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.

Prof. Bynum’s review of the new book may be found here. Prof. Stauffer and Ms. Jenkins responded on Kevin Levin’s blog.

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

Comments

  1. Dan
    Thu 30th Jul 2009 at 11:17 am

    “Tempest in a tea pot” comes to mind.

    The current controversy over the historical reputation of General Hood (particulary his part in Spring Hill and Franklin) between the John Bell Hood Historical Society and Mr. Wiley Sword, author of “Confederacy’s Last Hurrah”, and “Courage Under Fire” is by far more important to Civil War historical scholarship.

  2. Dan
    Thu 30th Jul 2009 at 11:20 am

    >Now that it’s hit the New York Times

    Not to worry. When the matter hits the legitimate press, then it might get interesting.

  3. Andrew
    Thu 30th Jul 2009 at 11:59 am

    Have you read either of these books Eric? Just wanted to know if you had any thoughts about them.

  4. Thu 30th Jul 2009 at 12:00 pm

    Andrew,

    No, I have not read either one.

    Eric

  5. Thu 30th Jul 2009 at 12:08 pm

    Eric,

    The mud slinging between Stauffer, Jenkins, and Bynum, while nasty and disquieting, is going to have one result, spurring sales of both books, not to mention ticket sales when, and if, the film hits the theaters. Me? My curiosity has been aroused and I’m inclined to order both books now, just to see first hand what the fuss is all about.

    Maybe there’s an abject lesson in all of this for any author who’s ever published a book on the Civil War with lagging books sales. Start a fight with another writer! Then listen to the register go ka-ching, ka-ching.

    Thanks,
    Donald

  6. Brooks Simpson
    Thu 30th Jul 2009 at 12:09 pm

    “The current controversy over the historical reputation of General Hood … is by far more important to Civil War historical scholarship.”

    Depends on how you define Civil War scholarship. If your notion of Civil War scholarship is confined to battles and leaders, I can see why you feel that way. If your concern is with dissent in the Confederacy and the workings of Reconstruction, then the Free State of Jones is potentially more revealing compared to what Historian A says about what General B did at the Battle of C.

    Kevin Levin covered both in his blog.

    My impression is that Professor Stauffer bears the burden for escalating this discussion to the point of disagreeable debate. Read the exchange here:

    http://www.tnr.com/politics/story.html?id=2634954a-b287-480e-9fbd-8a4663174031

    My own observation is that most of these debates appear to be unseemly … unless one’s involved in them. I recall a debate over something Gary Gallagher said somewhere last year …

  7. Fri 31st Jul 2009 at 10:47 am

    Unfortunately, I found during my time in graduate school that this type of behavior trends to the common place. I’ve actually sat in classes were a professor would openly denounce, denigrate, and to some degree openly mock a rival counterpart. Part of it involves job market saturation, with too many with the credentials competing for a limited set of seats at the table. But I dare say the greater issue is how many folks just cannot take or provide constructive criticism! (emphasis on the later part, if I may.)

    Perhaps the best bit of advice regarding reviews I’d received in grad school came from a professor of English Lit. His bottom line was, if you think the book poorly written, discount the scholarship, or just don’t like it, then don’t write the review. Don’t give the author the exposure that, regardless of what you say, will lead to wider distribution of what you deem a poor product!

  8. dan
    Fri 31st Jul 2009 at 10:52 am

    Craig,

    >then don’t write the review

    This is a bizarre and indefensible position for a professor of anything to take. So, the argument is if the intellectual product is poor, just ignore it?
    Isn’t it the responsibility of the academy to inform people about poor scholarship, erroneous conclusions, and bad arguments?

    Apparently, this professor never quite got the concept of literary criticism.

    Best,
    Dan

  9. Fri 31st Jul 2009 at 11:40 am

    Dan,

    > This is a bizarre and indefensible position for a professor of anything to take.

    No it isn’t when you think about it from a logical, rational point of view. Is it the job of academia to go about squashing any and all examples of poor scholarship, erroneous conclusions, and bad arguments? Should we extend that into the popular press? Come now, you know that is silly.

    What my professor indicated is he felt that if the scholarship was solid and the other person’s work of note, then he should respond by way of a review. And that review should highlight not only the points that the reviewer disagreed upon, but also the redeeming qualities of the work.

