The American Historian

Reviews

Tona Hangen, Trevor Owens, Thomas Hine, Thomas A. Foster, and Lincoln Bramwell

Movies as History: Scenes of America, 1930–1970

Marie L. Aquila, McFarland, 2014.

Reviewed by Tona Hangen

 

Throughout the middle decades of the twentieth century, nearly three-quarters of the U.S. population went to the movies at least once a week: 90 million people at the peak of weekly cinema attendance in the late 1940s. Studios churned out cliffhanging serials, formulaic and forgettable B pictures, and along the way, some of the best films ever made. Marie L. Aquila’s topical guide to popular movies treats films as historical primary sources—not necessarily of the events they depict, but of the years in which they were made. Popular films, Aquila argues, offer a unique window onto the values, attitudes, material culture, and vernacular speech of their time, and deserve to be incorporated into history classrooms more often. This well-crafted reference volume aims to help middle and high school educators do just that.

Movies as History opens with a brief history of the American movie industry from the 1930s to the end of the 1960s that introduces basic terminology and concepts useful in film studies and includes a sample analysis template for students. The book’s four sections each contain a lengthy introduction offering historical context and relevant developments in the film industry, followed by short essays describing and analyzing several films in depth, with suggested discussion questions suitable for classroom conversation starters or writing prompts.

Aquila’s bookend years make sense: 1930 marks the era when the arrival of “talkies” and the Hays Hollywood code transformed the film industry. By 1970, the sexual revolution had swept away the code, and films from that time forward often contain mature content not always suitable for K–12 classroom use. From the vast cultural repository of movies made between these years, Aquila has selected 35 to profile along several thematic dimensions. Most are American film studio films, with a few foreign films included.

Her first section covers the Depression years (1930–1939), when movies both captured and shaped public responses to the economic and political crises of the decade. Some of the 1930s films were set in the present and directly commented upon the Depression’s impact, such as The Public Enemy (1931), I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang (1932), and Lady for a Day (1933), while others explored civic tensions allegorically, such as the classic 1939 western Stagecoach.

Reflecting the global conflict of World War II, films from 1937 to 1956 dealt with the war both on the American home front and around the world. For example, Sergeant York, though ostensibly about World War I, was released in 1941 in the context of whether the U.S. should go to war. Casablanca (1942) and Rome, Open City (1945) showed people making courageous, difficult choices in wartime. Several postwar movies addressed the moral ambiguity of the “good war,” including The Best Years of Our Lives (1946) and Godzilla, King of the Monsters! (1956).

Cold War tensions are evident in films of the 1950s and 1960s. The storylines of films such as Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956), The Manchurian Candidate (1962), On the Beach (1959), and Dr. Strangelove (1964) mirrored real-life fears of McCarthyism, brainwashing, international espionage, and the nuclear threat. The final chapter treats changing images of women in Hollywood movies over the entire time span of the volume, from domesticity (Christmas in Connecticut, 1945) and dumb blondes (Born Yesterday, 1950) to irrepressible and unconventional heroines in later works influenced by the women’s movement (True Grit, 1969).

Some of the inclusions and omissions among the profiles are curious; for example, I was surprised to find few films that showcased postwar teen culture—Blackboard Jungle (1955) or Rebel without a Cause (1955), for example—nor movies that addressed race and civil rights, such as Imitation of Life (1959) or Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1967), in the section on the 1950s and 1960s. Nonetheless, Movies as History will undoubtedly introduce its users to some new gems among Aquila’s selections, bringing an important genre of primary source to the next generation of young historians.

 

Tona Hangen teaches modern U.S. history and historical methods at Worcester State University. Author of Redeeming the Dial: Radio, Religion, and Popular Culture in America (2002), her research interests include media and cultural history since World War II and the pedagogy of history.

