I am not here to tell you why it’s disrespectful to play Pokémon Go at the Holocaust Museum or wherever. Frankly, if you need to be told why, you’re too far-gone for anything I say to have any impact. So let’s just skip past my pearl-clutching and moral assessments and move on to meaning; what does it mean to play Pokémon Go in spaces with commemorative meanings assigned to them?
Before I go any further, and for those of you out of the loop (like my mom, who thought this game involved following clues to people dressed like Pokémon), Pokémon Go is a cell phone game which, using the mobile device’s camera and GPS, allows players to catch, train, and battle Pokémon in the physical environment, transformed within the augmented reality of gameplay.
Oh hey look, there’s a Squirtle chilling in my office with my freshly processed papers.
Once a Pokémon is spotted, the player has to throw a Pokéball within the game and make a successful catch. And if the player catches all the Pokémon lurking in their immediate vicinity, they have to get up, and walk around their city, town, or local park to find more. If a player wants to buy supplies or battle with other players, they have to walk to a PokéStop or a Pokémon Gym, typically located at identifiable landmarks like monuments, local strip clubs, and some dude’s converted church house (no but actually).
I’ve thought a lot of about different spaces where gameplay could be perceived as tacky or inappropriate, and I’m going to focus on three sites: Auschwitz, where 1,100,000 Jews and 200,000 Romani, gay men and women, people with mental and physical disabilities, Resistance members, dissidents, and POWs were tortured, abused, executed, and tossed into the ovens; Tuol Sleng (previously known as Security Prison 21/S-21), a former high school used by the Cambodian Khmer Rouge regime as a prison, torture and execution center; and the September 11 Memorial and Museum, the site of death for nearly 3,000 people, and the grave of those whose remains were never identified.
Installation at the September 11 Memorial and Museum between the footprints of the towers. Behind this wall is the
Office of Chief Medical Examiner of the City of New York, where unidentified human remains are stored. Image courtesy of the September 11 Memorial and Museum.
The women’s barracks at Auschwitz. Image courtesy of Yad Veshem.
The Khmer Rouge photographed every S-21 incoming prisoner, and here are a fraction of those images on display at
the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum. Image courtesy of said museum.
NOTE: The images I chose to represent Auschwitz and Tuol Sleng are comparatively tame. I could have chosen much more disturbing ones, but I find those extremely triggering, and I have no desire to spring that on anyone.
I choose these three because these are inarguably sites of human suffering, murder, and/or torture. That legacy cannot be assigned; it’s intangible. These sites are not in any way spatially divorced from the horrors they commemorate.
I don’t think the game has been released in Cambodia (yet) so my use of Tuol Sleng is hypothetical. But it has been released in Poland and the US and yes, people have and are playing Pokémon Go at Auschwitz and at the September 11 Memorial and Museum.
Here someone plays the game one of the two September 11 Memorial Pools, which lie in the footprints of the two towers. Image courtesy of Time Magazine.
So again I had to ask myself, what does this mean?
Screen-cap of the Auschwitz gameplay. Image courtesy of the NYMag twitter.
Pokémon Go’s gameplay allows users to assert augmented reality over their surroundings. They engage as people on the game board of Pokémon Go, not as people taking in the meaning of the space around them. The game takes what exists, and projects itself over it. Thus, in these spaces I’m discussing, that is no longer a room where a Khmer Rouge official tortured a librarian, or where Jews were forced to huddle together like cattle before the slaughter,or where unidentified human remains still lie, but simply wallpaper; just the setting of a game.
Superimposed Pokémon lurking outside the entrance to Auschwitz. Image courtesy of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency.
To play Pokémon Go at these sites is to divorce them of all meaning, wrest them away from the hideous pasts they and all visitors must bear witness to. And I guess I lied; I have to extend moral judgement here, because that act?-is pretty profane.
At a site like the Vietnam War Memorial*, it’s a much more ambiguous relationship. This is a memorial to lives lost on a battlefield across the sea. It’s meaningful because we, as a society, have made it meaningful. People bring to it their grief and trauma and memories, and in doing so imbue it with meaning. Or to put differently, the meaning of the Vietnam War Memorial is a constructed, but it’s a meaningful, important construct.
