quickly grew into a festering, seething mob along Pratt Street. Invective was hurled, then projectiles. Shots cracked the cobblestones; some found their mark. When the melee was over, twelve Baltimoreans and two Massachusetts troopers lay dead and scores were wounded, marking the city as the site of the Civil War’s first fatalities.

lincoln 4Baltimoreans readied for more Northern troops. Those without access to an armory sacked gun shops during a terrifying and lawless weekend. Mayor George W. Brown hastened to Washington on Sunday to beg that Northern troops avoid Baltimore, warning of catastrophic consequences otherwise. Brown secured a pledge from Lincoln: Troops would disembark at Perryville, on the Susquehanna River, and travel to Annapolis by steamboat, thence by train to Washington.

But troops would traverse Maryland soil. The nation’s capital, Lincoln lectured a delegation from the Young Men’s Christian Associations of Baltimore, was “surrounded by the soil of Maryland; and mathematically the necessity exists that they should come over her territory. Our men are not moles, and can’t dig under the earth; they are not birds, and can’t fly through the air. There is no way but to march across, and that they must do.”

Reacting to the destruction of railway bridges spanning the rivers north of Baltimore by Maryland militiamen, on April 27 Lincoln suspended the writ of habeas corpus—but he did so only along rail lines, and only those in Maryland. He authorized General Scott to watch, but otherwise not interfere with, the Maryland legislature meeting in special session in Frederick. Other than one legislator detained briefly following the session’s end, no lawmaker was arrested during that tumultuous Maryland spring (contrary to popular myth).

Lincoln recognized that Maryland was home to many Unionist slave owners who believed that a state constitution that permitted slavery offered prosperity born of safety in the Union. When General Benjamin Butler—whose troopers had been abused so by Baltimoreans on April 19—marched onto Federal Hill on May 13 and threatened the city with his cannon, a furious Lincoln exiled him to Fortress Monroe in Virginia.

In March 1862, Lincoln invited Congressmen from the border slave states—Maryland, Missouri, Kentucky and Delaware—to the White House. He proposed a program of compensated emancipation for the slave owners in their states. After they rebuffed him, the president used the Union victory in September at Antietam to launch the Emancipation Proclamation, to take effect on January 1, 1863. Lincoln’s October 3 visit to this Maryland battlefield, where the roughly 23,000 dead and wounded still constitute the single bloodiest day in American history, was captured in a famous photograph, in which he stands with General George McClellan and other Union officers.

Lincoln visited Maryland on other occasions. In November 1863 he traveled to Gettysburg to consecrate a new national cemetery and deliver what became the Gettysburg Address. A specially outfitted B&O Railroad car took him to Baltimore’s Camden Station; following transfer to the Northern Central Railroad, the car went to Hanover Junction for the last leg to Gettysburg. In April 1864 he arrived in Baltimore to speak at the Baltimore Sanitary Fair, which raised $83,000 for Union troops. Lincoln stayed at the home of William J. Albert, who lived either on Monument Street (according to the Baltimore Sun’s account) or Cathedral Street (according to the 1860 Baltimore City directory).

On Friday, April 14, 1865, Major Robert Anderson, the federal commander who had surrendered Fort Sumter four years earlier, was a guest of honor at the fort for a ceremony marking the end of the Civil War—four years to the day of the surrender. “I beg you, now, that you will join me in drinking the health . . . of the good, the great, the honest man, Abraham Lincoln.” In Washington, the president and Mrs. Lincoln were at that moment setting off for an evening at Ford’s Theatre.

lincoln 2“We announce to our readers the most terrible, the saddest and the most sorrowful intelligence,” reported a Baltimore newspaper the next day. “Abraham Lincoln is dying…Mr. Lincoln has been basely, cowardly and traitorously murdered.” Mayor John Lee Chapman ordered closed “taverns and drinking houses,” flags draped in mourning and bells tolled between 11 a.m. and noon. On Sunday, April 16, ministers in Baltimore churches delivered powerful sermons and eulogies to the slain president. “A deed of blood has been perpetrated which has caused every heart to shudder,” cried Martin J. Spaulding, archbishop of Baltimore. “Words fail us for expressing detestation for a deed so atrocious.” Places of public amusement were closed. “Everything here has been at a standstill since Saturday morning last, when the news of the horrible assassination of President Lincoln reached the city,” wrote one man. “The various bells of the City, including those of the different churches, were all dismally tolling, and nature herself seemed to mourn.”