Pastplay: Teaching and Learning History with Technology

Ed. by Kevin Kee. University of Michigan Press, 2014

<>Reviewed by Trevor Owens

 

Play can and should be a core part of both historical research and the teaching of history. This is the central argument the historian Kevin Kee frames around the fifteen essays gathered together in Pastplay: Teaching and Learning History with Technology.

The thesis of this collection emerges by stringing together the titles of the four sections of the book. Historians should be 1) teaching and learning history, 2) playfully, 3) with technology, 4) by building. Teaching and Learning History includes four cases studies of historical educational games. Playfully focuses on how play, or what author Stephen Ramsay calls the “Hermeneutics of Screwing Around,” can function as part of the practice of research and writing. With Technology explores board games, 3D printing, and simulation computer games as instruments for teaching history and engaging in historical scholarship. Finally, By Building provides four essays that argue that making things, from historical hoaxes to digital models of Victorian homes, can be powerful tools for historical inquiry. The Playfully section of Pastplay includes three essays that argue that play itself is an instrument for learning about the past. William J. Turkel and Devon Elliot connect work with 3D printing and fabrication with the value that historians of science have found in re-creating historical experiments. Ramsay argues for the value of serendipitous “screwing around” as a response to the massive scale of source material offered by millions of digitized books. Bethany Nowviskie explores a medieval device that served as a “mechanical aid to hermeneutics and interpretive problem solving” as inspiration for how humanists might make use of digital technologies (p. 140).

Pastplay focuses more on teaching and learning than it does historical scholarship, and as a result, the book is somewhat thin on addressing how play can and should be a component of historical inquiry. From my perspective, the most valuable contribution of Pastplay isn’t really articulated in the text. The book offers a framework for defining the ever-nebulous digital humanities. Many of the contributors are leading thinkers in the digital humanities, and their ideas about the playful use of technology to experiment, dabble, and explore the past offer insight into digital humanities epistemology. Often simply described as the application of computing technologies to humanistic inquiry, the playful hermeneutics described here, and the implication that there is no substantive difference between student learners and historians as perpetual learners, allow us to pin down what is different and significant about how these digital humanists approach the understanding of the past.

Pastplay is a book about teaching history, but the most intriguing parts of it deal primarily with historiography and method. In this respect, I might have liked to see two separate books: one focused on the educational possibilities of play and the other on how playful approaches to building models and exploring texts can provide value to the practices of historical research. While I’m still not entirely sure where this book belongs on my bookshelf, or what kind of course for which it is best suited, I am glad to know it is in my collection.

 

Trevor Owens is a Digital Archivist in the Office of Strategic Initiatives at the Library of Congress, an adjunct instructor of public history at American University, and the coeditor of the cultural heritage and video games blog Play the Past.

Teenage

Cinereach, 2013

Reviewed by Thomas Hine

 

Matt Wolf, who wrote and directed the film Teenage, has described it as a “love song to adolescence.” This seems a fairly apt description. It is heartfelt, rapturous, very beautiful at times, and it probably tells us more about the singer than the beloved. You can learn a lot from it, so long as you don’t mistake if for the truth.

The goal of the 78-minute film, based on English music writer Jon Savage’s book of the same name (Teenage: The Creation of Youth Culture, 2007) is clearly to inspire young people by showing them how young people of past generations helped shape politics and culture. It encourages them to make use of the teenage years—a fairly recent social invention—to question authority and actively shape the future.

The film speaks to them in a succession of youthful voices that recount the experience of young people in the United States, Great Britain, and Germany from 1904 to 1945. Thus it begins with movements for child labor laws—and of motion pictures—and ends with the finish of World War II, about two years after the word “teenager” first appeared in print.

Using a combination of archival footage and images, readings from memoirs and newly filmed recreations, Teenage melds very different experiences and voices into what the film’s press materials call “a hypnotic rumination on the genesis of youth culture from the end of the 19th century to the first half of the 20th.” Along the way, we see and hear about how the Hitler Youth captured the imaginations of many young Germans, how young Britons explored gender roles and androgyny, and how World War II turned young American women into sexually adventurous “victory girls.” It ventures well off the beaten track, avoids clichés, and, with its youthful, slightly tentative tone, gives a different spin to some often-told tales.

