History hangs heavy in the air here in Hollywood, now that the smog is pretty much gone. We cleaned that up in the eighties, but there’s no cleaning up the curious past. Every corner has a story, and there’s the old Knickerbocker Hotel a few feet north of Hollywood Boulevard, on Ivar Avenue. That opened in June 1929, and on Halloween night, 1936, Harry Houdini’s widow held her tenth séance to contact long-dead her Harry, right there on the roof of that hotel. On January 13, 1943, Frances Farmer was arrested in her room at the hotel after failing to visit her probation officer when scheduled, and she ended locked up in a mental ward for the rest of her life. Marilyn Monroe and Joe DiMaggio used to meet in the hotel bar, and Elvis Presley stayed in Room 1016 in 1956, when he was out here making his first film, Love Me Tender. William Frawley – the pleasant actor who played Fred Mertz, Lucy’s next door neighbor – lived at the Knickerbocker for years and years, and died on the sidewalk out front. It’s a curious place, and on July 23, 1948, the man who practically invented the way movies would always be made, died of a cerebral hemorrhage on the way to a local hospital, after being discovered unconscious in his room at the Knickerbocker. That would be D. W. Griffith of course. In 1999, a plaque honoring Griffith was placed in the lobby, but now the Knickerbocker is a low-end retirement home, catering solely to the local Russian community. No one there reads the plaque, or can.
That’s too bad. Griffith invented how to tell stories on film – the close-up and the long-shot and medium shots, edited carefully together with quick-cuts or dissolves at just the right time – and his masterwork was released exactly one hundred years ago – The Birth of a Nation – released on February 8, 1915, and presented in two parts separated by an intermission, because this was the first twelve-reel film.
No one had ever tried anything that ambitious before – and it was a racist masterpiece. It was based on the novel and play The Clansman by Thomas Dixon. The Ku Klux Klan guys were the good guys. There were a lot of protests and the NAACP mounted a campaign to ban the film, which didn’t work and only pissed off Griffith. The next year he came up with Intolerance – throughout history everyone is always picking on creative people and all that. The white man, born in Kentucky, was being defiant, and that was a real spectacle. But the acre where Griffith built the massive Babylon set for that extravaganza, at Sunset and Vermont, is now a giant Vons supermarket with an acre of parking, on black asphalt. There’s no plaque. Few remember Intolerance. They remember Birth of a Nation, the movie that inspired the formation of the “second era” Ku Klux Klan (new and improved) at Stone Mountain down in Georgia that same year, the movie that was used as a recruiting tool for the Klan.
That was one hundred years ago. History may hang heavy in the air here in Hollywood, but because of this film, history hangs heavy everywhere. The New Yorker’s Jelani Cobb explains that:
In January, 1915, as the Great War raged in Europe and a fraught American public feared its domestic implications, a small group gathered in a Riverside, California, theater for what might best be described as an art experiment. It was the first screening of a film titled “The Clansman,” made by an actor turned director named David Wark Griffith, and it floored the audience that night. Three weeks later, the National Board of Censorship of Motion Pictures met in New York City and approved the film for showing. In light of the effect that the film had, even in its earliest showings, the director opted to change the film’s title to one more befitting its true ambitions: “Birth of a Nation.”
Griffith had his agenda:
A century after its première, “Birth of a Nation” tends to be seen as a cornerstone of technical achievement tethered to the abominable racialist thinking of the era in which it was produced. It tells the tale of the Stonemans and the Camerons, two families divided by regional animus after the Civil War but ultimately united by the threat posed by emancipated blacks. Delivered on the fiftieth anniversary of the end of the Civil War, the power of the film lay not only in Griffith’s effectively inventing cinematography but also in the metaphorical reconciliation its protagonists, offered to a nation still deeply scarred by fratricidal conflict. We think less about its prescience. “Birth of a Nation” envisioned a United States where common racial identity trumped regional affiliation, at least among white people.
