A Year of ‘Madeira Mondays’!

Exactly one year ago, I sat down to write my first ‘Madeira Mondays’ post. My initial idea for this series was that it would look at early American history and historical fiction. I have always been passionate about early American history, from a surprisingly young age. See (rather grainy) photographic evidence below of me in high school alongside some of my history teachers. We dressed up in 18th century garb when a Declaration of Independence broadside came to the school. Our job was to educate the public about the document and, oh boy, was I thrilled to do it!

When I began ‘Madeira Mondays’, I had just finished up my PhD, a Doctorate of Fine Arts in Creative Writing from the University of Glasgow, and my research there had focused on how creative writers access and represent the American Revolution specifically. Part of my doctorate had also involved writing a full-length historical fiction novel set during the American Revolution. So my life, for three years, had effectively been all 18th century, all the time. And I really wanted to communicate some of that knowledge (and enthusiasm!) to the wider community somehow, and to make friends online who were similarly interested in history, books, and generally learning and chatting about the past. (My friends and family in life are brilliant as well, don’t get me wrong! And many of them do follow the blog – hello!).

I named the series ‘Madeira Mondays’ after the fortified Portuguese wine that was popular in 18th century America (there’s a great article here from a historian about the history of Madeira). Wine is something drunk socially at gatherings and I wanted this blog to be a gathering, of sorts, and a place to share.

‘Sea Captains Carousing in Surinam’ by John Greenwood, c. 1752-58. Located at the St Louis Art Museum. Looks like those guys are enjoying a LOT of Madeira!

Gradually the series widened out, so now I focus not just on early American history, but 18th century history more generally. I do live in Scotland after all, and there’s so much brilliant history here from that time period!

Today marks the official one year anniversary of ‘Madeira Mondays’, which means I’ve written over fifty posts about everything from 18th century swear words to the surprisingly interesting history of ketchup. There have been tons of historical film and book reviews, as well as a look at the links between 18th century fashion and RuPaul’s Drag Race. I’ve talked about my experience as a reenactor, and my writing process for writing some of the historical poems in my new poetry pamphlet. I’ve cooked recipes, attended conferences and visited historic sites here in Scotland and further afield. I’m proud of myself for sticking with it and can’t quite believe it’s been a year of ‘Madeira Mondays’!

I think the most fulfilling thing though has been connecting with people online – you! Many of you who follow this blog and enjoy ‘Madeira Mondays’ have blogs of your own, which I’ve loved reading and discovering. Your thoughtful and enthusiastic comments and suggestions here have been a real joy for me, encouraging me to keep this series going and also, quite honestly, making me feel more globally connected during this time of isolation. Writing is always a solitary endeavor, so this blog has been a way for me to balance that, to share and look outwards.

Also – and fellow creative writers I’m sure can relate to this – there is something very satisfying about writing a blog post, when you’re in the midst of working on a long-form creative project like a novel. A blog post is short and sweet and FINISHED within an hour or two. Whereas a novel can take months or, more likely, years.

What I’m trying to say is: thank you for reading this series! I hope that it has been engaging and that you’ve taken something from it. To celebrate ‘A Year of Madeira Mondays’, I’ve picked out five of my favorite ‘Madeira Mondays’ posts from the last year. I’ve picked a couple from the start of the project, since quite a few of you are more newly subscribed, in case you wanted to get a glimpse of the ‘back catalogue’. (They’re also a good place to start if you’re totally new to ‘Madeira Mondays’ and want a sample of what I cover on the blog).

My favorite posts from October 2019-October 2020

  1. The John Adams Miniseries (TV Show Review)

This was one of the first posts I wrote and I think it’s one of the best. It analyzes the HBO series John Adams, about the life of America’s 2nd President. Part of my PhD looked at representations of John Adams specifically in popular culture, and this post was in conjunction with a talk I gave at the Trinity College Dublin as part of their History Conference 2019.

Me dressed up as John Adams to deliver my paper at Trinity College Dublin. The conference was free, fun and open to the public and the organizers said ‘costumes are encouraged.’ As you know from the start of this post, I need no encouragement.

2. The Witch (Movie Review)

This post looks at one of my favorite movies set in early America – The Witch by Robert Eggers! A spooky and cleverly made film set in Puritan New England. It’s about an evil witch who lives in the woods…or is it?

3. A Forgotten 18th Century Drink (‘Flip’)

This is one of my favorite posts because my attempt to make this 18th century drink went so horribly wrong. It was one of the nastiest things I’ve ever (tried) to drink and this hilarious failure sticks in my mind.

4. The Poetry of Phillis Wheatley

I’m really proud of this post which showcases the life and writing of one of America’s first poets: Phillis Wheatley. She was internationally famous in her day for her poetry, respected and admired for her work, which is remarkable considering that she was not only a young woman but also a former slave. Her life is interesting but also tragic. Have a read!

This is an original copy of one of Wheatley’s books, which I saw at The Museum of the American Revolution in Philadelphia, in October 2019.

5. The Patriot (Film Review)

This post looks at one of the most famous movies depicting the American Revolution, The Patriot, starring Mel Gibson and Heath Ledger. I have a sort of love-hate relationship with this movie (it’s so ridiculous, but I’m fond of it because I enjoyed it so much as a kid). This post is a two-parter and is, effectively, a rant. ‘Historical accuracy’ is a complex topic, and, as a writer myself, I’m not usually one to care too much about small creative changes made in order to tell a better story. But if you really want to see me come down on a film for its egregious and nonsensical alterations to American history – this is the post for you!

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And that’s it! Five posts from my first year. I hope you enjoy them!

Which ‘Madeira Mondays’ posts have been your favorite ones, so far?

Thank you so much, as always, for joining me on this blogging journey. I publish a new ‘Madeira Mondays’ post every Monday, and if you’d like to subscribe and follow along, please do! I’ll see you next Monday.

Madeira Mondays: 90’s TV and Rip Van Winkle

This is a blog post about the past.

Yes, you could say that pretty much all of my posts are about the past, but, this one, in particular, is really about the past.

You see, recently I’ve been rewatching a favorite childhood show called Wishbone. Fellow children of the 90’s might also remember this show: about a cute Jack Russell Terrier called ‘Wishbone’ who imagines himself in great works of literature and then acts them out, with himself as the main character. It’s an adorable concept for a show, having a dog acting out classic stories (he wears so many cute outfits!!), and the show creator Rick Duffield explicitly said that he wanted to get kids excited about books and reading:

We believe this show can cultivate a new appetite for reading by making kids think it’s fun to get to know these books (…) it’s intended to be fun, action packed, clever and a way to get their first taste of great stories that can become a valuable educational stepping stone in their lives.

It definitely worked for me. It was one of the PBS (Public Broadcasting Service) shows, alongside Reading Rainbow with LeVar Burton, that helped me fall in love with books.

There are always two plots in every episode of Wishbone. One plot is always about something happening in real-life (perhaps with Wishbone’s owner, a boy called Joe (Jordan Wall) or one of Joe’s friends, his mom Ellen (Mary Chris Wall) who is a librarian, or his wacky neighbor Wanda (Angee Hughes)). Then one plot is always a retelling of a classic story. These two plots are intercut with each other, and there are always parallel themes. For instance, the episode about Robin Hood has Joe helping a cafeteria lady in real-life sneaking food away to give to a homeless shelter etc.

It’s an extremely wholesome show, but not cringe-worthy. It’s sweet. And apparently the show was also known for not shying away from the darker elements of the retold stories (the Joan of Arc episode, for instance, has Joan being burned alive at the stake and the Jekyll and Hyde episode is quite spooky. The episode about West African folktales also talks pretty openly about the cruelties of slavery). A uniting theme across many of the episodes is the power and importance of stories.

Another cool element is that they often have behind-the-scenes footage at the end of each episode where the lighting or sound technicians, or the director etc. explain how they made that episode – which adds another educational layer, as well.

The episode that I wanted to talk about for Madeira Mondays is called ‘Digging up the Past’ from Season 1. In it, Wishbone imagines himself in Rip Van Winkle the famous short story written by American writer Washington Irving in 1819. It’s about a Dutch-American man in Colonial America called Rip Van Winkle who falls asleep in New York’s Catskill Mountains and then wakes up twenty years later…having missed the whole American Revolution. Basically, he wakes up in a new country!

