I recently submitted in English a proposal for a mobility grant to study XVIIIth century maps of Poland. The proposal was sadly rejected, on grounds which could by themselves be the matter of a whole story. I will pursue this work nevertheless, most likely in French, and I therefore offer here the core text of my original proposal, as an introduction to this on-going research. I’ve removed only the previsional costs section and some considerations specific to the original institution calling for applications. I’ve also added links to some of the sources and works cited.
(This note contains significant spoilers on The West Wing, United States of Tara, Buffy the Vampire Slayer and 30 Rock.)
Today, I’ld like to continue my series on Gouverner l’Amérique (Governing America), the book I’m writing on US televised political fiction for Vendémiaire, at the invitation of Ioanis Deroide. In a previous post I’ve already talked about how challenging writing on such a subject can be in the midst of a presidential election. In that post, I suggested it’s helpful to look at cultural trends in the long run, rather than to focus solely on the most contemporary context of current televised dramas. For instance, I’ve mentioned Capra’s Mr. Smith Goes to Washington as an important millstone in the history of American political fiction. Actually, my take on what would be to proper span for the historical context of American TV series is much wider than going back to the 1940s, and that’s why I’ll have a look at the American Revolution.
Although the American Revolution is certainly, with the Civil War, the most important set of events of the United States history, it seems to have attracted little attention from TV writers and producers. Indeed, if we turn our attention to the list of series about the American Revolution curated on Wikipedia, with the exception of TURN, we find only miniseries or short-lived attempts of a longer format. When I first started working on my book, based on the rise of interest for historical fiction on TV in the past two decades, I expected more significant material for the American Revolution. But does the lack of unequivocal historical fiction dedicated to the early modern days of the United States mean that the American Revolution is almost absent from television? As I researched the first chapter of my book, on the place of the Constitution in political fiction, I was led to a different conclusion.
Some series do indeed make a lot of references to the American Revolution, the Founding Fathers, and the Constitution. The West Wing is perhaps the program where one would be most likely to find them. After all, isn’t Zoe Bartlet, the daughter of President Bartlet, a Daughter of the American Revolution? Isn’t Jed Bartlet himself named after real-world Josiah Bartlett, signatory of the Declaration of Independence for the state of New Hampshire? As The West Wing also features a number of stories linked to the United States Supreme Court, the theme of the Constitution and the intent of the Founding Fathers is also often at the forefront of the drama. In season 1, episode 9, “The Short List”, aired in 1999, when a seat opens, the senior staff, prospective judicial nominees, and the President discuss the right of privacy, and how it may be expressed in the Constitution. Toby Ziegler, the Director of Communication, and Sam Seaborn, his deputy, as if often the case thorough the series, are proponents of a contextualized reading. The latter says the Founding Fathers “just fought a Revolution [and that] they had no question of their freedoms”, in response to an argument, made by a short-listed judge, against a right of privacy based on constitutional grounds. In season 6, episode 14, President Bartlet compliments Lawrence Lessig, a constitutional scholar whom he meets as Lessing is working with a Belorussian delegation to draft a new Constitution, calling him a “Founding Father for hire”.
But if one is to grasp the full importance of the American Revolution for contemporary television, it is perhaps worth the while to look beyond explicit references. It is for instance difficult to watch the Star Wars: The Clone Wars series, without wondering to what extend the war between the Confederacy of Independent Systems and the Republic is not only an obvious reference to the American Civil War, but also to the war for independence. By and large, science-fiction series such as Stargate SG-1, Star Trek, and Firefly, to say nothing of Kripke’s well titled Revolution, are rooted both in the Civil War and in the American Revolution mythologies. Yet, although the Frontier theme is well identified in contemporary American TV fiction, little attention is given to the actual historical context of the long, nation-building era between the 1770s and the late XIXth century. In fact, in collected essays with very promising titles, such as Goodrum’s and Smith’s Firefly Revisited, which opens with an article by Willis on “Frontier Fiction”, and Wilcox’ and Cochran’s Investigating Firefly and Serenity: Science Fiction on the Frontier, there’s not even much about the Frontier, beyond what is too often an academic exercise in postmodernism from the Buffy Studies circles.
Sometimes then, it may seem hope lies more with historians than television scholars. In a text about the use of pop culture references when teaching history classes, posted in The Junto, a group blog of early America historians, Benjamin Park, whose personal blog can be found here, seems more eager to unearth historical references in popular television than television scholars themselves. Works such as Fiona Hobden’s paper on Doctor Who serve to show how important are the contributions of historians to the field of television study, but these are too often reserved to historical fictions. We are led to believe that that contemporary television fictions are divided in two types: historical fictions for historians to analyze, on the hand, and on the other post-modernist fictions, burdened by their specific post-modernist problems, with no historical depths.