It is a symbolic site of mourning which means different things to each of the millions of people who visit it. One person could see playing Pokémon Go at the Vietnam Memorial as a horrific insult to fallen soldiers and veterans suffering from trauma, while another could see at as a tribute to a fun-loving grandfather, or never-met uncle. Because it is not on the site of death, the meanings of augmented reality gameplay at the Vietnam Memorial are too fractured for me to be able to make any definitive statements about them.
There’s a lot more to say here. About playing this and other augmented reality games at sites like cemeteries, war memorials, monuments, museums, art installations, gentrifying spaces; about space, interaction, memory, and human geography. I have really just begun to scratch the surface, and I welcome contributions.
*I used the Vietnam War Memorial as an example here, but this discussion can apply to any number of cemeteries or memorials or monuments located away from the site of death, or violence.
I love Hamilton. I love it so much that I refused to listen to the soundtrack for months because I knew that I would love it too much and it would be a Problem. And it is. But here’s the thing about me: I’m like the subject of that Onion article “Graduate Student Deconstructs Takeout Menu,” and if I love something, you can bet that I’m going to deconstruct it. Even if I don’t want to. And Hamilton is no exception to that.
Cast of Hamilton. Left to right: Daveed Diggs (Marquis de Lafayette/Thomas Jefferson), Okieriete Onaodowan (Hercules Mulligan/James Madison), Christopher
Jackson (George Washington), Leslie Odom, Jr. (Aaron Burr), Jasmine Cephas Jones (Peggy Schuyler/Maria Reynolds), Renée Elise Goldsberry (Angelica Schuyler Church),
Phillipa Soo (Elizabeth Schuyler Hamilton), and Anthony Ramos (John Laurens/Philip Hamilton). Photograph by Annie Leibovitz, as seen in the July 2015 issue of Vogue.
Hamilton: an American Musical by Lin-Manuel Miranda is a fascinating and contradictory piece of theater. It takes a foundational American myth starring white men, and re-centers it on people of color while, at the same time, unquestioningly perpetuating that same myth while erasing women and slaves from the narrative. And that is powerful, because Hamilton, by virtue of its immense popularity and growing cultural status, is a space of memory construction.
Lin-Manuel Miranda (Alexander Hamilton) and Jonathan Groff (King George III). Photograph by Annie Leibovitz, as seen in the July 2015 issue of Vogue.
Memory is an entity constructed by screenwriters, directors, journalists, the executives who control broadcast media, museum professionals, the politicians who set history curricula, the corporate bodies who decide what will be on standardized tests, novelists, Texas school boards, tv writers, and yes, playwrights and composers. History is the discipline which—through the science of reading, understanding, and questioning sources and the mastery of one or more historical fields—seeks to determine what happened, why it happened, how various groups interacted with the thing that happened, how the thing impacted groups, etc.
The institutions and individuals with the power to shape memory have very little interest in actual history; actual history is too complicated and too damning to fit neatly into a desirable, marketable narrative. And the characters of Hamilton, funnily enough, seem to be all too aware of that reality.
Aaron Burr laments that he will be remembered as a villain (there is an entire genre of sci-fi/historical fiction featuring Burr doing stuff like raising Aztec deities, stealing the Constitution from parallel worlds, and I think there’s something involving Napoleon and aliens but I refuse to research that one further without a drink in hand); Alexander Hamilton frets over his legacy; George Washington understands that he is at the mercy of memory; and one of Eliza’s recurring musical themes is centered on the concept of narrative.
In “That Would be Enough,” Eliza sings “oh let me be a part of the narrative/in the story they will write someday;” in “Burn” she sings “I’m erasing myself from the narrative/let future historians wonder how Eliza reacted.” Perhaps my favorite part is Eliza’s finale solo in “Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story.” She sings “I put myself back in the narrative/…I interview every soldier who fought by your side/I try to make sense of your thousands of pages of writings/…I rely on Angelica/While she’s alive/We tell your story/…I raise funds in D.C. for the Washington Monument/…I speak out against slavery.” In all of these songs, and especially the finale solo, she is singing about her determination to exert her own agency over how she is remembered.