That’s a lot to fit into 78 minutes: Half a century, three cultures, two world wars, a Great Depression, and much, much more. That means that some things are going to be left out. One shocking omission is the establishment during the Depression of high school as the universal experience of Americans of every social class. This is the phenomenon that made the word teenager necessary, but it goes unnoticed. Meanwhile, the film sees the disappearance of jobs for teenagers as a trigger to their rise as a cultural force, yet teenagers have always had economic importance. Teenagers’ money and their role as alpha consumers made youth culture happen.

This is a very well-made film: great looking, great sounding, with an excellent score. But its seamlessness presents a paradox. It replaces an authoritative narrator with youthful voices, but what they are saying, more often than not, are Wolf’s words. The editing purposely makes it difficult to distinguish between the archival footage and re-created scenes. It urges young people to question authority, but uses all sorts of devices to appear more “authentic” than it is.

Teenage is a personal interpretation, often a valid and useful one. It will have value to young people who see it, though only if they resist its hypnotic qualities and question both the ideas and the cinematic techniques that provide much of its power.

 

Thomas Hine is the author of six books, among them The Rise and Fall of the American Teenager (1999), Populuxe (1999), and The Great Funk: Styles of the Shaggy, Sexy, Shameless 1970s (2007).

Revolutionary

By Alex Myers. Simon & Schuster, 2014

Reviewed by Thomas A. Foster

 

In January 1784 the New York Gazette ran a story about a woman who had served as a soldier in the Continental Army for nearly three years, dressed as a man. Deborah Sampson was eventually discharged and received back pay from the state of Massachusetts for her service. In 1802 she was the first and only woman to receive a pension from the United States government for military service during the American Revolution. Her incredible story has been celebrated in popular publications, including a children’s book. She was once the namesake of a Liberty Ship and today a statue of her stands in front of the public library in Sharon, Massachusetts.

Alex Myers’s enjoyable debut novel Revolutionary covers Sampson’s remarkable enlistment and service. It takes some liberties with the established understanding of her life and experiences—but only a few—and they serve to explore several realistic possibilities (no spoiler alerts are needed in this review).

Our main historical source for understanding Sampson’s story is Herman Mann’s 1797 embellished biography, entitled The Female Review. We have few records written by Deborah—a brief diary of her lecture tour in 1802–1803, two terse letters to creditors in 1804 and 1806, and short pension petitions that only outline her military experience. As historian Alfred F. Young concluded in his masterful examination of Sampson’s life, we are left primarily with context to determine the outline of her life and experiences and to sift through the patriotic accounts to try to determine what is “likely, unlikely, or improbable” (Alfred F. Young, Masquerade: The Life and Times of Deborah Sampson, Continental Soldier, 2004, p. 15). The lack of first-hand documentation makes Sampson’s extraordinary experience perfect fodder for historical fiction.

In Revolutionary Sampson is not quite the idealized, virtuous heroine that she was cast as in Mann’s and later accounts—presumably to preemptively defend against those who might criticize her gender transgressions—but Sampson’s bravery and integrity are evident throughout the novel. Revolutionary underscores the point that the traits associated with heroic manhood are not determined by biology. The novel also successfully addresses some of the obvious questions that readers bring to such a story: Why did she do it? And, how did she get away with it? It cleverly switches pronoun and surname usage once the disguise is complete. The effect is to leave the reader thinking of Sampson as a male soldier (Robert Shurtliff) in much the same way that she eventually comes to wrestle with her own gender identity. Notably, the book doesn’t begin by telling us where or when we are; instead it plunges immediately into character development. Readers are thus eased into history, which will undoubtedly make the book more appealing to those lay readers who are uncomfortable with history.