Grief and anger prevailed in Maryland. The Rev. James A. McCauley, of the Eutaw Methodist Episcopal Church, eulogized: “Like Washington, he is not ours exclusively: the world claims him.” Jacob Engelbrecht, in Frederick, jotted a note in his diary: “Remember God the avenger reigns.” In Easton, Leonidas Dodson described the reaction in that Eastern Shore town: “The bells of the churches at the hour of service tolled a solemn requiem, and sadness and gloom sat upon all faces.”

On April 21, a week after his death, Lincoln’s body traversed the streets of Baltimore. Attorney Williams Wilkins Glenn watched Lincoln’s funeral cortege pass through the city: “Procession passed up Eutaw St & down Baltimore. All business suspended. Streets densely lined with spectators.” Reverend Henry Slicer, pastor of Seaman’s Union Bethel Church in Fells Point, wrote that “the route was long and muddy, and the day damp & rainy.” George B. Cole recalled that a “silent gloom hangs over the whole city” and expressed worry at Vice President Andrew Johnson’s attitude toward Lincoln’s Reconstruction policy and the former Confederate states: “Several men of strong secession attachments have already expressed to me this morning their horror and apprehension of the effect this event will have upon the restoration of peace.”

That same day, John Wilkes Booth and his accomplice, David Herold, were hiding out on the Maryland side of the Potomac River, near Pope’s Creek. The following night they crossed the river into Virginia, seeking in vain a hero’s welcome.

Charles W. Mitchell is the author of Travels through American History in the Mid-Atlantic and the editor of Maryland Voices of the Civil War, winner of the Founders Award from the Museum of the Confederacy.  Charley will speak on the subject of Lincoln and Maryland on April 7 in JHUP’s lunch and lecture series at the Johns Hopkins Club.  For more information, contact Jack Holmes at 410-516-6928 or



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Blues, smoke, and shadows: jazz in “musical” noir films

Guest post by Sheri Chinen Biesen

The Society For Cinema & Media Studies hosts Sheri Chinen Biesen for presentation on this topic at the 2015 SCMS annual conference.

Jazz music flourished in “musical” noir films, which were distinctive for showing smoke, shadows, and bluesy nightclub performers. The music recalled Harlem’s Cotton Club, where, according to Aljean Harmetzs obituary for Lena Horne,  the “customers were white, barely dressed dancers were light-skinned blacks, Duke Ellington was the star of the show, and the proprietors were gangsters.” Musical noir featuring jazz performances in murky cabaret joints evoked Jazz Age speakeasies and illicit affairs, challenging Hollywood censorship. Low-lit lounges, the enthralling minor key sounds of musicians, and blue film scores suggested censorable activity in after hours nightspots. Some especially notable examples of musical noir films featuring jazz and set in smoky, atmospheric nightclubs include Blues in the Night (1941), Jammin’ the Blues (1944, with Lester Young), Phantom Lady (1944), To Have and Have Not (1944, with Hoagy Carmichael), Gilda (1946), The Man I Love (1947), New Orleans (1947, with Louis Armstrong and Billie Holiday), Young Man With A Horn (1950, with Harry James), Sweet Smell of Success (1957, with Chico Hamilton), Elevator to the Gallows (1957, with Miles Davis score), Paris Blues (1961, with Duke Ellington score), and A Man Called Adam (1966, with Benny Carter score).