That solo (begins at :41), while it does, of course, have a strong narrative purpose, speaks to the long history of female labor performed to commemorate the actions and careers of American men. Whether it be raising funds for monuments, providing medical care to soldiers, starting historical societies, protesting for the rights of the men in their lives, or taking oral histories, American women have long been instrumental shaping American collective memory; the irony is that their labor is left out of that memory. In Eliza’s solo, this labor is re-centered.
This history of forgotten female labor isn’t the only larger historiographic reality Hamilton speaks to.
Historians have only recently discovered globalization. Their neglect of the topic hardly makes them unique, however, as interest in globalization, as shown by the increasing use of the word in titles of books, dates only to the 1990s. It hardly appears at all in titles before the late 1980s, but a sharp increase occurs during the 1990s and continues into the 2000s.
Before globalization became a force in historians’ interpretation of early American history, it was much more the trend to portray the New Nation as an isolated country hanging off the eastern coast of the New World.
Indeed, Hunt continues:
Historians of the early United States…always drew attention to the links between American and British history, but now they also link the United States to the Caribbean islands with their slave economies and to the role of the French, Spanish, and Dutch, who also colonized parts of the North American mainland.
Hamilton takes place in a highly globalized world, reflecting both the twenty-first century international environment and contemporary historiographic trends. From the very beginning, we see the links between the North American colonies and the Caribbean colonies as Hamilton travels from St. Croix to New York. Angelica makes regular trips between London and New York. Lafayette jumps on a ship to France in the middle of the Revolution to acquire guns and ships—and other sundry supplies—and makes a quick return.
Further, despite the prohibitive cost and availability of tickets, Hamilton is hosting New York City Public School classes, which are using Hamilton as an educational tool. The New York City Public Schools are 39.6% Hispanic, 31.6% black, and 14% Asian*. According to the New York Immigration Coalition, nearly half of all New York City Public School students speak a language other than English at home; while this figure does not necessarily imply that nearly half of all NYCPS students are immigrants, it does imply that they come from families which arrived in the United States within the last one or two generations.
Hamilton openly and passionately addresses xenophobia, and the positive impact of immigrants on the United States (“Immigrants, we get the job done”)—indeed, one of Hamilton’s defining traits in the eyes of his supporters and adversaries is his status as an immigrant—and features non-white actors in every role (except for that of King George III). Thus, Hamilton allows students to see themselves as the protagonists of a story they are typically tacked to the margins of, if included at all. Seeing themselves and reflected in this foundational story allows these students to become much more engaged in learning about this vital period of American History.
And indeed, the show’s stars have discussed the importance of this representation.
Daveed Diggs (Marquis de Lafayette/Thomas Jefferson) said to New Yorker reporter Rebecca Mead that “It feels important, because it allows us to see ourselves as part of history that we always thought we were excluded from…Rap is the voice of the people of our generation, and of people of color, and just the fact that it exists in this piece, and is not commented upon, gives us a sense of ownership.”
Christopher Jackson (George Washington), said in the same piece that “The Broadway audience doesn’t like to be preached to. By having a multicultural cast, it gives us, as actors of color, the chance to provide an additional context just by our presence onstage.”
Phillipa Soo (Elizabeth Schuyler Hamilton) said to Playbill writer Olivia Clement that “the best I’ve heard [at the stage door] is a lot of young Asian-American women coming up to me and saying thank you for representing Asian-American women.”
However, even as Hamilton reflects contemporary historiographic trends, illuminates female commemorative labor, and re-centers those typically left out of the narrative, it ironically excludes the groups Americans work the hardest to forget: enslaved men and women.