Yet, it seems obvious that 30 Rock, Tina Fey’s satirical sitcom where we follow a late-night comedy show crew, have something to say on nation building, with its two episodes on Abraham Lincoln (“Idiots Are People Two!” and “Idiots Are People Three!”) and its storyline about Tracy Jordan/Morgan being a descendant of Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings. These are two of the many instances where Tina Fey suggests, in 30 Rock, that the racial problem of contemporary America has something to do with the silencing of Black history from the Revolution to the Civil War. Of course, American history is not the only way in which 30 Rock adresses racial issues, but it is surely an important one. I would like to take another example on how American Revolution can be unexpectedly relevant on TV.
From 2009 to 2011, Showtime aired the comedy drama United States of Tara. Despite being the masterpiece of Toni Collette‘s television career as an actress, the show has not been granted a lot of attention by academic critics. United States of Tara, created by Diablo Cody, best known for being the screenwriter of Juno, follows Tara Gregson, a painter from Kansas City, and her family, composed of Max, her loving husband, and their two children, Kate and Marshall. Tara suffers from an extreme dissociative identity disorder, and exhibits several alternate personalities: Alice, the 1950s bigoted housewife, Bryce, a violent, sadistic male adolescent, Buck, the Vietnam veteran who’s lost his penis in battle, Chicken, a few years old little girl, Gimme, the embodiment of her primal instinct to pee on other people, Shoshana, a 1970s Jewish feminist psychoanalyst, and T, the hormone-driven teenaged girl. Tara, as well as many secondary characters, offers complex depictions of genders, sexualities, mental health, and social roles, but also a metaphorical portrait of contemporary America.
It is quickly established that Tara’s condition has been caused by an unknown traumatic event from her childhood, which has taken place, as we learn after many failed attempts at a therapy, during the 1976 Bicentennial commemorating the American Revolution and the birth of the Republic. It is thus suggested that the mental illness of the United States as a country is grounded in an unsaid original trauma of violence and division, which national celebrations of identity and cultural coherence fail to overcome. The divided states of Tara find no solution in the bigotry embodied by Alice, in the violent patriotism of Buck, in the consumerism of T, nor in the upper-class elitist intellectualism of Shoshana, because they’re all designed to escape, rather than to address, the violence history has left unspoken. In this overarching metaphor, the place reserved to the American Revolution is very small indeed, a little more than a cryptic allusion, but it is nevertheless very significant.
American televised fiction offers a wide variety of meditations upon the American Revolution, either explicit or implicit, easy to interpret or more indecisive. From the Black Jefferson of 30 Rock to the metaphor of Tara, from the “Pangs” (season 4, episode 8) of Buffy, where a British librarian fight with an American Jewish teenager over Thanksgiving while under siege by the spirits of Native American warriors, in front of a Scandinavian ex-demon, to President Bartlet asking if he could have taken Washington in a war (“Six Meetings Before Lunch”, season 1, episode 8), the American Revolution is everywhere to be found, if not at once seen, on television. It is to hope, then, that historians of early America find a way to work with television scholars to provide us with a comprehensive cultural understanding of contemporary fiction.
In a recent blog on The Many-Headed Monster, scholar of early modern British history Laura Sangha has explained why she loved working on personal diaries. She was soon rejoined by Cath Feely, while another modernist, Pelayo Fernández García shared his passion for early modern private letters. These posts and tweets made for an interesting discussion and proved once more how Twitter has becomed an important feature of early modern studies, in English at least. Since then, #histsource hashtag has offered historians an occasion to give a glimpse of their sources. Although not an historian per se myself, I would like to write about what another type of sources has to offer. Those of you, if any, who may be following this blog have perhaps noticed that I’ve been working extensively on periodical press from the XVIIth and XVIIIth centuries. My corpus there encompasses everything that has been written either in France or in French and that has been periodically published. Many of these sources were described in the now famous Dictionnaire des journaux (1600-1789).
Early modern newspapers are without a doubt my favorite sources. They of course offer great material an almost every subject and can be studied in tens of different ways. Scholars may try to map the news networks in Europe, or rather describe the social strategies developped by their journalists, or track the signs of the operatic reform thourough accounts of significant performances. There has been and there is still a lot of work done on this subject, but one can always find new ways to explore these sources. One of the reasons for this is the ever growing number of digitalized documents we may access, as years go by. Papers that were once kept in Polish academic libraries for instance are now available online. These sources are also more accessible in the sense that one may now search through a vast corpus and cross-reference particular events.