Harold Arlen, known for playing music infused with “the wail of the blues” and writing music for Harlem’s Cotton Club, composed jazz for Blues in the Night, which involves a musician who goes insane after tangling with a femme fatale singer. Warner Bros. wanted Duke Ellington for the film, but cast Jimmie Lunceford’s big band instead. In the film, Lester Young leads a jazz noir jam session. Meanwhile, censors believed that another film, Phantom Lady, implied that musicians jamming in a sexual jazz “jive” sequence were drug addicts. Hoagy Carmichael plays jazz in To Have and Have Not as Lauren Bacall sings and seductively entices men at the bar. In Gilda, Rita Hayworth sings the bluesy “Put the Blame on Mame,” dances, tosses her hair, and performs a striptease in a jazz nightclub. She peals off her gloves, inviting viewers to unzip her strapless gown—before she is yanked off stage and violently slapped by misogynist beau Glenn Ford. Jazz music conveyed the blues amid smoke and shadows in musical noir Blues in the Night, Jammin’ the Blues, To Have and Have Not, Gilda, The Man I Love and Young Man With A Horn, where femme fatale Bacall grabs a jazz musician’s hair in a torrid embrace as taglines clamor: “Put down your trumpet, jazzman–I’m in the mood for love!” Ellington’s somber blue tones in Paris Blues and Davis’ haunting jazz score in Elevator to the Gallows (Lift to the Scaffold/Ascenseur pour l’échafaud) evoke loneliness as a doomed femme fatale wanders late-night streets aimlessly searching for her illicit lover (who killed her husband for her). In A Man Called Adam, the titular character destroys himself performing to Benny Carter’s score as Nat Adderly plays. As postwar Hollywood shifted to color films, Arlen penned the moody after hours torch song “The Man That Got Away” for noir musical A Star Is Born (1954). In that film, director George Cukor reimagined the blues, smoke, and shadows of jazz musical noir in brooding color.

This piece grows out of research for my book, Music in the Shadows: Noir Musical Films, in which I examine the connection between jazz music, film noir, and Hollywood jazz musicals in noir musical cinema. I will be presenting a talk at the 2015 Society for Cinema & Media Studies Conference in Montreal based on this research.

Sheri Chinen Biesen is associate professor of film history at Rowan University and the author of Blackout: World War II and the Origins of Film Noir and Music in the Shadows: Noir Musical Films.

*(Note: Quote from Aljean Harmetz, “Lena Horne,” New York Times, 9 May 2010, A1.)

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The Troubling Origins of the Circus Elephant Act

Guest post by Susan Nance

It was big news recently when Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus finally bowed to public pressure and their accountants to announce that they will phase out live elephants in their traveling shows by 2018. The circus company is the last one to hold a large herd of elephants. Consequently, it appears that the two-hundred-year window in which Americans pioneered and popularized elephant acts as a part of circus entertainment is closing. Ringling Brothers and their parent company, Feld Entertainment, are pros, and there is no question they will refine their shows and prosper for decades to come.

“The Funny, Wonderful Elephant Brass Band,” Buffalo: Courier Litho. Co., 1899. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C.,

“The Funny, Wonderful Elephant Brass Band,” Buffalo: Courier Litho. Co., 1899. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C.

So, how do we make sense of rise and fall of the elephant in circuses over the last two centuries? To me, the iconic performing circus elephant speaks not of nostalgia or innocence but of a nineteenth-century attitude toward the natural world that helped get us into the environmental crisis in which we find ourselves today. Balancing on a pedestal in a clown outfit, serving as a platform for a snarling tiger, or tooting awkwardly on a horn while the band played—the circus elephant said to spectators that, as the superior species, mankind could take anything (or anybody) they found in the world with impunity. The Elephant Brass Band pictured here was “funny” to audiences because elephants could not play horns properly, so the humor turned on their inability to measure up to human abilities. It was “wonderful” to audiences because it demonstrated human entitlement to remake animals into whatever people wanted them to be.

In 1855, 1905, or 1955, such performances were grounded in a naively anthropocentric view of the world that suited the imperially acquisitive spirit of the era. Wealthy nations were busy discovering, measuring and cataloging new land, animals, plants, and peoples, and deciding how everything could be exploited for the financial and political gain of those in power or, later, a mass consumer economy. By this logic, nature was raw material just waiting for “improvement” through human manipulation. Circus people designed every aspect of their shows to satisfy ticket-buyers’ need for laughter, amazement, voyeurism, and self-satisfaction. They falsely told the public that elephants were naturally theatrical and native to the circus, and that they endorsed human motives and goals. The act was a kind of elephantine minstrelsy that, like the racist equivalent of the period—blackface—served to bolster the cultural, political and material power of the audience by silencing the beings thus represented.