Now, Hamilton doesn’t ignore the issue; it arises in multiple songs, and many characters speak of their desire to abolish slavery—especially John Laurens and Eliza in her finale solo. But there are two central persons whose lives and experiences are largely erased within Miranda’s narrative: Sally Hemings, Thomas Jefferson’s slave; and Cato, Hercules Mulligan’s slave.
In the Act 2 opener “What’d I Miss,” Thomas Jefferson has Sally Hemmings open a letter from George Washington (whose own status as a slave owner is barely alluded to), and sings “Sally dear be a lamb and open this.” Sally then performs a cheerfully choreographed spin and opens it.
There is no mention—despite the fact that Hamilton calls Jefferson out on his status as slave-owner in “Cabinet Battle #1″—of the fact she is his slave, and no mention of that fact that Jefferson, as we can now understand in our present historical context, was her rapist.
Meanwhile, the spy work Hercules Mulligan so epically raps about (beginning at 1:49 below) in “Yorktown” (”A tailor spyin on the British government/I take their measurements, information then I smuggle it/To my brothers’ revolutionary covenant/I’m runnin with the Sons of Liberty and I am lovin it”) could not have been accomplished without the unpaid, dangerous labor performed by his slave, known to us only as Cato.
Cato acted as a courier for Mulligan’s spy work, smuggling intelligence through British territory. When the British took New York City in 1778, British Provost Marshal William Cunningham suspected Mulligan of spy activities. He arrested and interrogated Cato, who refused to divulge any information. In 1779, Cato delivered intelligence to Alexander Hamilton, alerting him of the British plan to kidnap or kill George Washington. And that is really all we know about Cato**.
Also excluded from the narrative are the wives of some of the central characters, with the exception, of course, of Eliza. John Laurens, Hercules Mulligan, and Lafayette were all married when the action begins in 1776, yet their wives are never even alluded to.
John Laurens married Martha Manning in 1776. Hercules Mulligan married Elizabeth Sanders, the niece of a Royal Navy Admiral, in 1773. This union allowed him access to British officers, from whom he gathered valuable intelligence. The Marquis de Lafayette married Marie Adrienne Francois in 1774.
Marie Adrienne Françoise de Noailles, Marquise de La Fayette. Image courtesy of Christie’s, by an unknown artist in the French School.
She supported his quest for the spread of liberty. When France declared war on Austria in 1792, he took command of the army at Metz. He was accused of treason upon his return to Paris, and fled to the Dutch Republic. On the way, the Prussians intercepted and arrested him. Adrienne, fresh from imprisonment during the Reign of Terror, traveled to Vienna to meet with Holy Roman Emperor Francis II to obtain permission to join her husband in prison. He allowed it, and they were released in 1797.
I understand that Hamilton is a work of historical fiction and, as such, must take creative liberty with fact in order to craft a compelling narrative and compelling characters. Further, I understand that it is a problem to assume that a production which re-centers people of color within a foundational narrative shaped by white supremacy is obligated to discuss slavery. However, historical fiction is a powerful vehicle of memory construction, and if Lin-Manuel Miranda did, indeed, set out to confront that memory, then I cannot ignore the exclusions detailed above.
Historical fiction allows complex human beings to be shaped into the protagonist or antagonist of ahistorical narrative; allows creators to construct historical figures into characters with whom people are intended to sympathize or reject while ignoring, or glossing over the parts of their historical persona which do not fit into the fictional one; it puts forth versions of historical figures to people who may never have reason to read a history book about that figure or their context. And that, whether I like it or not, is worthy of concern.
And I have all of these concerns about Hamilton; specifically, about how it contributes to what I refer to as the “cult of the Founding Fathers.” Americans hold these eighteenth century men…well it’s beyond a pedestal, some politicians and legal authorities base their decisions—decisions which directly affect the lives, health, and freedom of millions of people–on what those eighteenth century guys may have thought.
Hamilton doesn’t question the mythic aura surrounding these guys. It humanizes them, sure, and it certainly does something very powerful in casting them as men of color (as discussed above), but it doesn’t question the fundamentals of the mythos surrounding them, or the impact of that mythos on contemporary American politics and political rhetoric.