There is the context too:
The war in Europe simultaneously choked off the supply of immigrant labor that had transformed American demographics in the preceding three decades and inspired black migration out of the South and into the labor markets of northern and Midwestern cities. Billie Holiday’s classic protest song decried Southern trees that bore strange fruit, but by the twentieth century they had spread far beyond the former Confederacy. Lynchings took place in Oklahoma, Illinois, and California. The Ku Klux Klan, all but resurrected by Griffith’s heroic depiction in his film, developed strongholds in Michigan and Indiana, and northern race riots pockmarked the period immediately following the First World War.
So this was nationalizing the experience of the South:
Historians of the American South have long noted that the region departs from national history in one crucial way: Southerners understood the bitterness of military defeat and vanquished ambition a century before the Vietnam quagmire introduced the rest of the nation to the limits of its power. That legacy of grievance was most profoundly, though by no means solely, articulated by Griffith’s film. Contemporary historians were just as eager to sign on to a version of the past in which the primary victims of the Civil War, and certainly of Reconstruction, were white Southerners.
Robert E. Lee’s surrender, at Appomattox Court House on April 9, 1865 – a hundred and fifty years ago today – was the moment Ulysses S. Grant secured victory for the Union, and also the point at which the very causes and origins of the conflict were recast. Almost immediately afterward, Southerners found it possible to understand themselves as doubly victimized – first by federal tyranny and then by the criminal menace of black supremacy. Griffith played a cameo role in this drama of inverted victimization. …
Already, the resurgent Klan had adapted the fiery cross – a dramatic novelty that Griffith deployed in the film – as part of its official symbolism.
Whatever Griffith was up to, it was working, and as for his next film, Intolerance, Cobb offers this:
It is actually a brief in his own self-defense, a visual metaphor in which his critics, not his racialist acolytes, are in need of a lesson in tolerance. Add to his technical innovations Griffith’s standing as a pioneer in the art of branding victims of racism as the real bigots.
And we were off and running:
In the abstract, these are complicated questions – even many NAACP members felt conflicted about the extent to which freedom of expression should be curtailed to achieve racial egalitarianism. The counterargument is that free speech doesn’t exist in a vacuum, and that propaganda has tangible effects, particularly when it serves to reinforce social relationships that are already inherently violent. The modern debate about the surfeit of violence in American cinema and its societal effects is, in that regard, heir to the battles that surrounded the release of “Birth of a Nation.”
That would mean Griffith is more important that anyone realizes:
The South is recognized as the crucible of the civil-rights struggles of the twentieth century, but strains of Griffith’s version of white reconciliation have animated everything from the riotous resentment of school busing in northern cities in the nineteen-seventies to the inchoate demands to “take the country back” that have echoed through Barack Obama’s Presidency.
D. W. Griffith was the master storyteller, and we’re still telling his story, one hundred years later, and yes, Robert E. Lee’s surrender at Appomattox Court House on April 9, 1865, was a hundred and fifty years ago today, and we may still be telling that story too. James C. Cobb, the Spalding Distinguished Professor of History at the University of Georgia and a former president of the Southern Historical Association, explains the Appomattox story:
Confederate leaders may have believed they had built a unified nation in 1861, when they framed a new government and sent their troops off to war with hearty assurances of a quick and glorious victory. Amid the centennial observance of those events, however, Robert Penn Warren suggested that this judgement would have been premature; a sense of common southern identity had not actually been “born” at the beginning of the Civil War, but at the end, on April 9, 1865, when “Lee handed Grant his sword” at Appomattox. Indeed, many early enlistees had vowed to fight only “in defense of Virginia” or “my home state,” and some even restricted their allegiances to “the loved ones who call upon me to defend their homes from pillage.”
The challenge of instilling South-wide loyalties loomed even more daunting because Confederate identity would have to be constructed on the fly. Delegates who gathered in Montgomery in early February 1861 managed to draw up the constitutional and governing framework of the Confederate States of America in only five weeks. Scarcely five weeks later their brand new nation-state was plunged into a war that many of them had persuaded their constituents – and perhaps even themselves – would never come.