    On the other hand, if the work was a poor intellectual product, why bother spending the time to elevate it to a false level of acceptance? That’s a lot different than simply ignoring it. From him, a highly respected professor within his field, silence on a matter such as that was quite deafening.

    Respectfully,
    Craig

  10. Art Bergeron
    Fri 31st Jul 2009 at 4:07 pm

    I have not read either book but am somewhat familiar with the controversy over the so-called Free State of Jones and Newt Knight. Much of what has been written about the latter has been based more upon local lore than good, deep historical research in the records. In many cases, the favorable view of both seems overstated and biased.

    There is an old addage: “Never let the truth stand in the way of a good story [or movie?].”

  11. Brooks Simpson
    Fri 31st Jul 2009 at 4:32 pm

    There continues to be a notion held by some parties here that this is a mutual “mud-slinging” in which all parties are equally guilty. I’m afraid that if you read the actual exchanges, and see the exchanges in which Stauffer has participated elsewhere, you might have time to make a more informed assessment of the nature of this particular debate.

    That said, it certainly does bear some striking similarities to the mudslinging about what people think of what Wiley Sword wrote about John Bell Hood.

    It also does bear repeating that people who hold forth on how unseemly this all is don’t always recall those observations when they find themselves in the middle of such a “discussion.”

    One thing is for sure: the advent of the internet will have profound implications for the discussion of historical scholarship.

  12. Sat 01st Aug 2009 at 8:24 am

    Another old Hollywood adage: “There’s no such thing as bad publicity.”

  13. sarah freeman
    Sat 01st Aug 2009 at 11:36 am

    This controversy is not so much about the history, but about scholarly integrity–it is about how a university press sold the film rights to Universal and how Universal turned around and created a bastardized book (and not just a film) via Doubleday that ripped off Bynum’s original research. Stauffer is not a historian, nor does he seem to respect what historians do. The process was dishonest and those who cheat should be exposed–period.

  14. John Foskett
    Sat 01st Aug 2009 at 11:44 am

    I think that the only clear conclusion which emerges from this unseemly “p—–g” contest is that all too often petty competitive motives trump legitimate debate and criticism. The comments alluding to Stauffer’s history above are well-taken. At the same time, and especially in these circumstances, was it a good idea for Bynum to devote several entries on her blog to the trashing of the Stauffer/Jenkins book? It should be understandable if one takes a “pox on both their houses” attitude.

  15. Brooks Simpson
    Sat 01st Aug 2009 at 4:49 pm

    Again, while I understand this notion of a “pox on both their houses” from one angle, I could also view it from view of stone-throwing at glass houses. Historians — and I mean all historians, regardless of degree or pedigree — often disagree with each other, and sometimes do so in ways that raise serious questions about an author’s scholarship. See what Eric has said about a certain book about Gettysburg. I would not attribute his criticism to “petty competitive motives.”

    Author A writes a book. Author B writes a book that reaches different conclusions than did author A. Author A raises questions about those conclusions (and the questions will always be seen in some quarters as “trashing” author B’s work, which, of course, raised questions about author A’s conclusions). That happens all the time. It’s happened on this blog. It’s happened on my blog. Now, when author B responds by launching a personal attack and not responding to the substance of author A’s criticism, and, upon further inquiry, we find that author B does this all the time … and in print … well, I guess I don’t conclude “a pox on both houses,” and I don’t think that’s a fair conclusion.

  16. John Foskett
    Sun 02nd Aug 2009 at 11:31 am

    I certainly concede the validity of your argument. Having read Bynum’s blog entries, however, my own view is that she went overboard, especially given what we in the legal profession know as the “appearance of impropriety”. Had you or someone else without a perceived stake in the outcome said the same things, it would have arrived in a completely different package. Full disclosure – having been involved in a few lawsuits arising out of employment issues (tenure, “collegiality”, etc.) in the academic setting, I’ve seen too many instances where egos were driving the car and other, probably more relevant, factors were tossed to the curb. For what it’s worth, I’ve read both books and I’m not sure what all the smoke and thunder is about on either side. But that seems to have gotten lost.

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