In 2007, Lin-Manuel Miranda picked up a copy of Ron Chernow’s 2004 biography of Alexander Hamilton at an airport bookstore. In this book, Chernow describes how Hamilton wrote a poem about his dead-end life as an impoverished orphan in St. Croix. The poem caught the attention of some very wealthy people who helped Alexander to get ahead in life and leave for New York.
In this part of Alexander Hamilton’s life, Lin-Manuel Miranda saw the ethos of hip-hop.“To literally write verse that gets you out of your circumstances that’s about how terrible your circumstances are,” said Miranda to Rolling Stone reporter Brian Hiatt, “I mean, that’s everyone from Jay Z and Marcy to Lil Wayne writing about Hurricane Katrina. As I was reading the book, all these hip-hop analogies couldn’t help but pop up.“
In April 2009, Miranda was invited to the White House to perform in a series of live performances centered on the “American Experience.” He performed the song telling the story of a young, orphaned, illegitimate boy who built himself up from nothing through sheer intelligence, writing skill, and determination.
That song is now the opening number of Hamilton.
The “American Experience” Miranda saw in the story of Alexander Hamilton was that of the American Dream. The American Dream is an idea, and like any idea, it has a history behind it. That idea is built on the legacy of ethnic cleansing, and functions as an unquestioned ideology used to silence and shame those who cannot—for any number of reasons I can’t tackle within the confines of this post—access the middle class lifestyle promised by that fantasy of meritocracy.
It is powerful that Miranda expressed the American Dream through a musical genre which is frequently marginalized, appropriated, and held to a content-driven double standard via actors who are part of the populations historically excluded from accessing that dream. However, Hamilton uncritically elevates the myth of the American Dream just as it does that of the Founding Fathers; it doesn’t challenge the narrative of the dream, it just skews the audience’s perception of who embodies that dream
Hamilton presents a vision of America which has no interest in overhauling the narrative, but is instead concerned with creating a space within that narrative where everyone, not just those who look like King George III, can succeed. It’s only a shame that Miranda couldn’t open that narrative up just a tiny bit further.
As of this writing, John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars has sold over one million copies, and holds a place on several bestseller lists. The film adaptation of the book has made over two hundred million dollars in the domestic and foreign market. The book and the movie tell the story of two terminally ill American teenagers, and both contain a scene where the protagonists, Hazel and Augustus, share a kiss in the Anne Frank House. John Green made the following statement regarding the scene:
“Anne Frank was a pretty good example of a young person who ended up having the kind of heroic arc that Augustus wants—she was remembered and she left this mark that he thinks is valuable—but when he has to confront her death, he has to confront the reality that really she was robbed of the opportunity to live or die for something. She just died of illness like most people. And so I wanted him to go with a sort of expectation of her heroism and be sort of dashed.”
Here, Green makes it clear that he reads Anne Frank’s death as being from an illness like “most people,” like his protagonist. In doing so, he erases the circumstances under which she contracted typhus. “Most people” are not Ashkenazic Jewish teenage girls who contracted typhus in a concentration camp during the Holocaust. This fundamental erasure of the context of her death allowed him, those involved in the cinematic adaptation, and yes, a large portion of his readership, to accept the use of Anne Frank and her death as a prop in this American YA love story. Indeed, when further called on the issue, Green stated:
“I’ve been getting this question a lot. I can’t speak for the movie, obviously, as I didn’t make it, but as for the book: The Fault in Our Stars was the first non-documentary feature film to be granted access to the Anne Frank House precisely because the House’s board of directors and curators liked that scene in the novel a great deal. (A spokesperson recently said, ‘In the book it is a moving and sensitively handled scene.’) Abraham H. Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League and a Holocaust survivor, had this to say: ‘The kissing scene in ‘The Fault in Our Stars’ in the annex of the Anne Frank House is not offensive or against who Anne Frank was. What Anne communicated in her diary was hope. She celebrated life and she celebrated hope.’ Obviously, the Anne Frank House and the ADL do not have a monopoly on Anne’s life or her legacy, but their opinions are important to me.”