I’ll admit that I’ve never read the original Rip Van Winkle story (although Wishbone has succeeded in making me want to read it!). In the episode, the way that Wishbone addresses the themes of Rip Van Winkle in the present day storyline is by introducing the idea of Joe, the main character, having to do a report for school about something from his grandparents’ childhood that he wishes were still around today. He helpfully runs into an older woman, Dr. Brown (great name, if I do say so myself!), at the library. She is back in town after several decades away and Joe ends up figuring out that she used to live at his house, fifty years ago. Together they try to find a time capsule that she buried in the yard. So all of these intersecting plot lines parallel the story of Rip Van Winkle: a person who, like Dr. Brown, returns to his old village after decades to see that much has changed.

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The Talbot family and friends unearth a time capsule left behind by Dr. Brown. Characters from left to right: Ellen Talbot (Mary Chris Wall), Dr. Thelma Brown (Irma P. Hall), Joe Talbot (Jordan Wall), Wishbone (an adorable Jack Russell Terrier called ‘Soccer’ and voiced by Larry Brantley), Wanda Gilmore (Angee Hughes), Sam Kepler (Christine Abbott) and David Barnes (Adam Springfield).

The character of Rip Van Winkle is obviously played by Wishbone and to see him emerging from a bed of autumn leaves with an enormous fake beard was, obviously, very cute.

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Wishbone emerges as Rip Van Winkle from his long slumber

This episode, and indeed this entire series, is lovely. And, in a way, this episode itself is a time capsule for me personally, because I remember watching it as a kid. Looking at it now, it’s a bit like traveling back in time. Like unearthing something long buried that kind of looks familiar but also isn’t exactly how you recall it. But it also reminds me that while so much has changed about my life (from eight-years-old to twenty-eight – two decades, just like Rip Van Winkle!) there are some things that haven’t: I still love stories generally, especially ones about Colonial America, and I still love Wishbone.

Many of us are Rip Van Winkles right now, I think, because time is passing but we’re hibernating in our homes. And, when we emerge, the world will be different. It might be strange and a bit alien to us, like it was for Rip after his very long nap. But I think, like Rip, we’ll be able to adjust to it. Humans, and dogs, are quite resilient and adaptable. Or at least that’s what Wishbone seems to suggest.

PS Today’s Featured Image is Wishbone as Sherlock Holmes, from Mental Floss

‘Madeira Mondays’ is a series of blog posts exploring Early American history and historical fiction. Follow the blog for a new post every Monday and thanks for reading!

 

Madeira Mondays: An analysis of Tracy K. Smith’s ‘Declaration’

To mark the 4th of July, I’ll be spending the next couple of ‘Madeira Mondays’ looking at various artistic responses to the Declaration of Independence. Some incredibly powerful and serious artworks, some quite lighthearted and silly.

For international readers, the 4th of July is an annual American holiday celebrated to mark the signing of the Declaration of Independence. The Declaration was a document signed by the Continental Congress in Philadelphia in 1776, in which the 13 American colonies declared their independence from Great Britain. “(T)hese United Colonies are, and of right ought to be Free and Independent States,” the document reads. It also explains why they are declaring their independence, listing out the colonists’ grievances with King George III (they list his ‘abuses and usurpations’ in a basically bullet point list format: ‘He has done THIS wrong and also THIS and, oh wait, THIS too!’). This document was mailed to the King who was, understandably, not happy about it and the Revolutionary War kicked off in earnest (there had already been some smaller battles). If the Americans had lost the war for independence, those that signed the Declaration would certainly have been executed for treason. But, as you know, history went another way!

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The famous painting ‘Declaration of Independence’ (1819) by John Trumbull, accessed via Wikipedia

It’s a beautifully written document (you can read a transcription of it here) and is widely viewed as a sort of mission statement for American democracy. Its author, Thomas Jefferson, wrote some famous and enduring phrases in it such as:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

It’s a powerful declaration of not just American rights but also human rights. Yet, whose rights were we talking about here? The 18th century was a time when women had few rights. They were basically, legally, their husband’s property (they obviously couldn’t do things like vote but they also had no control over their finances, their bodies, their children etc.). It was also a time when Africans – women, men and children – were forcibly being kidnapped and sold into bondage to labor on the American continent. I’m talking of course about American slavery, the institution with effects and impact that we can see throughout American history (from the American Civil War, through to segregation and Jim Crow) and are still seeing today (through mass incarceration and urgent calls for criminal justice system reform).

But slavery was an issue on the American founders’ minds too and contrary to popular belief, many of them did know that it was wrong. Thomas Jefferson, writer of the Declaration, called slavery a ‘moral depravity’ and a ‘hideous blot’, while also benefiting from the institution and enslaving more than 600 people over the course of his life. Others, like my personal favorite of America’s founders (for various reasons) John Adams from Massachusetts, was vehemently anti-slavery and never kept any enslaved servants on principal. Yet it would take a civil war the following century, as well as the Emancipation Proclamation and the 13th Amendment, to officially end it.

Slavery was (and is) part of the American story and it remains a great irony that the men who wrote so eloquently about liberty and freedom in the Declaration were, themselves, keeping other people enslaved. It’s this topic which is taken up in former U.S Poet Laureate Tracy K. Smith‘s poem ‘Declaration’.

You can read and listen to the poem here.

‘Declaration’ is an erasure poem. An erasure poem takes a preexisting text and makes a poem by erasing or removing words from it. In this case, Smith takes the Declaration of Independence as her starting point and erases words until a new poem is left. As you read her poem, you can quite clearly see what it is evoking: slavery.

There are several reasons why ‘Declaration’ works so well. Firstly, the form itself. Erasure poetry is by its nature a bit radical and iconoclastic because you’re hacking away at an existing document and making something new. It’s rebellious, just like the Declaration itself. Yet it’s also about erasing things, removing them from sight, which is exactly what the founders did with slavery, which is never mentioned in the Declaration. Jefferson had written a passage about it, basically blaming the institution on the King, but it was struck out, Jefferson claimed, at the insistence of other southern colonies. So it isn’t there. Smith’s poem inverts this original erasure, turning Jefferson’s words against themselves so that the poem now focuses on slavery and the original intent of the document (about the white male colonists’ grievances with the King) has been erased.

The poem also changes the meaning of the pronoun ‘he’. In the original document, this ‘he’ referred to King George III (e.g ‘He has obstructed the Administration of Justice…’). But now this ‘he’ is more nebulous and tough to pin down: he could now be white slavers, but also America, generally, or the institution of slavery personified.

Another reason it’s so powerful is the use of frequent ’em’ dashes (those are the longer dashes), which is the only punctuation that Smith seems to have added (although you could think about all the white space as a kind of punctuation). The em dashes seem to indicate where the phrase continues in the original document but words have been removed e.g. ‘He has plundered our seas, ravaged our Coasts, burnt our towns, and destroyed the lives of our people.’ from the original becomes ‘he has plundered our-/ravaged our-/destroyed the lives of our-‘ in Smith’s poem. In addition to reminding us that this is an erasure poem and words have been removed, all those dashes, also suggest, to me, that in some ways these crimes remain unspeakable. The phrase: ‘Taken away our’, followed by an em dash, is an example of this. Taken away our…what? Our lives? Our spirits? Our humanity? The reader is forced to fill in that awful blank.

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Photo I took in December 2017 at Magnolia Plantation, South Carolina, of a slave cabin on the site

The poem ends on one of these dashes and it’s quite significant, I think, that the final two words are: ‘to bear’. This suggests to me several meanings. Firstly, enslaved people forced to bear (or carry or pick up) tools, but also to bear children, perhaps (sexual violence against enslaved women was pervasive). Yet it also suggests that people are still ‘bear(ing)’ the legacy of slavery now. The poem isn’t finished (there is no end stop), which suggests that the effects of slavery aren’t finished either. It is something that we as a nation must ‘bear’ too.

Smith’s poem cleverly subverts a document which, by its very nature, erased the lives of many. Her words, instead, foreground and express their suffering, while at the time time suggesting that this suffering is inexpressible. It’s a powerful poem and one that reminds me how poetry can change the way that we look at our history and our world.

Let me know what you thought of the poem. Had you read it before? What did you notice about it? Next week, we’re looking a very different artistic response to the Declaration of Independence. Hint: It’s a movie. Any guesses?

Recommended Further Reading:

PS Today’s Featured Image is of an 1823 facsimile of the Declaration, and accessed via Wikipedia

‘Madeira Mondays’ is a series of blog posts exploring Early American history and historical fiction. I’m not a historian, but an author and poet who is endlessly fascinated by this time period. I am also currently writing/researching a novel set during the American Revolution and recently finished a Doctorate of Fine Art looking at how creative writers access America’s eighteenth-century past. 

