Civil War Historians Ensnared in Hollywood Drama

July 30, 2009

Can a piece of narrative history inspired by a Hollywood screenplay be real history? That's the question raised by a dispute involving dueling accounts of the Civil War secession of a Mississippi county, The New York Times reports. As the Times tells it, the producer and director Gary Ross bought the rights in 2007 to The Free State of Jones: Mississippi’s Longest Civil War (University of North Carolina Press, 2001), by Victoria Bynum, a history professor at Texas State University San Marcos. Ross then reportedly encouraged a Harvard historian, John Stauffer, and The Washington Post sports columnist Sally Jenkins to write their own, sexier version of the story based on the screenplay for his movie, which Stauffer had helped write. When Doubleday published that book, The State of Jones: The Small Southern County That Seceded From the Confederacy, this summer, Bynum bashed the book as romanticized in a three-part review on the blog Renegade South and, in an e-mail to colleagues, said she was "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,” the Times reports. Stauffer and Jenkins responded on the blog Civil War Memory, writing: “Bynum sees scholarship as a form of turf warfare, with only one valid interpretation of the past, which effectively renders history useless.”

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