I take issue with this response. Here, Green is divesting himself of responsibility for the scene, and communicating to his critics that he is not to blame, because the Anne Frank House board of directors, curators, and a Holocaust survivor approved of it. In other words, he is drawing these peoples’ assumed authority to silence criticism, and to avoid taking responsibility for the filmed version of a scene he created.
The Anne Frank House, for all the wonderful work it does, is a museum. Like all museums, it must work to attract and reach out to potential patrons. In other words, museums have to advertise because they require patrons and revenues to exist. Therefore, I read the official approval of the Anne Frank House simply as a targeted attempt to reach out to and attract a pool of untapped, younger patrons. They chose to support the filming of a sympathetic romantic scene about terminally ill teenagers in their institution to reach out to young people. While that is a sound business decision, I would argue that it’s hardly an ethical one for the Anne Frank House, an institution devoted, as per their website, to:
“the preservation of the place where Anne Frank went into hiding during the Second World War, and to bringing the life story of Anne Frank to the attention of as many people as possible worldwide with the aim of raising awareness of the dangers of anti-Semitism, racism and discrimination and the importance of freedom, equal rights and democracy,”
to support the filming of this scene. For, in Green’s own words, that scene had nothing to do with the context of Anne Frank’s death, and therefore, it did nothing to bring Anne Frank’s story to life. And it hardly raises awareness of contemporary European anti-Semitism.
As for the ADL, I very much agree with Mr. Foxman’s assessment of Anne Frank. However, what she celebrated in her life and her writings have little to do with what she has come to mean in within public memory of the Holocaust of European Jewry. Her narrative has been used by nations and educational systems to the extent that for many, she is the Holocaust; she is the face of the Holocaust. But what we inherit from her isn’t the experience of the Holocaust. That experience and her death at Bergen Belsen take place outside the pages of her diary. Readers are never forced to experience the Holocaust through her eyes; they are able to embrace the tragedy of the Holocaust through her story while remaining removed from its experiential realities. Thus, Anne Frank becomes the Holocaust without forcing anyone to experience it. Her name can be invoked to summon tragedy, without forcing anyone to feel it.
While Anne Frank may be the face of the Holocaust of European Jewry, the memory of the experiential reality of the Holocaust is male. The way we conceptualize and remember the concentration camp experience is constructed by male narratives. More Jewish men survived the Holocaust than Jewish women. Due to attitudes towards education in the interwar period, more male Jewish survivors had the education and literary capital needed to craft enduring narratives of their experiences than did female Jewish survivors. There are three foundational male Holocaust survival narratives: Night by Elie Wiesel, Survival in Auschwitz by Primo Levi, and Maus by Art Spiegelman about his father’s Holocaust experience. Never have I seen those three men and their narratives used as a joke, or a meme, or a cheap narrative device, or as self-promotion by an American pop star.
These men are revered, and their narratives taken extremely seriously. And none of them, none of them have been used in a prop in a story about terminally ill gentile American teenagers. They survived, in perhaps the type of heroic arc a John Green protagonist would yearn for. Yet Augustus doesn’t look to them. He doesn’t share a kiss with his girlfriend at Auschwitz. He shared a kiss with her in the Anne Frank House.
Anne Frank is not a prop. She is not a symbol, she is not a teenager who happened to die of an illness, and she is not one of the canonical Jewish male survivors. She is one of many millions of Jewish women and girls who were industrially murdered like livestock, incinerated, and left in an unmarked grave. That is the story of the Holocaust of European Jewry, and that is the story of the persecution and murder of all Europeans (the disabled, Romani, Irish Travelers, homosexuals, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Communists) who failed to fit into Nazi racial and ideological constructs.
For me, the Tudors were characters before they were historical figures.
There was the young Elizabeth, a victim of her father’s neglect, haunted by the knowledge of her mother’s execution at the hands of her father, taunted by her sister’s cruel remarks about her mother, a victim of her sister’s paranoia and the Seymours’ ambition. There was older Elizabeth, torn between her love for her country and the pressure to marry, besieged by the Spanish, both betrayed by and cruel executioner of her cousin Mary Stuart.