Follow the blog for a new post every Monday and thanks for reading!

 

Madeira Mondays: Celia Garth by Gwen Bristow (Book Review)

On the cover of Celia Garth, there is a beautiful blonde woman peering out at you serenely. Behind her, there’s a harbor front (presumably Colonial Charleston, where this book is set). The woman on the cover is lovely, but she also has a definite Mean Girls vibe – she knows she is good-looking and well-dressed and there’s a strong possibility she’s not gonna invite you to sit at her lunch table. But she also looks sharp and observant, like she sees things.

I love this cover, because to me it incapsulates what I liked most about Celia Garth – the titular main character. Celia Garth’s main strength is its characterization, particularly its depiction of Celia herself who, as this cover image suggests, is attractive, vain, serene, and intelligent. An interesting young woman who proves an captivating viewpoint character as we explore the turbulent final years of the Revolutionary War in British-occupied Charleston.

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My copy of Celia Garth

Celia Garth was published in 1959 and it follows the story of Celia, a young orphan in Colonial South Carolina who comes from money but finds herself needing to work in a dress shop to pay the bills. She’s a talented seamstress and, wanting to prove her worth, she accepts a commission from a Mrs. Vivian Lacy – a glamorous older woman with exacting requirements and expensive taste (I pictured Glenn Close, because that’s who I would cast if I was going to make this a movie!). But soon her career goals are overshadowed by the trauma of the Revolutionary War. The British army arrives to Charleston and some quite grizzly disasters befall Celia and people she loves. The book becomes a story of survival – how to survive mortal danger, but also grief. And there are parts of it that are genuinely quite moving.

As I mentioned earlier, the real strength of this book is the characters. Celia herself is wholly believable and complex from the start. I enjoyed how she takes a lot of pride in her appearance and is judgmental of people who are less conventionally attractive than her (this is kind of unpleasant to read but it’s realistic, especially for a naive, pretty young woman). She’s also whip smart, stubborn, and always making bold choices with consequences (an ‘active’ character, as it were). But her client Vivian was my favorite character by far. She had a very Dowager Countess of Downton Abbey vibe, if you’ve seen that show, and she was always throwing out sassy little aphorisms. To a pregnant acquaintance, Vivian says: ‘I know these nine months seem endless. But Nature takes her time. You cannot hurry a tree, or a baby, or a hard boiled egg.’ Aside from Vivian and Celia, you get a whole host of other colorful characters: the laid-back and good-natured Captain Jimmy Rand (who had ‘an ugly, engaging face, scooped at the temples, bony at the jaw, with a wide mouth and a look of being amused by life in general’), the witty daredevil Luke who fights with Francis Marion’s men in the swamps, and a whole bunch of other people besides.

In fact, one of my main criticisms of the book was that there were simply too many characters. I couldn’t keep track a lot of the time or remember who was related to who. These wealthy southern planter families were often inter-related, sure, but I think a family tree would have been useful to remember everything. That simple addition would have made a big difference.

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A lovely Colonial house in Charleston, South Carolina, taken during a research trip I took to Charleston in 2017

While I had no major issue with the overall historical accuracy of the book (which is saying something, because my whole PhD project looked at the lives of women in South Carolina during the Revolutionary War), it should be noted that slavery simply isn’t a concern in the book at all. There are enslaved characters (Marietta, Vivian’s enslaved maid, is a prominent secondary character and I got a good sense of who she was), but the institution as a whole is simply…there.

Now, that could have been a choice on author Gwen Bristow’s part to show the past through Celia’s eyes, and Celia (a white woman from a wealthy background living in the early South) would have accepted slavery as a fact of life (abolition doesn’t really become a big thing until the next century). But the knowledge of what is happening to these enslaved people hovered just out of sight, like a strange specter, as I was reading the book. There’s one moment when Vivian is meeting Celia for the first time and Celia feels like ‘something put up for auction.’ I don’t think Bristow was trying to evoke slavery here at all, but this line only served to remind me that, just a few streets away, not only were things being put on auction, but people were too. The book just doesn’t address slavery at all, so if that’s a topic that you want explored in more depth, in fiction, then I’d say look elsewhere (look to, for instance, Beloved by Toni Morrison. Or if you want something about this time period, why not try Chains by Laurie Halse Anderson, or even the poetry collection I reviewed last year, Mistress by Chet’la Sebree?).

Another aspect of the book I didn’t love is that it majorly glorifies American officer Francis ‘Swamp Fox’ Marion and majorly attacks the infamous British officer Banastre Tarleton. I’ve talked about these figures in my post about the movie The Patriotbut suffice it to say here that Tarleton’s legacy as a ‘butcher’ might be more grounded in legend than in fact. But I was more inclined to accept the Evil Aristocratic British Baddies v. Noble American Farmers dichotomy here than in The Patriot, because this is the war as CELIA sees it. And Celia is furious at Tarleton and psyched about Marion, as many South Carolinian patriots were at the time. So, fair enough.

My final critical comment is that the book kind of peters out, rather than building to a strong climax. I won’t give anything away, but Celia gets involved with helping the rebels and this doesn’t develop in a satisfying way, I thought. But the ending itself (as in, the last few pages) was quite moving.

I would compare this book to one that came out last year – City of Girls by Elizabeth Gilbert. Although that’s set in 1930’s and 1940’s New York City, it also features a young seamstress coming of age during wartime and all the colorful characters she meets.  There are even similar sorts of characters in both books. But books also have fun frivolous moments but also deal with the trauma of war. I would also recommend Celia if you enjoy things like Outlander (which I’ve not actually read, but I’ve seen a bit of the show and I understand that parts of it are set in colonial Charleston!).

It does not surpass Johnny Tremain as my favorite book I’ve read set during the Revolutionary War, but overall I quite enjoyed it. The prose is solid, and the characters are vivid and memorable. It was predictable, but I still cried twice while reading it, which is a testament to Bristow’s characterization. I wanted the best for Celia and her pals. And I would quite happily pick up another historical novel by Bristow, and there are apparently several!

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An iconic South Carolina sight – the live oaks twisting together in a sort of tunnel/roof. I believe I took this photo near Magnolia Planation.

Do let me know what you think about this book. Does Celia sound like something you’d be curious to read? Any other recommendations for historical novels that I should pick up? (Speaking of other novels, I have some exciting news about the one I’m working on, so stay tuned for that, later this month. AND stay tuned for more news about my new poetry book, which will be published by Stewed Rhubarb Press in July!).

PS Today’s Featured Image is from the cover of Celia Garth. If you buy this edition, from the 1950’s, please PLEASE don’t read the book jacket. The synopsis there gives so much away about the plot and even though it’s a fairly predictable story, you don’t want to spoil it!

‘Madeira Mondays’ is a series of blog posts exploring Early American history and historical fiction. I’m not a historian, but an author and poet who is endlessly fascinated by this time period. I am also currently writing/researching a novel set during the American Revolution and recently finished a Doctorate of Fine Art looking at how creative writers access America’s eighteenth-century past.

Follow the blog for a new post every Monday and thanks for reading!

 

 

Madeira Mondays: The Poetry of Phillis Wheatley

Many of America’s most famous poets lived during the 19th century: Emily Dickinson (1830-1886), Edgar Allan Poe (1809-1849), and Walt Whitman (1819-1892), for example. But there was already a literary tradition beginning to blossom in America in the 18th century as well and one of the literary darlings of colonial America, celebrated both nationally and internationally, was Phillis Wheatley (1753-1784).

Phillis Wheatley rose to prominence as a popular poet in early America, despite the fact that she was a woman, an African-American and a slave. Phillis Wheatley had a remarkable and in many ways quite a tragic life. She’s not a figure that I know a lot about, but I’ve always been curious to learn more, especially since I saw a first edition of one of her books at the Museum of the American Revolution last year. So, in honor of her upcoming birthday – May 8, 1753 – I’ve done a little bit of research into her life and writings, so that I could introduce you (or perhaps re-introduce you!) to this important figure in American literature.

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Phillis Wheatley’s book, Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral, published in 1773. I took this photo during a trip to the Museum of the American Revolution in Philadelphia last autumn.

Who was she?

