One fine day in 1881, in a quiet New Zealand town, a former Methodist minister left his home and family, boarded a ship, and disappeared. That man was my great-great-grandfather, and his fate remained a lingering mystery for several decades. His story is one I have been thinking about as I work on recording our family history – not so much what happened to him, but how his story should be told and who has the right to tell it.
Historians face many ethical questions when writing biographies, and in this blog post I’d like to consider the following one: do individuals have a right to dictate which parts of their life are private even after they are gone? Serena explored how we can create and curate our own image while we are living. But what happens when we have died? Do we get to take our secrets to the grave? Or, once we are buried, do the skeletons in the closet get unearthed?
The quintessential example of this in Canadian history is Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King and his personal diary. King died in 1950, leaving behind a diary that he had written in daily for decades. He directed the executors of his will to “destroy all of my diaries except those parts which I have indicated are and shall be available for publication or use.” King had intended for the parts of his diaries that concerned public affairs to be used by biographers, and for the rest to remain private. But the problem was that he did not specify these sections before his death.
On the one hand, we have King’s desire for privacy. On the other hand, we have an exceptionally rich historical resource that documents how, as Canada’s longest serving prime minister, he steered the country through the Roaring Twenties, part of the Great Depression, and the Second World War. The diaries provide an intimate glimpse into his personal and public life, and a valuable insight into Canadian social and political life.
Ultimately, the executors decided to preserve the complete diary. Not only that, the volumes were made publicly accessible in their entirety. They are available online through Library and Archives Canada (and are even word searchable!).
Countless historians have relied on these documents for their research on Canadian history, expanding the scholarship in this field. That is why it is essential to preserve the most complete historical record possible. There is no denying that the more colourful aspects of King’s character are revealed in his diaries; he is now perhaps as recognizable for his belief in the supernatural as for his political career. But rather than overshadowing his achievements, the diaries provide us with a more complete understanding of King and country.
November 22, 1963. John F. Kennedy greets the public in the presidential motorcade as he heads toward Dealey Plaza and the Texas School Book Depository. As the car turns off of Elm Street, onlookers gathered along the side of the road cheer, clap, and wave to the President and his wife, Jacqueline.
The next few seconds would drastically change the future – and believe it or not, they were caught on film.
The Zapruder film(graphic content) preserves those moments when JFK was fatally shot, and it’s hence been scrutinized closely for decades. Abraham Zapruder was an ordinary U.S. citizen who happened to be in the right place at the right time, unknowingly documenting a tragic event that would go down in history.
You might think there’s nothing of value to gain from watching the murder of a political leader, but in this context that couldn’t be further from the truth. Zapruder wasn’t to know that the U.S. government would seize his short film when the Warren Commission was launched to investigate the assassination – he was merely recording the event for himself, on a Bell & Howell home movie camera.
There are others who filmed the assassination, but I want to focus on Zapruder’s close-range footage for its interpretive value.
I mentioned that viewing the murder was crucial rather than gratuitous – and now I’ll explain why. JFK’s suspected killer, Lee Harvey Oswald, was shot dead by nightclub owner Jack Ruby before he could be extensively questioned or tried for the murder. This turn of events spawned boundless conspiracy theories, including ones in which Oswald was not the shooter, or that government(s) or other third parties were behind the assassination.
Oswald is alleged to have fired the shots from the sixth floor of the Texas School Book Depository. His own whereabouts and location have been intensely analyzed in order to place him at the scene of the crime: the source of the gunshots. To find and prove the source, the Zapruder film is an invaluable piece of evidence.
Analysts and scientists have hypothesized on the trajectory of the bullets entering and exiting President Kennedy’s body. While many have opposing views on their path and therefore their source location, the point is that without Zapruder’s film, the investigation would have relied instead on subjective witness testimony.
However, discrepancies were perceived between witness testimony and the film’s contents. In an editorial for the New York Times in 2007, Max Holland and Johann Rush assert that Zapruder’s film was initially misunderstood because it seemed to show only two of the three shots believed to have been fired:
The majority of witnesses in Dealey Plaza heard three shots fired. Lawmen found three cartridges in Lee Harvey Oswald’s nest … Yet Zapruder’s film captured only two shots clearly. As a result, the film has been scoured for evidence of another shot, presumably the first one fired at the president. Research has yielded contradictory findings.
But what if Zapruder simply hadn’t turned on his camera in time?
Holland and Rush state that Zapruder commenced filming but turned off his camera when waiting for the President’s limousine to come into view. They suggest that he didn’t turn it back on again until after Oswald had fired his first shot. Viewing the film as incomplete therefore answers a question that loomed large over the Warren Commission investigation: why did Oswald miss the closest shot but prove such an accurate sniper in the two shots following (at 190 and 265 ft. respectively)?
“About the time the car got near the black and white sign, I heard a shot,” a key witness, Amos L. Euins, had said. Holland and Rush argue that it was the sign itself that blocked Oswald’s view of Kennedy. Sure enough, in watching the Zapruder film we lack the first shot but see the next two – after the President passes near a large sign. Startlingly, of the three shots fired, Zapruder managed to document the two that found their target.