There was Anne Boleyn, the victim of her family’s ambition, of Henry’s desire for a son, the ambitious woman who destroyed Catherine of Aragon’s life and marriage, who bullied a young Mary Tudor and stole away her father. There was Jane Grey, a lone intellectual, the victim of her parents’ ambition, thrust onto a throne she didn’t want, a throne she would die for. And there was Mary Stuart, queen of a throne she barely knew, victim of an education she never received, ambitious plotter for the throne of her cousin, and victim of Elizabeth’s paranoia.
As I grew up, I began to understand that these people were actual historical figures, not characters with whom you could choose a side. But still, there was always a part of me which “sided” with Elizabeth and Anne, because they were the first characters I met in this sub-genre of historical fiction, and the first characters I became attached to (perhaps as a result of a childish form of nascent feminism). I met their fictional constructions before I was old enough or knowledgeable enough to confront their historical realities, and even when I was old enough, it was hard to shake off my attachment to their fictional counterparts.
But now, looking back, the way I related to these “characters” was so similar to how I related to the characters in Harry Potter (I started reading HP and Tudor fiction at around the same age). However, Harry, Ron, Hermione et al, for all their depth, were (are) fictional. Elizabeth and the rest weren’t, aren’t. The Tudors were real, complex, multi-faceted people whose actions had consequences on others, and who had a real effect on the course of history. Elizabeth wasn’t an unlikely hero. She was a brilliant queen who defeated the Spanish, shed more blood than her sister, began the English colonization of North America, embraced a form of religious toleration, and possibly refused to marry as a result of sexual abuse she suffered at the hands of that “ambitious character” Thomas Seymour. And so forth down the line.
Now I must ask: is this dangerous? Is it dangerous to allow the persons of historical figures to be constructed through fiction? Is it dangerous to take a complex human being and construct them into the protagonist or antagonist of an ahistorical narrative? Is it dangerous to mold someone acting within a different moral/ethical context into our own conception of what constitutes right and wrong? Is it dangerous to construct a character with whom people are intended to sympathize or reject while ignoring, or glossing over the parts of their historical persona which do not fit into the fictional one?
As a person who has (and still does) read a LOT of historical fiction (and not just about the Tudors) in her day, who has thought quite seriously about writing historical fiction, and who appreciates the genre as a means by which to get people interested in history, these are uncomfortable questions for me to ask. But the truth of the matter is that historical fiction puts forth versions of historical figures to people who may never have reason to read a history book about that figure and their context. And that, whether I like it or not, is worthy of concern.
From left to right: Jessica Mitford (1917-1996), Nancy Mitford (1904-1973), Diana Mitford (1910-2003), Unity Mitford (1914-1948), and Pamela Mitford (1907-1994); photo taken in 1935.
Deborah Mitford (1920-present); photo taken in 1940.
A few years ago, I learned that JK Rowling probably modeled the characters Bellatrix Lestrange, Narcissa Malfoy, and Andromeda Tonks after three sisters from an aristocratic British family with fascist sympathies: Unity Mitford, Diana Mitford, and Jessica Mitford. The family was described by a contemporary as “nature’s fascists.”
Unity Mitford, the likely inspiration for Bellatrix, was in love with Hitler (who often used her to make Eva Braun jealous), and attempted to kill herself via a gunshot to the head when Britain declared war on Germany. However, she did not die until 1948.
Diana Mitford, the likely inspiration for Narcissa, married Bryan Walter Guinness in 1929, and left him in 1932 for Oswald Mosley–the head of the British Fascist Party. She and Mosley were married in 1936. Diana remained an unrelenting Fascist and anti-Semite until her death in 2003. Interestingly, Diana and Oswald spent most of their post-war life in a wealthy community outside of Paris, and their neighbors were none other than the Duke and Duchess of Windsor: the former King Edward VIII and Wallis Simpson.
