Let us talk about Sleepy Hollow

I am an unabashed fan of badly realized history in books, TV and movies.  I started my U.S. survey this semester with the opening scenes from National Treasure, I legitimately enjoy Deborah Harkness’s All Souls Trilogy (though, to be fair, the history in that is spot-on, with the exception of the witches, demons and magic bits) and, predictably, I really liked the new Sleepy Hollow TV series premier.  It’s not that I think that badly done history is something that ought to be celebrated, its that a lot of the romanticized historical genre (in which historians lead dramatic and dangerous lives, or in which discovering something about the past is crucial to the advancement of the plot) seem to willfully get things wrong (again, Harkness is the exception here).  The opening of National Treasure for example, involves one Charles Carroll, a signatory of the Declaration of Independence from Maryland, as the keeper of a long-held secret clue to find a treasure originally hidden by the Freemasons (who, apparently, morphed from the Knights Templar, but I’ll leave the problems with that to a medievalist).  So quoth the film:

“It didn’t reappear for more than a thousand years when knights from the First Crusade found hidden vaults beneath the Temple of Solomon. You see, the knights who found the vaults believed that the treasure was too great for any one man, not even a king. They brought the treasure back to Europe and took the name… the Knights Templar. Over the next century, they smuggled it out of Europe and formed a new brotherhood known as the Freemasons, in honor of the builders of the Great Temple. War followed. By the time of the American Revolution, the treasure had been hidden again. By then, the Masons came to include George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, Paul Revere. They knew they had to make sure the treasure would never fall into the hands of the British, so they devised a series of clues and maps to its location. Over time the clues were lost or forgotten, until only one remained. And that was the secret that Charles Carroll entrusted to young Thomas Gates.”

The problem?  Charles Carroll was a Catholic – the richest Catholic in Maryland, in fact.  He would not have been a Freemason.  It’s not like there weren’t myriad other ways to start the story in National Treasure.  The hoarded gold could have been taken from Spanish privateers, or (as in the sequel) some kind of Aztec treasure.  So, my friends and colleagues have asked, what?  Bad movies, bad TV shows are made all the time with less than plausible premises.  But I think that the willful manipulation of history – what seems to be the intentional getting-it-wrong, is often quite revealing.  In setting up National Treasure the way they did, the writers were implicitly making an argument about the long, noble and storied history of the United States – tying American liberty to the glory of the crusades to the nobility of the Templars to the antimonarchicalism of the Freemasons.  Much of this is just flat-out wrong, but it’s wrongness serves a rhetorical purpose, and stakes a particular claim about America’s place among other glorious causes.

The visual pun in this poster is also fantastic.

So, when I came across Sleepy Hollow yesterday, I was quite taken with the myriad things that show got wrong, and wonder what that wrongness means about the kind of American myth the writers are trying to tell.  (As a totally un-ironic and genuine aside, I’m thrilled that the main character is a woman of color – and that her superiors are, respectively, an African-American and Latino man – and that none of this is treated as surprising or weird within the world of the show.  It’s sad that having a diverse cast is a cause for celebration, but there it is)  Perhaps the biggest error from an historical perspective is that Ichabod Crane’s wife is (a) a real witch, (b) was apparently burned for witchcraft in 1782 and then (c) buried in a church graveyard with a notice to the effect of her witchery on her tombstone.

The witch trials at Salem took place about 100 years earlier, and while people accused of witchcraft were still being killed in Europe in the 1740s, formal trials in America had ceased by the beginning of the 18th century.  On top of that, people who were excommunicate, which I’m fairly sure being convicted of witchcraft would have made Crane’s wife, didn’t tend to get church burials.  Ultimately, this piece of anachronism is sort-of solved by the fact that Crane’s wife isn’t really dead, but trapped in a witchy forest, and in her grave is the horseman’s skull, which must be kept from him at all costs.

But, by creating a world in which witch burnings continued into the early republic, the show’s writers seem to be suggesting two things.  The first, is that the world of early America was less rational than we tend to think, and that the Hudson River Valley was particularly irrational.  The second, is that the problems of Colonial America persisted at least until after the Revolution, and with the re-awakening of the Headless Horseman in 2013, into the present day.  Or maybe they just thought being accurate wouldn’t make such a good story – but I still think that these inaccuracies, willful or no, paint a very interesting picture of Colonial/Revolutionary America, and tell us something interesting about American historical memory.

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On the embargo question

I’d been waiting to start this until my dissertation abstract was actually available through Proquest, but I’ve recently learned that it might take as few as 8 and as many as 20 weeks (~2-5 months) from the time NYU submitted the darned thing, which was three months after I submitted final revisions, to appear.  That’s between 5 and 8 months between my final version and the world of accessible-via-Proquest.  This, frankly, seems like something worth throwing into the debate about embargoing.  I embargoed my dissertation – largely because of some truly horrible stories I’d heard from people who found their work used by more senior scholars, or in more cases, had found that the archival road-map laid out in their dissertation had been used by someone else to publish more or less the same argument before they’d been able to get a book contract.  I know that there are many and varied reasons not to embargo, and I’m toying with the idea of asking Proquest to lift it, but as a junior, untenured scholar, the risks seem to outweigh the reward.

That being said, as an advocate for the digital humanities generally, and as someone who has benefited from open-source dissertations particularly (an aside – what I’d really like to see is for the AHA to have some mechanism for young scholars to make their dissertations widely available, and to work with acquisitions editors to create a culture where an available dissertation is almost never an impediment to a book deal.  The former, because I find it frustrating that my only venue for dissertation publishing is through a for-profit company) I’d like to make some of my work generally available to a wider audience.  It seems like conference papers are a good place to start.  For one, this is intellectual work that’s already been put out in a public space (though attendance at conferences and particular panels obviously varies), and for another, a lot of the material I’ve presented at conferences over the years has been excised from the dissertation, or changed so much as to make it truly different work.  In that spirit, I’ve created a new page here – one at which I’ll post selected delivered conference papers that aren’t a part of anything that’s currently in process or out for review.

I’d also like to say – both in this post and at that new page – that I’m happy to share my dissertation with anyone who wants to see it.  Just e-mail me and ask.  I know that this is far from the spirit of true open source access to academic work – but for me it’s a start.

Archival gem (on stereotypes)

I took a trip down to Charleston today to look at the records of the Charleston Hibernian Society – the body that collected donations for famine relief in Georgia, South Carolina and North Carolina.  All told, these men took in approximately $15,000, and letters to the English consulate in New Orleans suggest that still more donations were made directly to British representatives in America.  Sadly, the 1886 Charleston earthquake seems to have destroyed the minute books between February of 1847 and early 1857, so there was less than I’d hoped for.  Nevertheless, I’ve come away with a list of members of the Charleston Hibernian Society to crosslist (and hopefully map) against the list of donors I’ve already assembled.

I also came across this delightful budget from February of 1847 –

The Treasurer Reports having paid the following bills:

Hayden & Gregg for Lamps                           $         3.38

To Patriot for Advertising                                          17.50

G W Black for Building Drain                                    157.22

Stevens & Betts for Spittons & Spade                     4.62

Stephen Jones for Repairing fence in yard             3.37

And for 1 Doz Porter                                                  3.25

Aside from whatever was going on with that drain (G.W. Black was admitted to the Hibernian Society at the same meeting that bill was submitted, and seems to have been related to other members of the society, so I couldn’t help but wonder whether he was getting some kind of kick-back), I very much appreciate that a dozen porters could be bought for the same price as lamps or fence repairs, and that whoever bought those beers saw fit to charge them to the Society.  The treasurer’s books also featured several remittances for whiskey.