The film, we realize, does not depict an assassination about to commence. It shows one that had already started.
The Zapruder film is central to the historical record of Kennedy’s assassination, as is careful analysis. The angles from which one can interpret the film prove that despite its overwhelming value to those trying to understand the event, it provides only a limited (though crucially significant) slice of what happened that day, contingent on a man’s choices of when to record … and his inability to know what was about to happen.
With the release of the newest Harry Potter film, Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald, wetake another look at representation in author J.K. Rowling’s works in this installment of the Critiquing Harry Potter series.
“Strong women” is a phrase we hear a lot, especially regarding film and literature. The desire to see strong women in entertainment (and the misunderstanding of what a “strong” woman actually is) sets up unrealistic standards for female characters and their real-life counterparts. Irrespective of these confining notions, empathy and vulnerability are traits that make women strong, not weak. A profound emotional complexity encapsulates what it means to be human, to live, and to persevere through adversity.
J.K. Rowling has promoted female complexity to an extent through Harry Potter characters such as Hermione Granger, Ginny Weasley, Nymphadora Tonks, Luna Lovegood, Cho Chang, Fleur Delacour, Angelina Johnson, Minerva McGonagall, Lily Evans, Molly Weasley, Narcissa Malfoy, Bellatrix Lestrange, and even Lavender Brown, all of whom have diverse personal attributes that make them uniquely human. Some are leaders, some are learners, some warriors, and some nurturers, but all of them feel. So do men, of course – yet male emotion is sadly suppressed as weakness in our society.
Critically examining all aspects of Fantastic Beasts would take days, so keep in mind that I’ve tried to confine the scope of my analysis to gender here. Given that J.K. Rowling is a woman writing in the 21st century (though her latest story is set in the 20th), I’d expected her to feature a female lead this time around. Despite the many complex female characters in the Harry Potter books, Rowling never struck me as going all the way to give women full representation. The majority of the major characters are men, after all, and the few women who are given significant roles are almost all white. In today’s political climate, the time is ripe to focus on feminism and gender equality. Some might argue that it’s Rowling’s responsibility as an influential woman to present more female role models, and I won’t even get started on non-binary characters because that evidently seems too much for Rowling to consider. Ezra Miller, who is a queer actor, does play Credence Barebone in Fantastic Beasts, but Credence is referred to as male in the films – we don’t have any evidence that Rowling understands or wants to include the lived experience of genderqueer individuals. Instead, Rowling safely elected to feature Newt Scamander, widely acclaimed Magizoologist – and a dude.
If the secondary characters were all female it might be less of an affront that Rowling went with a story about another man, but I can’t really defend her there. Just like Harry, Ron, and Hermione, Newt is surrounded by other male leads. In The Crimes of Grindelwald specifically, we have No-Maj (Muggle) Jacob, Newt’s brother Theseus, Credence, and then the big ol’ showdown between future Hogwarts Headmaster Albus Dumbledore and European powerhouse tyrant Gellert Grindelwald, the darkest wizard on the world stage before Lord Voldemort’s time. As you can see, lots of testosterone floating around.
Of course, the Goldstein sisters Tina and Queenie figure into the storyline, this time alongside Leta Lestrange and *SPOILER ALERT* Nagini (to whom I’ll probably devote a whole other post in the future). It’s not that the women are there, however, that checks the proverbial box of so-called gender parity; as I argued in my article on ethnicity, it’s what they do that matters. In the first Fantastic Beasts film, Newt and Jacob were the top-billed characters in the plotline, with Tina and Queenie playing supporting roles. Likewise, we know that the Dumbledore-Grindelwald relationship takes centre stage now. J.K. Rowling could just as easily have chosen a witch to work with Dumbledore for this spinoff series, but she didn’t, and men are still at the centre of the action. It strikes me as a bit disingenuous for a self-declared progressive female author, but I suppose our society influences our implicit expectations. All I can say without spoiling the film is that our girls Tina, Queenie, and Leta’s storylines heavily feature men and aren’t explored as in-depth as I would like.
There’s one possible upside apart from Newt’s own emotional vulnerability: Dumbledore and Grindelwald’s confrontation and the unravelling of their past. Such an interplay could do much to highlight LGBTQ2+ representation and men’s emotional depth if it’s properly explored. It is a shame that the only gay relationship we may see is an abusive and manipulative one, but nevertheless, this franchise will be very telling as to whether J.K. Rowling truly believes in diverse representation or is just trying to ride the wave.
So far she’s demonstrated a shocking hesitancy to give female, non-binary, or trans individuals representation, and I doubt we can expect anything that doesn’t feature a male lead from her soon.* For now, even as far as women – complex, wonderful, and important as they are – are concerned, I’m not convinced Rowling’s in it for the long haul. If she is, I’d like to see more action and agency from her non-male characters front and centre.
After all, actions speak louder than words, and Rowling’s approach to gender isn’t quite loud enough for me.
*Just take a look at her Cormoran Strike novels under the penname Robert Galbraith, which also feature a male character.
