The very first time I visited Gettysburg, with my UCLA undergraduate class…way back in 2001, I was particularly struck by the commercialism of the battle. Everything, or nearly so, is geared to selling that fight. I suppose I understand. After all, the town itself is nearly completely surrounded by a national park, and thus cannot expand into other areas of the marketplace. Its main attraction of course, is tourism, and businesses have responded accordingly.
This academic year, I am taking my own class to Gettysburg. As part of the experience, we are going to spend some time examining the commercial landscape. A few questions I expect them to tackle: at what point (if any) does tourism trivialize the struggles of those who fought at and lived in Gettysburg in 1863? If you looked only at the commercial landscape, would you understand any of the issues that had been at stake during the war? Similarly, could you tell who won the battle by looking at the commercial landscape? When visiting the park visitor center, what are the dividing lines between consumer culture and history?
That should certainly keep them busy for a few hours – I am open to your suggestions as well.
As I spend the weekend putting the finishing touches on a web course on the Reconstruction Era, I am reminded of this moving speech by film star Hattie McDaniel, the first black person ever to be awarded the Academy Award. In the course, the final segment engages history and popular culture – in particular the film, Gone With the Wind. I focus on McDaniel’s portrayal of Mammy as well as a few notes on the actress herself. She was a fascinating woman off screen – a outspoken supporter of civil rights, she once lobbied the city of Los Angeles to purchase a home in an exclusive all-white neighborhood. Please take a moment to watch this clip – what does it suggest to you about race, historical memory, and Hollywood in 1940?
PS – the course will be live the week of January 18, 2016
I am doing a little work on the Los Angeles Plaza and the things going on there during the nineteenth century – eventually I want to look at twentieth-century efforts to preserve the area as an historical landmark. Public memory in action in the City of Angeles! Here’s a shot of the Plaza in the late 1860s, before the city turned it into a park. The image is part of the California Historical Society Collection at USC.
So today I step away from Civil War and California history and my usual rants about the effectiveness of social media to address memory – specifically, our lived memory.
I’ll throw in my personal memory of some – shall we say – more recent history. The date was August 8, 1974 – I was only seven but I remember clearly as if it were yesterday….Nixon addressing the nation and resigning the presidency, effective the following day at noon. What I remember most were not the details of the scandal leading up to this broadcast, but simply the term “Watergate” and how it had been dominating the media for what seemed like (to a seven-year-old) forever. What I do remember is venting my frustration to my grandmother, the person with whom I usually watched television, explaining (in an Alabama accent that I have long since lost) that “Watergate was the only thing on TV anymore.” She, a Nixon supporter, had to agree.
In those days, my favorite shows were Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom and The Wonderful World of Disney. I had had enough of Watergate, especially when it preempted my programs. These days, I do not own a TV. And to be honest, I have not really trusted a politician since.
So….tell me, what is your first memory of a historical event? How has that shaped your view of the world?
You can watch the Nixon resignation speech below – just for fun.