Born in 1753, Wheatley was kidnaped from her home in West Africa at a young age, brought to America and sold into slavery to the Wheatley family. The Wheatleys, noticing that she was very bright, taught her to read and write. Sondra A. O’Neale of Emory University writes, in her short biography of Phillis Wheatley on The Poetry Foundation’s website, about Phillis’ classical education at the Wheatley house:

Soon (Phillis Wheatley) was immersed in the Bible, astronomy, geography, history, British literature (…) and the Greek and Latin classics of Virgil, Ovid , Terence, and Homer. In “To the University of Cambridge in New England” (probably the first poem she wrote but not published until 1773), Wheatley indicated that despite this exposure, rich and unusual for an American slave, her spirit yearned for the intellectual challenge of a more academic atmosphere.

She wrote an elegy for a reverend, George Whitefield, which brought her first national acclaim (as it was published in Boston, Newport and Phildelphia) and then international acclaim, as it was published in London too.

Shortly after that, she travelled to London, where she was welcomed by prominent artists and dignitaries. Her book was published soon after: Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral (1773), the first volume of poetry by an African American.

What did she write about?

Her poetry is very 18th century in its style, for sure. She writes in rhyming couples mostly, with a lot of allusions to classical themes and literature. A lot of her poems were celebratory of America and America’s victory over Great Britain in the Revolutionary War. In 1776, she wrote a letter and poem in support of George Washington, and he replied with an invitation to visit him (he was in Massachusetts at the time), saying that he would be ‘happy to see a person so favored by the muses.’

She also comments on slavery from a Christian perspective in her poem: ‘On Being Brought from Africa to America’. In the same article by Sondra A. O’Neale I quoted from above, O’Neale talks about Wheatley’s influence on fledgling abolitionist movements of the 18th century: ‘Wheatley was the abolitionists’ illustrative testimony that blacks could be both artistic and intellectual (…) her achievements a catalyst for the fledgling antislavery movement.’

What happened to Wheatley?

She was eventually freed from slavery in the mid 1770’s.

She was so incredibly young when she became famous and unfortunately some difficult years lay ahead of her, despite her connections to the rich and famous of her time. She married a free black man who ran a grocery store and experienced years of poverty during the Revolutionary War. She had been struggling with poor health all her life and died at the age of just 31.

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So had you heard of Phillis Wheatley before? If you grew up in the USA, did you study her in schools? I never did, which seems a shame because she was one of the country’s earliest poets and has such a unique personal history.

As an American poet myself and someone who loves 18th century history, it was fascinating for me to learn a bit more about who she was and I hope you found it interesting too! I definitely plan on reading more about her in the future.

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Recommended Reading:

PS Today’s Featured Image is by Edward Colyer, ‘Still Life’ ca. 1696, accessed via Wikimedia

‘Madeira Mondays’ is a series of blog posts exploring Early American history and historical fiction. I’m not a historian, but an author and poet who is endlessly fascinated by this time period. I am also currently writing/researching a novel set during the American Revolution and recently finished a Doctorate of Fine Art looking at how creative writers access America’s eighteenth-century past. Follow the blog for a new post every Monday and thanks for reading!

 

Madeira Mondays: Washington Miniseries Review (Episodes 2-3)

‘Within the colonies, within families, there was division. There were loyalists and patriots living within the same house. This was a civil war.’ – Alexis Coe on the American Revolution

A few weeks ago, I posted my review of Episode One of Washington, the History Channel’s new documentary series about America’s first president: George Washington. Today we’re talking Episode Two (‘Rebel Commander’) and Three (‘Father of His Country’). I’d recommend having a read of that first blog post if you want to know more general information about the series: who they interview, the format etc. I’ll be chatting more here about specific things I enjoyed about these last two episodes and things I wish they’d done differently.

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Will the real George Washington please stand up? (This is a painting of Washington by Gilbert Stuart, 1797)

Firstly, the stuff I liked!

1 – Nicholas Rowe is much better in these last two episodes

Scottish stage actor Nicholas Rowe portrays Washington in the live-action reenactments that the show uses to dramatize Washington’s life. These scenes are woven throughout the interview clips with historians, biographers, and politicians. I had some complaints about Rowe in Episode 1, where he failed to convince as the charming younger Washington who was meant to dazzle all the ladies, but he does a much better job playing the older, resolute General under stress. I especially liked his understated delivery of the orders to go and find Benedict Arnold, after he learns of Arnold’s betrayal. Rowe looks ready to scream but then says with a quiet fury: Go. Get him. Now. I got chills.

2 – Really gets across how difficult it was for Americans to win the Revolutionary War

It’s impossible to overstate now how crazy it was for a handful of disparate colonies to take on the world’s great superpower of the time. There was no guarantee that the Americans would win and, in fact, quite the opposite. Lots of people, quite reasonably, thought they would surely lose and did not support the rebellion. And, as Alexis Coe points out in the quote at the start of this post, there were often loyalists and patriots in the same family! The British army and navy were the best in the world, and the colonies literally had no army until the Continental Congress decided to try and make one. Washington’s struggle to whip these non-professional soldiers into shape, to keep their spirits up, to get supplies, to prevent mutiny, all while trying to fight the best army in the world is all conveyed well in the show.

I especially liked the scene when the British army arrives in New York in 1776 and the New Yorkers, and rebel army, look out and see all the warships. King George wanted to intimidate the colonists and he sent the largest British expeditionary force to ever be assembled. When the New Yorkers saw all the impressive warships amassing in their harbor, they were all like…shit. I remember reading an account of the time from a guy in New York who looked out over the harbor and said: ‘It looked like all of London was afloat.’ So Washington did well to highlight that moment.

3 – Also conveys how Washington set the precedent for Presidential behavior

Winning a Revolution is just step one. Then you need to establish a new government which will not devolve into a new kind of tyranny. Washington makes it clear how important it was that Washington himself did not become an emperor or a tyrant, but rather stepped down after two presidential terms. It argues that he didn’t even really want to be president in the first place, but took the job because he was a national war hero and people loved him. He wanted to be at home in Virginia. But there was nobody else who could take that role (John Adams certainly had a rough time as the second U.S President). The show makes it clear how the republic could have failed, if we didn’t have someone like Washington at the helm in those fragile, early days.

Now, for stuff I didn’t like so much…

1 – So much Benedict Arnold stuff

The story of Benedict Arnold is inherently interesting (spy craft, intrigue, betrayal etc.). And maybe it’s just because I’m pretty familiar with the story already, but I felt that we had too much of a focus on this, purely for the sake of drama. The second episode actually ends on an Arnold related cliffhanger. I think you need to make mention of Arnold, a continental officer who was secretly helping the British, but felt the amount of time devoted to this whole saga was kind of excessive.

I also felt that the amount of focus on Hamilton was a little excessive. I’m guessing it’s because of his fame from the popular musical, but I was more okay with this than the Arnold stuff, because at least Hamilton was Washington’s second in command and always with Washington during the war.

2 – ‘Can I offer you some water?’

Okay, so this is a pedantic point, but there’s a scene during one of the reenactments when Washington is meeting with one of British General Howe’s top officers and Washington offers him ‘ale or water’? I’m already skeptical that he would offer him ale. That’s something people would have in a casual tavern, probably not what a General would drink with a high ranking British officer at a formal meeting though. I’m guessing they would drink wine like Madeira (yay!) or maybe sack (a fortified white wine from Spain)? Or port? But even if he did offer him ale, he definitely wouldn’t have offered him water! Water wasn’t sanitary to drink during this time and only those who could afford nothing else would drink it. If I was that British officer guy, I would have been super insulted if the American General offered me water. I would have been like: ‘No, I don’t want your crappy sewer water! Geez, you guys are a lot worse off than I thought.’

3 – The level of violence was unnecessary

I’m not one to shrink from too much violence onscreen, but context is important and this is the sort of documentary series that could easily be shown in schools etc. (there are so many legit historians interviewed in it), if not for the overly graphic moments of violence. I was okay with this in Episode One, but it started to grate on me in Episodes Two and Three. We have another scalping in Episode Three, and a tarring and feathering. While this level of violence works great in the HBO John Adams miniseries (which also shows a tarring and feathering), it felt out of place here in an otherwise pretty sanitized, educational production. The moments of violence stand out as unnecessary.

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Those are just a few thoughts I had on Episodes Two and Three. Overall, I found these episodes less engaging than Episode One, but that might have been because I was more familiar with the information in them. But still the balance of reenactment to interview works pretty well, the production quality of the reenactments is overall fairly high (despite Martha Washington’s awful wig in the last few scenes) and I liked how they wove in information about slavery throughout too.