Reluctant to acknowledge the hard truth of their own Vice-President Alexander Stephens’ declaration that slavery was the fundamental “cornerstone” of their new nation’s existence, Confederate propagandists could devise no more compelling raison d’être than the explanation that, rather than actually repudiating the Union, they were seeking simply to resurrect its founding principles of state sovereignty and federal restraint. Thus, the Confederacy’s identity would be assembled largely from recycled components, appropriated from the nation its people had just abandoned and would soon be fighting. The first was a constitution that basically replicated the one that, as citizens of United States, the Confederates had once sworn to honor and protect.
The whole thing was quite odd:
Although secessionist firebrands like Henry Lewis Benning had led their fellow southerners out of the Union under the banner of “state rights,” their new government was actually no more a decentralized “confederacy” than their old one, but rather the “consolidated Republic” dominated by slaveholders that Benning had envisioned from the start. Even early on, when the military effort was going well, the exigencies of wartime demanded centralized control of production and distribution, leading quickly to complaints over shortages, inefficiency and corruption that would grow increasingly strident as the tide of war turned.
They may not have had that loose confederacy of states after all, but they had their flag, and that would have to do:
From the first, the outmanned but valiant and resilient Confederate fighting men commanded the popular loyalty that the Confederate government had failed to inspire. This transfer of allegiance came through in the common habit of displaying not the national flag, but the starred St. Andrews Cross that had supplanted it on the battlefield, where, General P. G. T. Beauregard noted, it had been “consecrated by the best blood of our country.” Notably, this flag conveyed a sense of commitment to military success, but not to the unpopular government.
Now that flag is everything:
Within days of Lee’s surrender, poet-priest Father Abram Ryan immortalized that now “Conquered Banner,” which, though furled at Appomattox, was both “wreathed around with glory” and destined to “live on in song and story.” Ryan’s weepy ode would be pressed into service repeatedly in the years to come in order to rally white southerners yet again to the defense of their racial institutions. This time, however, instead of the decidedly parochial, localist constituency that had confronted them in 1861, post-bellum southern nationalists could draw on a more regionalized mindset. Its roots lay in the experience of men who had not only fought shoulder-to-shoulder with comrades drawn from distant states, but who had also in many cases traversed a vast geographical area, inhabited by people whose lives and values seemed strikingly similar to their own. These men and their descendants, noted W. J. Cash in his 1941 classic, Mind of the South, were now more likely to respond to the word “southern” with an emotion once reserved solely for “Virginia, or Carolina, or Georgia.”
Cobb argues that that defeat, not victory, is what unified the South, and what actually created the South, as a concept, and David Blight, a professor of American History at Yale, argues that the war isn’t even over:
The Reconstruction era, stretching from 1865 to 1877, was one long referendum on the meaning and memory of the verdicts reached at Appomattox. Differing visions of America’s future were at stake. Well before the war ended, Lincoln proposed a plan of Reconstruction that would be rapid and relatively lenient to former Confederates, and which would include at least the beginnings of black voting rights. Lincoln greatly feared recurrent guerrilla warfare and hoped to keep Reconstruction policy firmly under presidential authority. Hence, his attempts to create new southern state governments with as few as 10 percent of their “loyal” citizens taking oaths to the United States, drafting new constitutions, and then gaining readmission to the Union under executive power. But even before his death, Lincoln faced strong opposition from the “Radicals” in his own Republican party, led by Charles Sumner in the Senate and Thaddeus Stevens in the House of Representatives. The Radicals fashioned a very different vision of Reconstruction – harsher, longer, and under Congressional control. They treated the ex-Confederate states as “conquered provinces” legitimately taken in war; no state would therefore be readmitted to the Union without federal military occupation, a majority of white voters taking loyalty oaths, and much broader guarantees of black civil and political rights.