What I love about early modern newspapers though is that most of the time, they lead to a kind of detective work. I’ve recently given an example of this in a previous blog about Dubois de Rochefort’s translation of homeric texts and how it was received by the Journal des Sçavants. I’ve encountered numerous such cases through the third chapter of the second part of my thesis. In fact, I sometime feel I could open any paper at any page and find there a text, often only a few words, that would seem just a little bit off and would lead to a thrilling inquiry in the depths of the French-speaking literary world of the XVIIIth century. I suspect the thrill there is all mine, and most readers would find both the process and the results of these inquiries rather dull, but such is often the nature of our work.
For instance, in the Mémoires sur la littérature du Nord, printed in French in Copenhagen, one would find in the september-october 1760 issue, an article entitled « Ode en stances sur le jubilé de la révolution de 1660 ». The article iteself is a translation of a text published in the Nordische Aufseher, in German. The original author of the text is never given, which is a little surprising since, at the same time, the translator compliments him on his style and insists on how famous he is. Who’s, then, the author of the original German text? A quick search on the Internet shows that the ode is in fact a translation of Klopstock’s Ode auf das Jubelfest der Souveränität in Dänemark, which indeed makes a lot of sense. Klopstock was invited by Frederick V in Denmark in 1760, so he would finish there the Messias, his epic masterpiece started in 1749. It’s no surprise then that Klopostock would celebrate Danish history, even less so when Denmark, at that time, comprised lands where German was the main language. That Frederick V would invite Klopstock in Copenhagen and that Klopstock would celebrate Denmark are two symptoms of a cultural plan to integrate the German lands in an unified Danish kingdom.
This cultural plan in turn takes place into the wider context of Bernstorff’s cultural reform which, like Czartoryski’s cultural reform in Poland at the same time, is heavily dependent on an influx of western and especially French and German cultural artefacts in Copenhagen. Czartoryski gets former printer of the Sorbonne Piotr Dufour to settle in Varsaw and Bernstorff finds in France and Switzerland French-speaking scholars and writers. In Copenhagen, some of these writers produce newspapers in French, newspapers which primary intended audience is certainly made by both a Danish cultural elite with a sufficient understanding of the French language and the French protestant diaspora. The translation in French of Klopstock’s poem is then produced in a very complex and dense cultural and political context.
And one of the many things that make this translation strange is its rendering of Klopstock’s original « Souveränität in Dänemark » by « révolution de 1660 ». The ode is by no mean a revolutionary text, quite the contrary even, since the first stanza is entirely designed to explain that liberty can thrive in a kingdom as well as (and if not better than) in a democracy. What is then the intent behind this translation? It is my guess that the translator is here trying to prove that the strong, national Danish kingdom of the XVIIIth century has been built through radical changes in the previous centuries, and that, therefore, contemporary changes, for instance Bernstorff’s cultural reform, can only benefit the nation. In other words, the French translation shows the events of 1660 not as part of a mythical and atemporal past but rather as the start of a modern and historically oriented political construction.
Future readers of my thesis will find there other similar investigations, for instance on why an article of the Journal de Vienne hardly mentioned Calzabigi in its review of the Alceste the Italien poet wrote for Gluck, or why the Journal littéraire de Varsovie says next to nothing on the Ernelinde polemic while still reviewing the second performance in Versailles. Why does the French Avantcoureur despise the Journal littéraire de Francfort? What can we infer from advertisments in Deutsch for French newspapers? What use do the heirs of Van Ghelen printing dynasty in Vienna have for newspapers printed in French?
All these questions open way to important conclusions on the early modern printing world, on the spread of the French language in XVIIIth Europe and how it responded to needs very different from those of Paris, on the western trend in cultural politics in northern and central Europe at that time, and so on. But really, they are first and foremost quite enjoyable. Granted, one might find more fun in tracking down a spirited Snorlax in a secluded place before brutally ending its freedom. Still, I find great pleasure in starting with just a few words, a name missing or added, a typographical oddity, and in ending up watching the unraveled web of early modern intellectual world. To me, it’s like these boardgames where one starts small and then builds up, to see later great plans in motion, except these plans are not one’s owns, but men’s and women’s who once lived, a long time ago.
It’s not letters and it’s not diaries, it’s not the very flesh and feelings of once unsuspected intimacies, and yet, it has the kind of humanity that only comes from the realization that one’s sources have been written by hands akin to our owns.