I’d be curious to know what you thought of Episodes Two or Three, or indeed of the entire series? Did you learn anything new about Washington’s life? What did you think of the format: reenactment mixed with interviews? I don’t know much about Washington’s life so I’m especially curious to know if there’s anything you think Washington got wrong? Let me know!

(Today’s featured image is Washington Crossing the Delaware by Emanuel Leutze (1851), acceded via the Wikimedia Commons. I was actually fortunate enough to see this image in person at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in NYC and it was breathtaking. The real painting is enormous and you can see all the colors of dawn. And, of course, Washington wouldn’t have stood like that. It would have tipped over the boat. But it’s still a great painting!)

‘Madeira Mondays’ is a series of blog posts exploring Early American history and historical fiction. I’m not a historian, but an author and poet who is endlessly fascinated by this time period. I am also currently writing/researching a novel set during the American Revolution and recently finished a Doctorate of Fine Art looking at how creative writers access America’s eighteenth-century past. Follow the blog for a new post every Monday and thanks for reading!

 

 

 

 

Madeira Mondays: Beyond the Mask film review

I have spoken in the past about how it is a shame that there are so few books and films set during the Revolutionary War. As a lover of this time period, I am always on the lookout for new ones. So when I heard about Beyond the Mask, a swashbuckling Revolutionary War era film released in 2015, I was curious to see it. And, oh boy, I was not prepared for what was in store!

Wikipedia describes Beyond the Mask as a ‘Christian historical action-adventure’, and it follows the life of a former assassin, William Reynolds (Andrew Cheney), who wants to redeem himself and start a new life. Through a series of overly complicated mishaps which I won’t bother to explain, he finds himself in the American colonies, helping the Americans fight for independence from Great Britain while dressed as a masked vigilante called ‘The Highwayman’. Who gives Reynolds this moniker? Why, no other than Benjamin Franklin himself! There is a pretty hilarious scene where Ben Franklin, who runs the local printing press, is trying to figure out what to call this new, mysterious vigilante running around Philadelphia and says: ‘We’ll call him what he is! A highwayman.’ This makes no sense. Reynolds is not in any way a highwayman (a robber who stole from travelers, usually on country roads). But this is just one confusing detail in a film which is full of confusing details, bonkers plot twists, and tons of explosions.

beyond the mask

But, I will tell you this right now: I really enjoyed watching Beyond the Mask. It is like a zany medley of several other, better films (mostly Zorro, but there’s a bit of V for Vendetta in there and the score sounds like a crappier version of Pirates of the Caribbean). Sure, it is wildly historically inaccurate. Sure, it moves along at a break-neck pace and I was often confused about what was going on. Sure, the characters were completely empty and devoid of ANY personality (why do the main two people fall in love?? What do they like about each other?). And sure, the theology in it never makes a ton of sense or seems to really matter for the plot. BUT it was super silly and super fun. Especially John Rhys-Davies, who plays the one-dimensional villain character whose evil scheme is (spoiler alert) to blow up the Continental Congress using an electrical generator that he stole from Ben Franklin and has hidden in an underground submarine hideout! This stuff is gold.

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Our leads, Kara Killmer as Charlotte Holloway and Andrew Cheney as William Reynolds run away from a flaming windmill (some of the worst CGI in the film)

I expected this to be more of a wannabe Les Miserables, a story which has an overtly Christian moral about redemption. In Les Miserables, Jean Valjean, a criminal, is given a second chance of life when a priest shows him kindness and the whole book (and film and musical) is about the redemptive power of kindness and love. I think that might have been what director Chad Burns was going for here (a story about how love transforms a man from a murderous assassin to a guy who just beats people up sometimes), but all of that is lost in the sheer weirdness of the drama and the many wannabe Jackie Chan fist-fight sequences.

I’m not even going to touch on the historical accuracy of this film, but I will mention that, just like The Patriot (which I discussed here), it seems to think that only rebels were tormented and harassed by loyalist citizens and British soldiers, whereas in reality often it was those who remained loyal to the King who faced violence. But that is the least of the movie’s issues and if you’re going into it looking for any sort of historical accuracy, or even attempts at historical accuracy, then you’re looking in the wrong place, my friend.

Still, there are a couple of things that work well in the film (besides Rhys-Davies). The costumes are largely period-appropriate and look pretty good! Also I was impressed with the sets. They are obviously working with a limited budget and the 18th century Philadelphia set was particularly impressive.

So would I recommend this deeply silly movie? If you enjoy this sort of thing, then 100%! I watched it with two pals who enjoy films like this as much as me and we had a blast, giggling at all the absurdities and frequently pausing the film to ask: ‘WHAT JUST HAPPENED?’

If you are looking for an ambitious or thought-provoking or well-researched film about this period, then I would direct you to something like The Witch, or perhaps the John Adams Miniseries. But if you’re looking for a film where the main character exclaims things like ‘I live in a web of lies!!’ and leaps around in the darkness like Batman, then you’re going to enjoy Beyond the Mask. I know that I did.

Recommended Reading/Viewing:

Beyond the Mask directed by Chad Burns (so long as you know what you’re in for!)

Film Review: Beyond the Mask in Variety

‘Madeira Mondays’ is a series of blog posts exploring Early American history and historical fiction. I’m not a historian, but an author and poet who is endlessly fascinated by this time period. I am also currently writing/researching a novel set during the American Revolution and recently finished a Doctorate of Fine Art looking at how creative writers access America’s eighteenth-century past. Follow the blog for a new post every Monday and thanks for reading!

 

Madeira Mondays: Washington Miniseries Review (Episode 1)

‘You could argue that the British empire slowly built the man who would destroy them from the inside out.’ – Alexis Coe in Washington

This month The History Channel released a new miniseries about the life of America’s first President: George Washington. It was titled, quite simply: WASHINGTON. To be honest, I went into this series with low expectations. The History Channel screens some pretty questionable and often hilarious content (see: Ancient Aliens). Growing up, whenever I turned on this channel there was always some show about conspiracy theories involving the Illuminati or the Freemasons. So I was fairly shocked to discover that this miniseries was pretty darn good!

Thus far I’ve only seen Episode 1 (‘Loyal Subject’) which follows Washington’s early life and military career, but here are some thoughts about the pros and cons of the show – which may help you decide if you want to give it a watch too.

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Washington released by The History Channel last month (February 2020)

Okay, let’s focus on the positives first!

1 – They interview tons of big name historians, biographers and politicians

I was surprised to see lots of famous early American historians interviewed here (Annette Gordon-Reed! Joseph J. Ellis!), in addition to people like Bill Clinton and Colin Powell. The whole series is actually produced by Doris Kearns Goodwin. It is fascinating to see all of these big name politicians and historians reflecting on Washington, and they bring so much knowledge, gravitas and, frankly, legitimacy to the whole thing. These people are the experts in their fields and I’m inherently curious about what they have to say. Well done, History Channel.

2 – Production value of reenactments

The interview clips are interspersed with short re-enactments of Washington’s life, featuring actors in period costume. So it’s almost like a little biopic film mixed with historical commentary. That could have been quite a cheesy format, but I think the balance works pretty well and keeps the whole thing quite engaging.

These reenactment scenes can get surprisingly violent (we see a Native American guy scalping someone and later there is a hanging), which is something to be aware of. The acting is passable, but I was overall impressed with the costumes and the scale of these reenactments. I can’t wait to see more of them actually!

3 – It doesn’t sugarcoat his life too much

The series isn’t overly reverential. It delves into how, early on in his career, Washington made a lot of mistakes. He makes tactical blunders, signs documents he doesn’t understand because they are in French (lol!), and misrepresents some of his military deeds in newspapers of the time. He’s human and this show is quick to point that out.

It also discusses how he was a slave owner. I especially liked the discussion of this from Erica Armstrong Dunbar of Rutgers University. She said: ‘I believe he knew that slavery was wrong but it was also crucial to his financial success.’ YES. I’m so glad they included this quote from Dunbar because there’s a big misconception that people back then didn’t think slavery was wrong, because their morals were just so different from our own. But honestly – lots of them did know it was cruel and wrong, it was just the economic system that they lived under at the time and they didn’t seen an alternative. That’s a crucial thing for modern audiences to comprehend and I like that the show addressed it.