Outside the circus ring, often before groups of newspaper reporters, circus trainers beat elephants into submission when they refused exhausting and painful training or became frustrated by chains and hobbles that limited their movement. Mentally anguished elephants often attacked or killed company staff, or made attempts at escape. Many circuses killed resistant elephants in ritualistic public executions that—no accident—mirrored and coincided with the horrific lynchings of black men in the American south. In challenging human control, an elephant unknowingly challenged not only the barnmen trying to goad him into a rail car or the exasperated trainer desperately commanding her to salute to the crowd before the applause stopped. Those elephants also unknowingly resisted the entire culture of human supremacy undergirding circus animal acts then, and even now.

Blackface is long gone, thankfully. The circuses gave that act up generations ago in order to keep their entertainment relevant. Could it be that the costumed circus elephant was a similarly political tool for the misrepresentation and domination of elephants and nature? I don’t mean to be flippantly provocative here, or to diminish the struggles of people who have endured systematic stereotyping and dehumanization in this century or earlier ones. Nonetheless, the troubling origins of these conventions for exploiting animals for entertainment expose the degree to which the happy circus elephant character emanates from a problematic historical context and is as arrogant a misrepresentation of elephants today as Zipcoon was of people of color a century ago. Now the public seems more interested in celebrating the intrinsic value of elephants. Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus acknowledges that fact. They will weed one more stereotype out of their repertoire and keep going.

As a species coming to terms with the limits of our power, it seems we may finally be ready to let elephants off the hook.

nanceSusan Nance is an associate professor of U.S. history and an affiliated faculty member at the Campbell Centre for the Study of Animal Welfare at the University of Guelph, Ontario, Canada. She is the author of Entertaining Elephants: Animal Agency and the Business of the American Circus and How the Arabian Nights Inspired the American Dream, 1790–1935.



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Recommended Reading: Cinema Studies

With the Academy Awards set for this weekend, we want to aim a key light on our terrific books in film history and cinema studies. Call the gaffer!

luzziA Cinema of Poetry: Aesthetics of the Italian Art Film
by Joseph Luzzi

“Luzzi brings a set of powerful resources to his new study: a vast erudition, an ear finely attuned to inter-arts allusions, and an ability to discern the workings of poetic tropes within the language of cinema. The result is a deepened understanding of the category of the aesthetic as it relates to Italian film criticism and an affirmation of the riches that this body of canonical films offers to scholars and lay connoisseurs of the seventh art.”—Millicent Marcus, Yale University

Music in the Shadows $20.97 (reg. $29.95) FORTHCOMINGMusic in the Shadows: Noir Musical Films
by Sheri Chinen Biesen

“The book nicely balances in-depth historical research and previous film noir scholarship with fresh ideas and a writing style that is both evocative and concise. The author doesn’t force the films into the model of her theory; instead the films guide the theory, a quality often lacking in film writing. Music in the Shadows ultimately succeeds on two levels, both in providing an entertaining and enlightening read, as well as an impetus to watch previously unseen films and rewatch familiar classics with a new perspective.”—Noir City

osteenNightmare Alley: Film Noir and the American Dream
by Mark Osteen

“Only a few of the many books on film noir are essential. This is one of them . . . A smart, clearly written book.”—Choice

“Mark Osteen manages to add something new and substantial to the discourse on film noir—an examination of the ways in which the American Dream is subverted, challenged, and ultimately discounted by the harsh realities of a noir universe, which more directly aligns itself with society than with the phantom hope of endless upward mobility.”—Wheeler Winston Dixon, University of Nebraska, Lincoln

Gilles Deleuze: Cinema and Philosophy, by Paola Marrati, translated by Alisa Hartz
When Stories Travel: Cross-Cultural Encounters between Fiction and Film, by Cristina Della Coletta
Math Goes to the Movies, by Burkard Polster and Marty Ross
Cinematic Illuminations: The Middle Ages on Film, by Laurie A. Finke and Martin B. Shichtman