Diana and Unity giving the Nazi salute
Jessica Mitford, the likely inspiration for Andromeda and lone Communist of her family, ran away from home in her teens to fight in the Spanish Civil War. She married her Communist second cousin, Esmond Romilly, at the age of 19; Unity once informed Jessica in a letter that, while she would not hesitate to kill Jessica’s Communist husband for the sake of Nazism, she hoped they could still be friends. Jessica and Esmond moved to America in 1939. He died two years later on his way back from a bombing raid over Germany. In 1943, Jessica married Jewish Hungarian civil rights lawyer Robert Treuhaft. She spent the rest of her life as a writer, investigative journalist, and activist. She died in 1996.
Jessica during the Willie McGee campaign
In 2002 JK Rowling stated that “My most influential writer, without a doubt, is Jessica Mitford. When my great-aunt gave me Hons and Rebels when I was 14, she instantly became my heroine. She ran away from home to fight in the Spanish Civil War, taking with her a camera that she had charged to her father’s account. I wished I’d had the nerve to do something like that. I love the way she never outgrew some of her adolescent traits, remaining true to her politics–she she was a self-taught socialist–throughout her life. I think I’ve read everything she wrote. I even called my daughter after her.”
As for the three other Mitford sisters–Nancy, Deborah, and Pamela–Nancy was a prolific writer, close friend of Evelyn Waugh, and the first to cash in on (so to speak) the public fascination with her family. Deborah, the only living Mitford sister, is the Dowager Duchess of Devonshire and has written a dozen non-fiction works. Pamela was, perhaps, the most low-key of the sisters; she married and divorced millionaire scientist Derek Jackson, and spent the later years of her life with Italian horsewoman, Giuditta Tommasi.
Though I only really focused on Jessica, Unity, and Diana and their politics, Pamela was purported to be a massive anti-Semite, and it is likely that the same can be said for Deborah (who once dined with Hitler along with Unity and their mother). There was also a Mitford brother, Thomas, who died in 1945 while stationed in Burma.
The six sisters kept in constant contact via letters, with the exception of Jessica and Diana, whose political views caused a permanent rift between them. They all had nicknames for each other, and Unity’s was “Bobo.” This created situations in which she would conclude letters to her sisters with lines like “All my best love to the boys! Heil Hitler, Love, Bobo.”
In 1939, King George VI broadcast a speech across the British Empire, informing his people of Britain’s entrance into war with Germany. In 2010, this speech was respectfully used to great effect in the climactic scene of The King’s Speech. In 2011, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences thought it would be appropriate to take that speech and use it as a dramatic audio backdrop for their Best Picture montage. A montage full of ballerinas, animated toys, pretty people skipping around with guns, rich white dudes with a lot of feelings, and relationship drama set against the very real backdrop of the outbreak of World War II. Unfortunately, it seems that the Academy has been super anal about ensuring that no copies end up online, so I can’t embed the clip for you.
This was exceedingly disrespectful to every life which was lost or affected or changed by that war, and to every living person who continues to feel its painful legacy. Being a ~millennial~, I turned to facebook to vent my very serious feelings on all of this, only to be told by two separate people that the montage had, in fact, been totally awesome and cool from an artistic perspective and that I was just taking it too seriously and expecting too much from Hollywood and needed to pick my battles.
My thoughts were simply that the legacy of WWII should be taken seriously, and that I could not give less of a crap about ~art~ if the lives of millions are disrespected in the process. Feeling vaguely annoyed and self-righteous following my lost facebook status debate, I first deleted that status because I am an imperfect person who does not like to lose comment debates in public. Then I thought to myself, “I should start a blog where I can bitch about people who use history incorrectly!”
So, welcome. This blog will not be mainly comprised of bitching. Or self-righteous ranting (though those things will probably occur from time to time); I intend to use this blog to address when the media, entertainment industry, politicians, etc use history incorrectly or irresponsibly, to debunk popular, inaccurate historical myths or perceptions of the discipline, and to geek out over random historical things.