4 – There’s a focus on his character/personality

I took some notes for this post while I was watching the show and I wrote down: ‘he was tall and women were into it’. I also wrote: ‘self-control but with fire crackling inside.’ The historians interviewed talk about contemporary accounts of Washington (who was really tall for the time, like 6’2”) and by all accounts had a very restrained but commanding presence. He was also apparently very disciplined with his men and very quietly ambitious. It was his feelings of being snubbed by the British army early in his career that, the series argues, sets him on the path to becoming a Revolutionary. So we really get to know the guy a bit through the series: his temperament, his personal goals etc.

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Washington at Verplanck’s Point by John Trumbull (1790)

Now, for the cons:

1 – Not a great introduction to the entire Revolutionary War

Because of the limited scope of the show, they have to gloss over a lot of stuff. So everything apart from Washington’s life feels really rushed. We hop from the Boston Massacre to Lexington and Concord, with very little explanation for what those things are or how they impacted the colonies. So this isn’t the best thing to watch for a general introduction to the revolutionary war.

2 – The actor who plays Washington

I’m sorry to say that Nicholas Rowe, the actor who plays Washington in the reenactments, doesn’t really exhibit some of the gravitas and personal magnetism that the historians are saying that the real Washington had. There’s a somewhat unintentionally funny bit where the interviewees are quoting from period accounts of how charming Washington was, how he had a fire behind his eyes etc., and it cuts to Rowe dancing with some ladies with just a mildly engaged look on his face. He isn’t really bringing that gravitas to the table.

This stuff wouldn’t usually bother me – after all, this is a documentary and not a feature film! These scenes are just to dramatize what the interviewees are talking about. BUT since they go on and on about how much unusual gravitas Washington had, I think most actors would fail to live up to that build-up. Most people don’t have that kind of quiet charisma – that was part of what made Washington special! But Rowe overall does an okay job and I’m curious to see how he does as the older Washington.

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All in all, I’d recommend the show so far! Definitely worth a watch if you’re interested in this time period, if only to see the all-star historians and biographers line-up. Also, at a time of such great political division in the USA, I do think it’s important to focus on our shared history, which is so unique.

Have you seen Washington? If so, I’d be very curious to hear your thoughts! I’m looking forward to Episodes 2 and 3.

PS Two pieces of poetry news!

Last week I was at StAnza Poetry Festival in St Andrews, introducing and chairing some poetry events. I’ve been volunteering for this festival for almost 9 years (!) and for several years have served as their in-house Festival blogger. This year, I was mainly introducing events, but they asked me to do one blog post as well. You can read my post, ‘Moonlight and Mermaids’, here if you’re interested in learning about StAnza (the biggest poetry festival in the UK), which takes place every year in a little Scottish town by the sea. The post also features some discussion of late 18th century gothic women poets.

Also, I have a poem in the Scottish Writers Centre’s new chapbook ‘Island and Sea’, published last week. If you happen to be Scotland-based (I know that some ‘Madeira Mondays’ readers are!), the chapbook is launching tomorrow (March 10th) at the Centre for Contemporary Arts (CCA) in Glasgow. Several poets from the book will be reading on the night. I’m hoping to make it through to read. If that sounds like your cup of tea, here’s the event page!

(Today’s featured image is of, you guessed it, George Washington, by Charles Wilson Peale in 1772, accessed via the Wikimedia Commons. It is the earliest authenticated portrait of Washington.)

‘Madeira Mondays’ is a series of blog posts exploring Early American history and historical fiction. I’m not a historian, but an author and poet who is endlessly fascinated by this time period. I am also currently writing/researching a novel set during the American Revolution and recently finished a Doctorate of Fine Art looking at how creative writers access America’s eighteenth-century past. Follow the blog for a new post every Monday and thanks for reading!

 

 

 

Madeira Mondays: The Patriot (Part II)

Last week, we looked at Roland Emmerich’s film The Patriot (2000). This was one of my favorite films as a kid and, perhaps out of protective nostalgia or just out of fairness to the movie, I highlighted some of its positive qualities (which basically boiled down to: Jason Issacs, Health Ledger and the score by John Williams). But now we can get on to the fun part: all of the issues that I have with The Patriot. Plus a bit about the history behind this super silly (but fun!) movie.

If you’re joining for this second post, you might want to go back and have a look at Part I first, but if you’re all caught up, let’s go ahead and dive in.

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Gabriel Martin (Heath Ledger) in The Patriot

Stuff that doesn’t work in The Patriot

1 – The main character

Screenwriter Robert Rodat had an interesting idea for the main character of Benjamin Martin. Martin is based in part on Francis ‘Swamp Fox’ Marion, the American militia man famous for his guerilla warfare tactics against the British army in South Carolina, and in part on General Andrew Pickens who had his estate torched and lost a son before he went back into action and led the American militia forces at Cowpens. So Martin is a sort of composite character, inspired by several historical figures, which is a very common technique in historical fiction.

What I really like about this character however is his backstory. Basically Martin is a war veteran who is famous (or infamous) for the slaughter of French and Native American men, women and children during the French and Indian War. This slaughter was retribution, Martin explains, for an attack that the French and Native troops had committed on presumably British-American settlers. When he conveys this to his son Gabriel (Heath Ledger) we understand that Martin is a man who is deeply traumatized by his violent past. ‘I can still see their faces. I can still hear their screams. And not a day goes by that I do not ask God’s his forgiveness for what I have done,’ he says.

So Martin is a character who, at the outset of the movie, knows the reality of war and also knows both the allure of violence and the terrible personal cost of inflicting it. This is an interesting backstory and makes his reluctance to get involved in the Revolutionary War make sense.

But then, when he gets involved, the whole movie hinges on Martin seeking his revenge on Tavington for murdering his son at the start of the film, and climaxes with Martin killing Tavington. So Tavington’s violence is met with yet more violence and the ending is treated as unambiguously celebratory. We’re meant to be psyched that Tavington is dead. But this doesn’t work narratively due to Martin’s backstory. It doesn’t work because Martin has evidently learned nothing throughout the film. He has fallen into his old pattern of answering violence with more violence. It would have been a more powerful and effective ending for Martin to let Tavington live. They even hint that this might happen before Martin goes into the final battle and he is musing on what gives men the right to justify death.

If screenwriter Robert Rodat really wanted Tavington dead at the end of the film, so he’s no longer rampaging through the South Carolina countryside, he could have Tavington killed in an explosion or something during the final battle. That way, he’s no longer a threat, but Martin has still developed as a character: no longer someone who kills out of rage and revenge. It would be especially poignant because one of his sons who Tavington murdered, Gabriel, always advocated for justice and mercy. So I think they went in the wrong direction with this final scene and with Martin’s character in general. But that’s not the only issue with this movie by a long shot.

2 – Its depiction of slavery

‘We work this land…freemen.’

When Tavington arrives at Martin’s plantation, a group of African American men, in field worker clothes, tell him that they are not slaves but work the land…freedmen. The unlikelihood of this is staggering, that a wealthy white landowning man in South Carolina would have only free black men working on his plantation. Still, this isn’t the first film which makes their white lead anachronistically progressive and not racist, and it won’t be the last.

But even more confusing is when Tavington says that these men should join the British army because they will be granted freedom and then the men are basically forced into joining the army, when they visibly do not want to. In reality, the British army actually offered a very real opportunity for enslaved men and women to escape and sometimes people actually ran away to join the British. Even at the end of the war, in South Carolina where this story is set, many formerly enslaved people LEFT willingly with the British army and moved to England, where slavery was illegal – made so after the Somerset Case. It is a great irony that for many of the white colonists the British military presence signified ‘slavery’, but for many enslaved people, it meant a real chance for freedom.

3 – Thomas’ super cringeworthy slow motion death scene

As I spoke about last week, this is a melodramatic film and there is a lot of excessive emotionality to be had. The melodrama hits its peak towards the start of the film during the murder of Benjamin Martin’s son by Tavington. Right before young Thomas is killed, there is literally a slow mo shot of Mel Gibson running forward shouting: ‘Waitttt!’ Then Thomas is shot (still in slow mo) hits the ground (still slow mo here too) and looks up to the heavens. And then, in case we needed a confirmation that Tavington is a monster of a man, Tavington snidely remarks, ‘Stupid boy’, as the lifeless body of young, dead Thomas hangs limply in his father’s arms. I am able to write about this so nonchalantly because it is such an over the top and silly scene, with the British characters behaving in such monstrous and unmotivated ways, that you have to cringe here.