Film Adaptation and Its Discontents: From Gone with the Wind to The Passion of the Christ, by Thomas Leitch
The Moguls and the Dictators: Hollywood and the Coming of World War II, by David Welky
Unless the Threat of Death Is Behind Them: Hard-Boiled Fiction and Film Noir, by John T. Irwin
Essential Cinema: On the Necessity of Film Canons, by Jonathan Rosenbaum




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The Press Reads: Nat Turner and the Rising in Southampton County

Guest post by David F. Allmendinger Jr.

allmendingerpostedIn August 1831, in Southampton County, Virginia, Nat Turner led a bloody uprising that took the lives of some fifty-five white people—men, women, and children—shocking the South. Nearly as many black people perished in the rebellion and its aftermath. Our recent book by David F. Allmendinger Jr. presents important new evidence about the violence and the community in which it took place, shedding light on the insurgents and victims and reinterpreting the most important account of that event, The Confessions of Nat Turner.  Throughout Black History Month, we will offer a series of excerpts from recent publications, and today we are pleased to begin with Allmendinger’s thoughtful look at this history in Nat Turner and the Rising in Southampton County.

From Chapter One: A History of Motives

“I must go back to the days of my infancy, and even before I was born.” —Nat Turner, The Confessions of Nat Turner

Of all the accounts that appeared in 1831, only the memoir within The Confessions of Nat Turner advanced the notion that the rebellion leader’s motives had a history. No previous account had linked so many events in Nat Turner’s life to specific points in the past: 2 October 1800; the year 1803 or 1804; around 1809; about 1821; exactly 1825; around 1826; 12 May 1828; and early 1830. The level of detail in itself suggested authenticity. Not every incident was dated or placed in proper sequence, but an emphasis on the importance of time infused the account and the sensibility that produced it.

Turner dictated this portion of his confession in the jail on 1 November, during his first long interview with Thomas R. Gray. In the pamphlet’s introduction, Gray claimed that the prisoner had spoken voluntarily, even expansively. He claimed, moreover, to have recorded the statement in Turner’s voice (except for material in parentheses, footnotes, or clearly marked exchanges) “with little or no variation from his own words.” But Gray was a novice at such devices. He intruded as early as the fourth sentence of the memoir, coloring the prisoner’s remarks about the “enthusiasm” that had “terminated so fatally to many,” for which he, the prisoner, was about to “atone at the gallows.” The intrusions raised doubt. And there were other difficulties: Gray was the sole witness to the statement and the sole keeper of the document, much of whose content would prove difficult to verify; by late November, when The Confessions of Nat Turner was published, the source had been hanged. Still, there are signs that Gray managed to convey more fully than he realized the substance of what the chief insurgent said.

The account begins with a stilted salutation. “Sir,” says the prisoner, “You have asked me to give a history of the motives which induced me to undertake the late insurrection, as you call it—To do so I must go back to the days of my infancy, and even before I was born.” In that voice, according to the only record of what was said, Turner commenced a review of events that had occurred long before August 1831. The memoir proper, 2,055 words in length, covered five full pages in the original pamphlet. Turner told Gray he had been born “the property of Benj. Turner of this county,” and that he was thirty-one years old on 2 October, thereby establishing the year of his birth. His father, mother, and grandmother (whose names he did not provide) appeared in his earliest memories of childhood, when all three had lived at Benjamin Turner’s plantation, before his father ran away. Nat Turner recalled three incidents that must have occurred between 1803 and 1808 at his master’s house in the Cross Keys neighborhood of St. Luke’s Parish. Together, these incidents gave rise at the time to a belief that he was exceptional, destined for “some great purpose,” he said, and later to a feeling that destiny had been thwarted.

The germ of rebellion had formed by his twenty- first year. The memoir’s  account of its origin came to this: Turner once had believed that because of his unusual intelligence his masters might offer him special treatment, perhaps in the form of freedom, which would lead to some great purpose. In time, his masters proved disappointing.

David F. Allmendinger Jr. is professor emeritus of history at the University of Delaware. He is the author of Paupers and Scholars: The Transformation of Student Life in Nineteenth-Century New England and Ruffin: Family and Reform in the Old South.

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