Revolutionary would be an excellent book to use in LGBTQ, queer, and gender studies introductory-level courses. As an early American historian, I appreciate that it would bring Revolutionary-era context to such courses, which generally focus on modernity. It’s not ideal for introductory courses on early American history given the lack of historical background and information throughout but it does smartly use Sampson’s story to illustrate constraints on women of the era and it captures some of the experiences and hardships of ordinary soldiering in the American Revolution.

Myers uses humor, suspense, action, and humanity to bring to life some very complex issues of gender and sexuality. Perhaps most noteworthy is how Revolutionary successfully avoids anachronisms that could plague a story set in Revolutionary America and that is reliant on issues so resonant with contemporary political and personal meaning. If a film is made of Sampson’s story one day, let’s hope it manages to do half the job that Myers does in Revolutionary.

 

Thomas A. Foster is a professor of history at DePaul University and author and editor of five books, including Sex and the Founding Fathers: The American Quest for a Relatable Past (2014). He tweets at @ThomasAFoster

America’s Public Lands: From Yellowstone to Smokey Bear and Beyond

Randall K. Wilson. Rowman & Littlefield, 2014.

Reviewed by Lincoln Bramwell

 

Environmental studies professor Randall K. Wilson begins America’s Public Lands with a simple yet provocative statement: “Whether we realize it or not, every citizen of the United States is a landowner” (p. 1). He refers to the approximately one-third of the American landscape under federal stewardship, known collectively as the public lands. Wilson observes that the health and integrity of that system is threatened today by multiple sources, including suburban sprawl, climate change, and invasive species. Those threats are sufficiently severe and widespread, Wilson argues, that the time has come for the country to reevaluate its relationship with the lands that all citizens bear responsibility for maintaining. According to the author, the key to finding a path forward is to understand how our capitalist, private property–oriented society conceptualized the landscape first as a national commons, then as a commodity, and finally as a subject of conservation.

Wilson divides America’s Public Lands into two parts: part 1 recounts the ideals that inspired and the events that created the public land system; part 2 details the different types of federal lands and management agencies within that system. Unpacking the creation of the public lands and their use is a well-travelled path in environmental history. What distinguishes this book is the author’s consideration of the various types of public lands as one whole. Wilson argues that two universal concepts informed the creation of the entire system and are responsible for the tension in competing management mandates that exist within the federal government today. First, the framers of the Constitution enshrined a concept of land as commodity, something to possess and consume, and gave the federal government explicit control over its ownership and adjudication. Secondly, advocates for land reservations viewed the landscape as unpopulated, pristine, and eternal, a concept that ignored Native Americans inhabiting the land and appeared at odds with mandates to extract commodities from the same lands.

Wilson returns to those two concepts throughout the book to frame current management issues. Although he divides the book into chapters on each of the federal land management agencies, he insightfully pushes beyond comparisons between each one and debates about their efficacy to uncover their shared roots and how those roots shaped the creation and mission of the individual agencies. By addressing current issues impacting the public land system through the lens of how we conceptualize the land itself, Wilson gives readers a clear line of sight through the thicket of competing interests and management options.>

Due to the strength of its thesis and structure, America’s Public Lands is a wonderful introductory book for those interested in federal land management practice and law. It contains enough detailed analysis of contemporary issues to engage those familiar with the subject while it is broad enough to give nascent readers to the field a fine single volume that encapsulates much of what has been argued on the subject over the last several decades. The book’s most interesting premise is that public lands need to be addressed as one system and not a collection of fiefdoms divided by bureaucratic borders. Wilson’s unifying concept is being advocated at the highest levels in Washington, D.C. and was voiced by Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack in his first policy speech on the national forests in Seattle in 2009. Let’s hope that Wilson’s work will convince more Americans to consider their responsibility in managing one of the country’s great treasures.

 

Lincoln Bramwell is Chief Historian of the USDA Forest Service in Washington, D.C. He is the author of Wilderburbs: Communities on Nature’s Edge (2014).