4 – Depiction of Loyalists

The only Loyalist we meet is South Carolinian Captain Wilkins who is weirdly harsh  and intense in his first scene, saying: ‘All those who stand against England deserve to die a traitor’s death.’ Remember that in real life Loyalists and Rebels were often in the same families. It’s unlikely/impossible that Wilkins doesn’t have some neighbors or probably family who support the rebellion. They all ‘deserve to die a traitor’s death’, Wilkins? Seriously?

Even given that he’s trying to show off in front of Tavington, this is a pretty damn harsh thing to say. And then he doesn’t lift to finger to stop Tavington when Tavington burns an entire village alive in a church (more on that scene below). Maybe it’s just because I study Loyalists, but it’s important to remember that often they were the ones being persecuted and targeted by violence during the American Revolution! Those who supported the rebellion were constantly destroying Loyalists’ property, harassing them, chasing them out of town and sometimes even killing them. The term ‘lynching’ is actually from Col. Charles Lynch of Virginia who was famous for extra-legal executions of Tory sympathizers. Life wasn’t easy for those who remained loyal to the crown before, during or after the war. They were victims of violence, not just perpetrators of it.

5 – ‘Burn the Church’

I don’t even know where to start.

Perhaps the most famous scene from this film is when Tavington orders an entire town burned alive in a church for helping Benjamin Martin and his rebel militia.

I have never heard of anything like this happening in the Revolutionary War. War crimes were definitely committed, especially by regulars, but officers had to guard their reputations, to a certain extent. Tavington is a high ranking officer.

I’m not saying that some soldiers didn’t do bad things to civilians. For instance, for my novel research, I’ve recently been reading Richard Goodbeer’s book Sexual Revolution in Early America: Gender Relations and the American Experience, and in it he mentions how we know that there were many sexual assaults of American women by British soldiers. There was also looting and destruction of property and many other things I am sure.

But there was nothing on this scale or this public – as far as I’m aware. Does General Cornwallis know about this mass murder, Tavington? I don’t think the people back in England, many of whom were sympathetic to the colonists’ plight, would be too psyched to hear about their cousins in America being burned alive!!

And Tavington does say earlier in the film that if he uses brutal tactics on civilians that he can ‘never return to England with honor.’ Damn right you can’t, dude. These people shared a common heritage, common blood. They were considered English people at the time and that gave them certain priviledges. You can’t just go around murdering an entire village. Tavington’s whole plan is that he will continue to live in America after the British win the war as a landowner. So your plan is to live amongst the people who you’ve slaughtered?

Also, think about how the Patriot propagandists would have reacted if they heard that an entire village had been killed by a British officer. They would have had a field day with it! Do you recall the Boston Massacre? When five men were shot by British soldiers who shot only out of self-defense? Paul Revere calls it the ‘Boston Massacre’ and produces this famous (and highly misleading) engraving.

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From The Boston Massacre engraving by Paul Revere

There were parades commemorating The Boston Massacre and word of it spread in the colonies as evidence of British brutality. But in this scene in The Patriot, like fifty to one hundred people, including women and children, are burned alive! If this had happened during the Revolutionary War, there would have been hundreds of poems published and pictures of churches embroidered on to flags, and all kinds of stuff to remember this atrocity. It just did not happen.

Apparently this ‘Burn the church’ scene was actually based on something the Nazis did to a group of French villagers during WWII. There was no reason that they needed to make the British characters in this as bad as Nazis. It is enough that Tavington shot a young boy for almost no reason in an earlier scene. We get that he’s a bad guy. But this scale of mass murder just isn’t believable at all.

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The British soldiers march out of town as the church in Pembroke burns (with the entire village inside).

It is also important to note that the character of Tavington is based on Banastre Tarleton, a British officer who came to symbolize British brutality on the battlefield, after the Battle of Waxhaws. At Waxhaws, American forces wanted to surrender but it is said that Tarleton had them killed anyway. ‘Tarleton’s quarter’ was a phrase used to mean no quarter at all. It was apparently true that Tarleton practiced total war – aka burning houses, destroying crops, not keeping the war confined to the battle field – but he did not murder tons of people like this.

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Banastre Tarleton portrait by Joshua Reynolds

6 – Dates?

I am not a stickler for making sure the historical chronology lines up 100% but this one plays past and loose with dates. There’s a scene in 1776 and then they say in a V.O that two years have passed and Charles Town has fallen to the British. So two years…that’s 1778. But the British didn’t take Charles Town until 1780 (four years). Ah well. I actually think that’s the least of this film’s problems, but if you know about the key dates/battles of the Revolution then you’re likely to wince.

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Skye McCole Bartusiak (Susan Martin) weeps when her dad goes off to war. (And possibly about the inaccuracies within this film)

Those are just some of the problems I have with this film. At the end of the day, it’s important to keep in mind that The Patriot is not trying to educate, but to entertain. Yet the reality is that people watch films like this and often take it for granted that they are generally historically accurate. I remember meeting someone at a big academic conference for Early American History (I think he was a member of the public who had come in on the day, not an academic) and he told me that he loved The Patriot and it was the best depiction of the Revolution he had seen. I was so surprised I wasn’t sure what to say, so I just nodded.

If you watch and enjoy The Patriot, just go into it as you would with any work of historical fiction: with the knowledge that this is a work of fiction. Films have their own aesthetic and commercial goals. In this case, the goal I think was to make a blockbuster historical film, like Braveheart, that would make the studio a lot of money. They’re not interested in telling a holistic or even a particularly accurate depiction of the American Revolution. So if you’re gonna enjoy it, pop some popcorn, grab a drink and keep in mind that this isn’t really an exploration of what it might have been like to be alive at this period of history. This is a melodrama about one man bent on revenge. He just happens to wear a tricorne hat.

Recommended Reading

  • Caroline Gilman (editor), Letters of Eliza Wilkinson During the Invasion and Posession of Charleston, SC. By the British in the Revolutionary War. New York: Forgotten Book, 2015. NB This is a very readable first person account of the war in South Carolina.
  • Fraser, Walter J. Charleston! Charleston!: The History of a Southern City. South Carolina: University of South Carolina Press, 1990.
  • Lambert, Robert Stansbury. South Carolina Loyalists in the American Revolution. Clemson, SC: Clemson University Digital Press, 2011.
  • Quarles, Benjamin. The Negro in the American Revolution. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1996.

‘Madeira Mondays’ is a series of blog posts exploring Early American history and historical fiction. I’m not a historian, but an author and poet who is endlessly fascinated by this time period. I am also currently writing/researching a novel set during the American Revolution and recently finished a Doctorate of Fine Art looking at how creative writers access America’s eighteenth-century past. Follow the blog for a new post every Monday and thanks for reading!

Madeira Mondays: The Patriot (Part I)

Rousing. Violent. Exciting.

These are the three adjectives that Netflix has chosen to describe Roland Emmerich’s film The Patriot (2000). And Netflix is right. Seeing Mel Gibson (fresh from his turn as William Wallace in Braveheart) hacking dozens of British soldiers to death with a tomahawk is definitely ‘violent’. Then seeing him riding with a tattered American flag on a horse at sunrise while men around him shout ‘Huzzah!’ is pretty ‘rousing’, I guess. And every time that Heath Ledger or Jason Issacs are on screen (two talented actors who get to really chew some scenery in this movie), it is ‘exciting’ for me, the viewer, to watch them act.

But while The Patriot might be rousing, violent and exciting, it is also a comically simplistic portrayal of a complicated time in America’s history. Let’s get one thing straight: this movie is an over-the-top melodrama of the highest order. Like any good melodrama, you can expect exaggerated, stereotypical characters and clear cut Goodies and Baddies. And wouldn’t history, and human nature, be much easier to understand if it was really like this? If there really were simply heroes and villains? Perhaps that really is the appeal of films like The Patriot. More than their violence, their star power, and their exciting set pieces (note the battle scene where the guy’s leg gets knocked off by the cannon ball!), these types of movies are comforting in their simplicity. They present a national mythology that is easy to grasp and that most people can get behind.

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Mel Gibson as Benjamin Martin. The film came out several years before Gibson was blacklisted in Hollywood for his anti-Semitic comments made during a 2006 DUI arrest.