Trying in dismay to ignore the declining number of poppies I’ve seen on people’s lapels this year (all of theirs probably just fell off, right?), I of course wanted to pay tribute to our fallen soldiers, surviving veterans, and all those affected by war ahead of Remembrance Day.
And what better way to do so on a literary/historical blog than to revisit the famed rondeau poem In Flanders Fields (1915) by Canada’s very own John McCrae?
From an interpretive perspective, the strength of the poem lies in its profound ability to foster empathy. Most of us probably haven’t been in the trenches or known what it’s like to fight in a thankless conflict while watching countless friends die. Those of us who haven’t are extremely lucky – yet In Flanders Fields paints such a visceral picture of sacrifice that we get an almost firsthand glimpse of the devastation.
In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.
We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.
Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.
It is hard to believe that McCrae, a physician and Lieutenant-Colonel during World War I, was dissatisfied with his work and discarded it. He had to be convinced to submit the poem for publication. Yet he uses swift imagery to conjure a painstakingly forlorn scene of war and death, having written it after performing the funeral service for a fellow soldier and close friend, Alexis Helmer. No matter where we read this, we’re hit as though standing there in Belgium: poppies blowing in the wind on the burial site; guns booming in the distance; the keen sting of love and life, all extinguished by the horrors of war.
I will freely admit that it’s almost impossible for me to read the poem without tearing up. What’s more, it has also been set to music, and the sombre melody combined with McCrae’s stark verse is even more emotional. I always cry when they sing it during the Canadian Remembrance Day ceremony in Ottawa, and I probably always will, because McCrae delivers empathy right to our doorstep. That is, of course the best storytelling – that which makes us feel things.
McCrae’s use of caesura in the second stanza, a halt with punctuation in the middle of a line, drives the point home: We are the Dead. Short days ago we lived … The dead speak to us in the poem, and we are accountable to them to live with honour and integrity as they no longer can. Those feelings of sadness are so well-preserved in the poem that they don’t dull down with time. Every reread reopens the wound – but justly so.
Yes, it’s painful to grieve, but it is necessary. Remembrance Day is an ongoing process of empathy and an enduring resolution to defend honour. That is, after all, why we wear the poppy every year. It’s a symbol of our commitment, gratitude, and respect. Perhaps in remembering the contributions of our fellow citizens, whether by sacrificing their lives or through tireless and laborious efforts, we’ll also be wary of the sorrow that accompanies war and conflict. Lest we forget.
Have you ever felt inclined to revel in the past but found that it just hurt too much?
Last night, The Wizard of Oz (1939) was on TV and I felt instinctively drawn to it. Why? Because TheWizard of Oz was my favourite film as a kid, from when I was about three or four. It’ll always have very strong sentimental value and I’ll always feel quite attached to it. It’s also an excellent film for its time, a cinematic masterpiece that makes a big impact even now.
But when I tried to watch the film yesterday (admittedly after a very long and trying day), I almost physically couldn’t handle it. Instantly, I found myself on the verge of tears, regardless of what was happening in the story at any given time. (For the record, it was the part in which the Scarecrow (Ray Bolger), Tin Man (Jack Haley), and Cowardly Lion (Bert Lahr) infiltrate the witch’s fortress trying to rescue Dorothy (Judy Garland). Dorothy was calling for her Auntie Em in the crystal ball as the hourglass trickled down, and I was done for.) I felt that familiar clenching in my chest that strikes when I feel intense nostalgia (or interestingly, when I feel anxious). But this pain seems the most potent when I’m thinking about good days gone by, and how far removed I am from them now.
My childhood is a safe haven which in times of difficulty I sometimes crave. While I won’t be short-sighted enough to assume this is the case for everyone, I want to examine nostalgia as a common element of the human experience, whether it’s for one’s childhood or a different time in one’s life.
Why couldn’t I watch the film without experiencing physical and emotional pain? Because nostalgia is so powerful that we feel victim to it, and any past emotions we felt are felt again – this time accompanied by loss. We’re not in that moment anymore and we can never be again. We’ve learned in The Great Gatsby (1925) that “you can’t repeat the past”, and trying to recreate it can cause intense suffering. But nostalgia gives us so much deeply rooted longing that we’re often gripped by it unexpectedly.
One of my favourite TV series, Mad Men, uses the concept of nostalgia to great advantage in the final episode of its first season. When Don Draper makes an advertising pitch for the newly patented Kodak carousel slide projector, he delivers a presentation so moving that one of his colleagues runs from the room in tears.
Nostalgia – it’s delicate, but potent. Teddy told me that in Greek, “nostalgia” literally means “the pain from an old wound.” It’s a twinge in your heart far more powerful than memory alone … it takes us to a place where we ache to go again.
Mad Men 1.13, “The Wheel” (2007)
Knowing that nostalgia is supposed to hurt may not mitigate our tumultuous experience, but it can offer some shared comfort as we all navigate the inevitable passage of time.
The question is, do we choose to brave the pain and relive our wonderful memories, or do we stuff them away to avoid the emotional turmoil? The second option is arguably worse for emotional health in the long run – though it’s admittedly hard to look back on a golden age from a new and learned perspective.
But then again, aren’t our good memories worth it?