By Sonny Scott
“What is history but a fable agreed upon?” Napoleon Bonaparte
I’ll wager you’ve shared my reaction as yet another actor or singer shared his political opinions unsolicited; viz., “What expertise do you possess that I should regard your opinion?”
As it happens, writers, actors, and other artists have a tradition of political involvement. It likely began with their dependence on royal patronage. David was a court musician for Saul, for example.
A book published in 2010 illustrates that actors’ political involvement is not a recent development. Nora Titone’s “My Thoughts Be Bloody” is a study of the Booth Family. Patriarch Junius Booth was the rage of his age, but son Edwin reached the pinnacle of his profession, feted by the captains of industry and political luminaries, even the president of the United States. Equally ambitious but less talented, brother John Wilkes Booth would gain notoriety in his own right.
“History” is not a science. Researchers may spend their careers scouring the archives, cataloging data, applying advanced data analysis, and publishing scholarly monographs, but what really matters is how many read a work and how it is remembered. The poet, novelist, or actor is often more influential in shaping the public’s historical “knowledge” than all scholarship. Space does not permit extensive samples, but I’ll just throw out Harriet Beecher Stowe, Julia Ward Howe, and Margaret Mitchell as examples. Not convinced? Well, how about the Bard of Avon?
Shakespeare was no historian, but such knowledge as most American school kids have of imperial Rome comes not from Gibbon, but from 10th grade readings of “Julius Caesar” in English Lit. Who was “the most noble Roman of the all?” You thought “Brutus” in spite of yourself. Who said so? Shakespeare had Mark Antony say it. Why noble? He put loyalty to an ideal (the Roman Republic) ahead of loyalty to a man (Caesar). Maybe this value strikes us as strange in the secular West, but it would resonate with the Wahhabi – as it did with John Wilkes Booth and other “Lost Cause” Cavaliers.
In conversation with a young historian, I alluded to Booth’s view of himself in the role of Brutus, nobly committing tyrannicide in defense of the republican ideal. The young man remarked, “I never thought of that as a motivation for Booth.” I thought it self-evident, given Booth’s Shakespearean career and “sic semper tyrannis.” When did J. Booth get demoted from Brutus to the likes of Squeaky Fromm and John Hinckley, Jr.?
Reading Titone brought back the memory. Her thesis turns upon the idea of sibling rivalry – J. Booth shot Lincoln because he wanted to upstage his more famous and talented brother, Edwin. Interesting idea, and not altogether implausible, if one discounts the eyewitness accounts of Booth’s post-murder declaration from the stage of Ford’s Theatre.
Why are we ready to revise Booth’s motivation to the extent of ignoring his words, or denying that they were spoken? Maybe we are uneasy at the suggestion that an assassin, a modern Ehud (see Judges 3:12 ff) can be inspired by anything noble. After Lincoln, Garfield, McKinley, and Kennedy, we are frightened by the retribution of the self-appointed. So we accept an unspoken compact. Booth was a mad man. He had no clear political convictions. His passions were irrational and driven by the jealously toward his brother and the society which praised that brother while scorning him. Yes, yes, that must be it. Now, will Titone be our Shakespeare and gain popular acceptance as “history?”
C. Vann Woodward said it best: “It (is) high time for some Southern historian to abandon the standoffishness of his guild and make his bow to Southern men of letters…What is really needed is some acknowledgement of the genuine debt the historians owe to the poets, playwrights, and novelists…as well as well as an acknowledgement of vital relations between the crafts.” I agree, but why rush to judgment? Truth is worthy of its hire.
Booth should have considered this: Caesar’s death did not end the empire and restore the republic. The tides of history cannot be stayed.
Sonny Scott is a Chickasaw County resident and a community columnist. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.