The Patriot presents a version of the Revolutionary War where the the British Army is seemingly populated entirely by incompetent aristocrats and psychologically disturbed sadists who go around committing atrocities without repercussions. I’ll be talking more about this in next week’s post, but to say that this film’s depiction of British army officers during the American Revolution is ‘inaccurate’ doesn’t go far enough. It is outrageous. American civilians were definitely abused by both armies, but nothing on the scale this film seems to suggest as far as I am aware and often that abuse was by the REBEL army towards Loyalists.

But before I get any further ripping into this film, I have a confession: I loved The Patriot as a kid. I watched it so many times that I could still recite it today. I watched it so often in part because I liked this time period and there are so few films and books depicting it, but also because there are some engaging and fun things about The Patriot. Not enough to redeem it, mind you! This is not a ‘good’ movie. It’s a fun, bombastic melodrama (check out my reviews of The John Adams Miniseries or The Witch for ideas of much better, more nuanced, movies set in early America).

But in fairness to The Patriot, I have decided to break this post up into two parts. Today I’m posting about things which I think work about this film. They are largely related to the talent of some of the actors. Next Monday, I’ll be talking about the things that do NOT work so well.

As a quick synopsis (skip this paragraph if you don’t want to be spoiled about the plot!): The Patriot is a story about a farmer with a troubled past, Benjamin Martin (Mel Gibson), who wants to remain neutral in the escalating conflict with Great Britain. But he’s pulled into the war when his headstrong son Gabriel (Health Ledger) joins the Continental Army and when an evil British officer, Colonel Tavington (Jason Issacs), murders his other son Thomas and burns his house down. The rest of the film follows Martin’s journey as he joins the rebel army and succeeds at every turn evading the British through guerilla warfare: stealing their supplies, planning sneak attacks, hiding in the woods and evading capture etc. Then Gabriel dies, also at the hands of Colonel Tavington, in a scene that is genuinely sad, especially given our loss of Ledger in real life. But all is well(ish) in the end because Martin enacts his revenge by killing Tavington and the Continental army wins the war (of course).

So it is a movie about a badass fighter man with a dark past who wants to get out of that life but is drawn into it when the baddies attack his family. Then he goes on a murderous rampage. This is basically John Wick…in the American Revolution.

As a side note, it made me laugh to learn that Harrison Ford declined the lead role in this because he said the film boiled down the Revolutionary War to a ‘one-man’s-revenge’ melodrama. Yup. That about sums it up.

That being said, there is some fun to be had here and some things that succeed in this movie.

Some things that work in The Patriot

1 – The score

As I was searching for things to praise, the music immediately came to mind. Then I looked up who scored it: John Williams! Even if you don’t know John Williams, you have probably heard his work. He scored ET, the Indianan Jones series, the first two Home Alone films, Star Wars, and the first three Harry Potter films. To name just a few.

The score in The Patriot is excellent and definitely ‘rousing’. It makes moving use of period instruments, like violins and flutes, and is delicate and hopeful. To be honest, the music is doing most of the emotional heavy lifting over a lackluster script and fairly cardboard characters (more on the characterization below). You can listen to the theme here.

2 – Everything looks pretty good

The material world of The Patriot seems to have been created with attention and care. For instance, there is a sampler on the wall in one of the opening scenes, in the girls’ bedroom, which is a nice touch. And as far as I can tell, most of the material culture stuff is well done. The elite women are never wearing head coverings outside during the day (like a mob cap etc.) for modesty, but that’s not a huge deal. And everyone looks too clean, but, by and large, I felt this stuff was fine. Apparently the film was even supervised by The Smithsonian. Of course I’m by no means an expert, but anything glaringly obvious I probably would have picked up on so well done to the costume and set designers.

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Gabriel (Heath Ledger) and Benjamin Martin (Gibson) at war.

3 – Warfare

It conveys the gruesome brutality of 18th century warfare – where men stood in lines and shot at each other, before stabbing one another with bayonets. Sometimes I would argue it relishes the fighting a bit too much, like when the cannon ball flies directly towards the camera, but director Roland Emmerich seems interested in these details. Perhaps more interested in these details than he is in the characters themselves. As for me, I’m not very interested in military history or in how 18th century battles are fought, beyond the basics, but zooming in (literally) on this works to convey the sacrifices that men on both sides of the conflict made to serve their country. You come away thinking that war is a gruesome and terrible thing, which is true.

4 – Tom Wilkinson

This talented actor is having a lot of fun as the pompous General Cornwallis, saying lines like ‘These rustics are so inept. Nearly takes the honor out of victory. Nearly.’ Fun Fact: he also gets to play a jolly, folksy Ben Franklin in the John Adams Miniseries. In some ways the mirror opposite of Cornwallis. What fun!

5 – Jason Issacs

As far as I’m concerned, Jason Issacs is the hero of this movie and not just because I have always found him a really charismatic and good-looking actor (although that helps). He is a hero because this actor is given nothing to do besides being a complete sadistic murderer, but it somehow works because he commits to it 100%.

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Jason Issacs as Col. William Tavington

His character of Tavington is wholly one-dimensional and one level. Usually overtly evil characters like this are at least given one redeeming trait by the screenwriters – maybe they have a dog or a kid? Maybe they are seen enjoying a piece of music once? Basically, they are shown loving or appreciating something. Nope. Not Tavington. He basically just kills people or thinks about killing them. There is one brief moment of humanity when Tavington admits to Cornwallis that his father is a disgraced aristocrat and he has no inheritance. ‘I advance myself only through victory,’ Tavington says. It’s a thin and underdeveloped motivation for the levels of brutality that Tavington commits, but Issacs definitely nails this moment and we see a flicker of fragility in Tavington’s eyes. Still though, 98% of the time this character is written to be a cardboard cut-out of Evil. And yet. Issacs is a joy to watch. When you’re playing a role like this, you’ve just got to give it your all. And he does. No surprise that he later played Captain Hook in a remake of Peter Pan. He is basically already playing Captain Hook in The Patriot.

6 – Heath Ledger

Again. His character is non-existent. Like Issac’s Tavington, Ledger is given nothing to work with. His character of Gabriel Martin is just Earnest Young Hero Man. And yet. He’s not bland at all, but imbues Gabriel with a youthful exuberance, a quiet dignity, a curiosity for life, and a whole host of other traits that are not coming from the writing but the delivery. This was Ledger’s first big dramatic role and the career that he went on to have – Brokeback Mountain, The Dark Knight etc. – is not surprising at all, given his evident charm and likeable onscreen persona here. He also underplays some of the more dramatic moments, which is something this film desperately needs more of.

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Heath Ledger as Gabriel Martin

7 – ‘They had green eyes’

In a movie full of over-the-top emotions and epic battle sequences, perhaps the only moment that I found truly sad and human was a tiny one, when the proud French officer Villeneuve (Tchéky Karyo) finally opens up to Benjamin Martin about the loss of his daughters who were killed by the British army (because that’s what the British army does in this movie, kills civilians left and right). Martin asks him, as they are marching in to battle, presumably about to die: ‘How old were your daughters?’ Villeneuve answers: ‘Violette was 12 and Pauline 10. They had green eyes.’ Maybe it’s the actor’s understated, almost numbed, delivery. Or maybe it’s just this small touch of specificity in a movie that is usually broad strokes, but I found this moment between the men genuinely touching. Martin has just lost his son, Gabriel, and it is a sweet moment of connection and shared loss between them. The screenwriter Robert Rodat could have used a lot more moments like this.

In general, some of the banter between the men also works well and there are a lot of quippy one liners where the militiamen are teasing one another which I felt was sweet and made the overall tone less self-important.

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Tcheky Karyo as Villeneuve

So there you have it. Some things that I genuinely appreciated about The Patriot!

In next week’s post, we are going in-depth looking at what isn’t working so well in this film, as well as some of the history that inspired it. In the meantime, let me know if you’ve seen The Patriot. It’s currently streaming on UK Netflix, so maybe it’s time for a re-watch even if you saw it twenty years ago when it came out. I’d love to hear your thoughts. See you next Monday for Part II!

PS If you’re looking for some historical fiction which isn’t at all like The Patriot, but rather a spooky, Victorian ghost story about sisters and séances, then check out my story The Astonishing Rivers Sisters, published this week in Halfway Down the Stairs magazine!

‘Madeira Mondays’ is a series of blog posts exploring Early American history and historical fiction. I’m not a historian, but an author and poet who is endlessly fascinated by this time period. I am also currently writing/researching a novel set during the American Revolution and recently finished a Doctorate of Fine Art looking at how creative writers access America’s eighteenth-century past. Follow the blog for a new post every Monday and thanks for reading!