The following article appeared in today’s edition of the New York Times:
Civil War Fires Up Literary Shootout
By MICHAEL CIEPLY
Published: July 29, 2009
LOS ANGELES — History repeats itself. But sometimes it needs a little polishing up from Hollywood.
Over the last few weeks, the writers of a pair of Civil War-era histories about the anti-Confederate inhabitants of Jones County, Miss., have been trading barbs in an unusual public spat. It began when the author of one book, rights to which had been sold to Universal Pictures and the filmmaker Gary Ross, discovered that Mr. Ross had spurred the publication of a new and somewhat sexier work on the same subject.
The encounter has created unexpected bad blood over incidents that occurred — or not — more than 100 years ago. And it offers a glimpse of the way that show business and its values have become entwined with the academic book world and its decision-making process.
On June 23 Doubleday published “The State of Jones: The Small Southern County That Seceded From the Confederacy,” a narrative history by the Harvard scholar John Stauffer and the Washington Post writer Sally Jenkins. The book, which on Monday was ranked No. 83 on Amazon’s best-seller list, presented Newton Knight, the leader of the renegade county, as a morally driven hero in the mold of John Brown — but whose appeal was enhanced by his romance with an ex-slave who, in the book’s account, became the love of his life as relations with his white wife cooled.
In the book’s acknowledgments, the authors thanked Mr. Ross, who they said had brought the idea to their editor, Phyllis Grann at Doubleday, and whose screenplay had served as “our impetus and our inspiration.”
This all came as a surprise to Victoria Bynum, a history professor at Texas State University, San Marcos. Her own book on the subject —“The Free State of Jones: Mississippi’s Longest Civil War” — had been published eight years earlier by the University of North Carolina Press, which sold the film rights to Universal as material for Mr. Ross’s project in 2007.
On June 27 Ms. Bynum got a copy of the new book. The next day, in an e-mail message to academic friends and colleagues at universities across the country, she wrote: “I am appalled at the manner in which these authors have written what is touted as a scholarly work. I am also deeply hurt by the manner in which they have appropriated, then denigrated, my work.”
In a three-part review posted on the Renegade South blog, renegadesouth.wordpress.com, Ms. Bynum lit into the Doubleday book. She particularly objected to what she saw as the new book’s tendency to romanticize Mr. Knight and his love life, its insistence on the idea that Jones County actually seceded and its attempt to place Mr. Knight at the Battle of Vicksburg — touches that do not hurt the story’s cinematic potential.
“If they had said this was a historical novel, I could understand it,” Ms. Bynum said in a telephone interview this week, referring specifically to the portrayal of Mr. Knight’s relationship with his mistress, Rachel Knight. Ms. Bynum, in her review, pointed to evidence that what she called Mr. Knight’s “philandering” also led him to father four or more children by Rachel’s own daughter.
Mr. Stauffer and Ms. Jenkins struck back. In a detailed defense of their research, also posted on Renegade South, they concluded that “Bynum sees scholarship as a form of turf warfare, with only one valid interpretation of the past, which effectively renders history useless.”
Speaking by phone this week, Ms. Jenkins strongly challenged any notion that she and Mr. Stauffer had written their narrative to match the beats of a screenplay that was already written by Mr. Ross, based on extensive research by himself, Mr. Stauffer and others.
“That the genesis of the book was a Gary Ross movie project shouldn’t disqualify it as history,” Ms. Jenkins said.
Speaking separately, Mr. Stauffer said his job from the beginning had been to keep the screenplay as real as possible. “Gary wanted the story for the screenplay to be grounded in the past,” said Mr. Stauffer, who has also written books on abolitionists and a twin biography of Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln. “Even though the screenplay is fiction, does it ring true to the past?” he said of his mission.
Ms. Bynum did not claim plagiarism, as her work was openly cited in the book by Ms. Jenkins and Mr. Stauffer, but criticized only the way that it had been used. Still, the new history’s origins were unconventional, even in an era when Hollywood producers and screenwriters routinely gin up a graphic novel or write a piece of fiction as bait for a planned script. (The producer Lionel Wigram joined with the artist John Watkiss in creating a Sherlock Holmes comic that laid groundwork for the “Sherlock Holmes” film due from Warner Brothers on Christmas Day, with Robert Downey Jr. in the lead.)
David Paletz, a professor of political science at Duke University, pointed out that run-ins between Hollywood and the academy are nothing new. In “The Bad and the Beautiful,” a melodrama about the film world released in 1953, one of the lead characters, played by Dick Powell, was a college professor who found trouble when he tried to adapt his own hit book for the screen.
What has changed, Mr. Paletz said, is that the Internet has made the current dispute instantly public. “Without the Internet, where does she go?” Mr. Paletz said of Ms. Bynum and her objections. “Maybe she writes a letter to a historical journal.”
According to Mr. Ross, who spoke by phone this week, “The State of Jones” was actually born from lunch-time table talk between Ms. Grann, the editor, and Kathleen Kennedy, a producer with whom Mr. Ross had worked on “Seabiscuit,” which he wrote, directed and helped to produce in 2003.
By Mr. Ross’s account, Ms. Kennedy told Ms. Grann of his plans for Newton Knight, around whom he was trying to build a movie even before he acquired Ms. Bynum’s book in a deal with two less-seasoned producers, Bruce Nachbar and T. G. Herrington, who had already optioned it for film.
Ms. Grann saw potential for a more popular book in all the work that had already been done for the script. So Mr. Stauffer, one of several scholars with whom Mr. Ross had been in touch, wrote the proposal and offered to add Mr. Ross’s name to the project as a co-author, Mr. Ross said.
Mr. Ross declined. Ms. Grann then recruited Ms. Jenkins, a writer with whom she had worked in the past — and whose book about Lance Armstrong, “It’s Not About the Bike,” is being adapted for the screen by Ms. Kennedy and her producing partner Frank Marshall, with script work by Mr. Ross.
So “The State of Jones” was born with a near-perfect Hollywood pedigree — though no one is prepared to shoot the movie. Hollywood has been wary of period dramas since pictures like Universal’s “Frost/Nixon” and the Paramount film “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” did better on the awards circuit than at the box office last year.
(Oddly enough, Universal has already made a version of this story: Its “Tap Roots,” released in 1948, included a fictionalized account of the events in Jones County.)
A Doubleday spokesman, Todd Doughty, said Ms. Grann was on vacation and not available for an interview.
“Why wouldn’t I want another book written about Newt Knight, especially a potentially popular one?” Mr. Ross, who holds film rights to the new book, said of the go-round. “Why would I discourage that?”
At the moment, Mr. Ross is working on the script for “Spider-Man 4.” But he would like to get back to Mr. Knight.
“I hope and I pray the time comes again when people can make serious period movies in Hollywood,” he said.
This is an ugly, ugly spat. We have enough competition and unpleasantness in the world of Civil War history that we don’t need to be at each other’s throats. I understand both sides of this situation, and deeply regret that this had to happen, because we certainly don’t need to be airing our collective dirty laundry in public. Now that it’s hit the New York Times, there’s no turning back.
I can only hope that Profs. Bynum and Stauffer, and Ms. Jenkins can find a way to make peace amongst themselves.Scridb filter