Neither Lincoln nor the Radicals, though, conducted treason trials for any ex-Confederates in the wake of this civil war, though millions had indeed committed such offenses by any legal definition. Confederate President Jefferson Davis fled southward after the fall of Richmond in early April, 1865, and after a desperate flight with a small band of aides and cabinet officials, was captured by Union troops near Irwinsville, Georgia on May 10. Davis was imprisoned for two years at Fortress Monroe, Virginia, but he had never been formally indicted or tried, and political pressure eventually led to the Confederate leader’s release on bail, paid largely by wealthy Northerners, in April, 1867. Davis was stripped of his citizenship and could never again hold office, but he lived until 1889, an increasingly public symbol of the Confederate Lost Cause. In a nearly 1200-page memoir, he argued bitterly for the vindication of states’ rights doctrines, for the right of secession, and that the South had never fought to preserve slavery or white supremacy. He also portrayed both systems as wholly justified and natural.
The vindication of states’ rights doctrines, for the right of secession, and that the South had never fought to preserve slavery or white supremacy? Jefferson Davis is on Fox News every evening, one hundred and fifty years later:
As Lincoln implied in his brief address at the Gettysburg cemetery in November, 1863, beginning with “fourscore and seven,” the Civil War, the outcome of which was still far from determined, necessitated a new founding, a re-definition of the United States as a “nation.” Martin Luther King was arguing precisely the same thing for his own era as he delivered the Gettysburg Address of the twentieth century. The civil-rights revolution heralded yet another re-founding, rooted this time more fully in the principle of racial and human equality. King did not reach his “dream” metaphor until the fourteenth minute of a seventeen-minute speech. But in those magnificent moments in the hot summer breeze along the Washington DC mall, King’s rhetoric broke down the segregated gravitational pulls of the two planets – civil rights and Civil War – and brought them into the same orbit. Befitting his role, however, as the leader of a radical, if non-violent protest movement, King’s arguments were hardly mainstream arguments in the Cold War American political culture of 1963. But some of the barriers, at least, around that century-old stream were breaking down.
Much has changed in the fifty years since the crises of 1963 – in law, in schooling, in scholarship, in race relations. But whatever the engines of history actually are, what seems apparent is that the legacies of the American Civil War have tended to subside and reemerge in a never-ending succession of revolutions and counter-revolutions. Indeed, the presidency of Barack Obama might be seen as a robust new chapter in this story. A significant segment of American society hates the President and cannot seem to abide a black family living in the White House.
These things happen:
American society seems to surge forward one moment, and then in the next sink back into polarization over race and ethnicity, over the advent of the nation’s first black president, over the rights of immigrants, over religious tolerance and birthright citizenship, over reproductive freedom, over the use of basic science to understand climate change, over the extent and protection of voting rights, over civil rights based on sexual preference, and over endless and incompatible claims of “liberty” about the possession and use of firearms, taxation, environmental protection, or the right to health insurance. Perhaps above all, America is a society riven by conflict over federalism, the never-ending debate over the proper relation of federal to state power, perhaps the most lasting a legacy of what many nineteenth century Americans called the “secession war” or simply “the rebellion.” In short, despite enormous changes of heart, head and law, Americans still struggle every day to discern and enact that society of equality that the Civil War at least made imaginable.
So we are where we are:
In 1860 and 1861, some Southerners exercised “state sovereignty” as an act of revolution in the interest, as they said over and over themselves, of preserving a racial order founded on slavery. Today, states’ rights claims are advanced by many governors, legislatures, and presidential candidates in the ubiquitous language of “limited government,” or resistance to “big government.” Every now and then, though, these claims are couched in the rhetoric of “secession” or even “nullification” made so infamous during the Civil War era. More often, such claims have manifested in a new Orwellian language etched into laws to protect the “right to work,” or “religious freedom,” or the “integrity of the ballot.” …
History never stops, and although it is an ancient human utopian dream to live above and beyond it, or to ideologically control its pace, only fools think they can turn off its gears. Past and present are always utterly interdependent.
Yes, history never stops. There are just road markers – one hundred and fifty years ago, the end of the Civil War, maybe, and one hundred years ago, the D. W. Griffith movie that let everyone know that the Civil War certainly wasn’t over. Hell, Harry Houdini’s widow is probably still up on the roof of the Knickerbocker Hotel just down the street, holding another séance to contact long-dead Harry. She’ll probably get D. W. Griffith instead. He’s still hanging around. Everyone is still hanging around. History does hang heavy in the air. There’s no escaping it.