Dec 20, 2013

The Massacre of History and its Consequences: Historical Accuracy in Guy Vanderhaeghe’s The Englishman’s Boy

The Massacre of History and its Consequences: 
Historical Accuracy in Guy Vanderhaeghe’s The Englishman’s Boy

Guy Vanderhaeghe’s The Englishman’s Boy explores elements of truth and deception in the telling of history. Damon Chance, a film producer, attempts to create an American film masterpiece by retelling Shorty McAdoo’s experience of his involvement in the Cypress Hills Massacre. McAdoo and Vincent retell and manipulate the story in numerous ways before Chance ultimately rearranges the story completely. Chance deceives Vincent into believing that his intentions are to create an accurate portrayal of McAdoo’s story on film, but he eventually makes clear that he is uncaring about accurately recreating the history. Chance believes that the most significant aspect of the film is to capture the spirit of McAdoo and to advance his ideologies. Each retelling of a historical event affects the story as it contracts the teller’s unconscious bias and intentional manipulation. The medium places limitations on how the story can be portrayed. However, tellers of history have a responsibility to avoid, wherever possible, extreme bias and intentional misrepresentation of the parties involved as shared stories have a significant effect on society’s values.

Whether truth is something that can be objectively proved or even achieved is an important issue when discussing the accuracy of written (or filmed) history. Statements concerning the past, such as historical events and stories, lack the ability to be proven by empirical evidence; at least they lack enough evidence to prove beyond a doubt that the stories are an accurate representation of the truth. Historians can analyze the stories, compare them to the evidence available, and rely on the probability of their occurrence.

The inability to prove historical truth shifts the study of history away from the pursuit of absolute certainty into the realm of probabilities. Historians are able to gather information from texts based on the probability of the texts being factual. For example, a historian could investigate the existence of Solomon by relying on The Bible, but it would be improper for a historian to prove the existence of the Homeric gods by studying The Odyssey; nevertheless, a historian could use The Odyssey to learn about ancient Greece.  Any theories based on knowledge gathered from these texts should be supported by other works considered factual and physical evidence, such as archeological digs in the locality where archeologists consider Ancient Troy to be.

Storytellers and historians use words and sentence structure to convey information about the past, but whether the medium of speech and literature is capable of presenting truth is questionable. The viewer of the incident in question converts the events into ideas in his or her mind and then converts these naked ideas into words. The listener or reader then converts the words back into ideas in his or her own mind. People’s use of the traditional process of information exchange allows the story to become distorted. Stories become distorted because as Stanley Fish, a professor of law, states a sentence “necessarily leaves out more than it includes, whether you write a sentence of twenty words or two thousand” (Fish 37). McAdoo, in the telling of his story, could have stated much more things than he did as “there is always another detail or an alternative perspective or a different emphasis that might be brought in and, by being brought in, [alters] the snapshot of reality presented” (38). Fish states that the ultimate goal of a person writing a sentence is to communicate “forcefully whatever perspective or emphasis or hierarchy of concerns attaches to your present purposes” (38). In this case, Chance is the most effective storyteller in the novel as he clearly knows his purpose. McAdoo only reveals his story to Vincent after they've negotiated a payment. Ultimately, McAdoo’s only purpose in telling his story is to get peaches and cream and a few bottles of whiskey.

Film can be used to manipulate and assimilate people as Chance attempts (Hofstede 5). Vincent is aware of the power that storytelling has on people when he states that Charles Dickens, though his stories, had made cripples “touching and lovable” (Vanderhaeghe 33). Dickens, with his novels and short stories, has the power to influence cultural acceptance, just as Chance has the power with his film Besieged to influence its viewers’ understanding of the Cypress Hills Massacre. More importantly, Chance is able to influence his viewers’ opinion and acceptance of Native Americans and the possibly reprehensible actions of the white settlers. Chance is correct to say that film can be described as the “great educator” of the 20th century, especially concerning the assimilation of the American spirit by new foreigners. Vincent states that “everybody goes to the movies” (Vanderhaeghe 181), whereas not everyone is able or willing to read novels, and movies are able to make everyone “feel the same thing” (181). Chance would like everyone to feel the way he does about the American people. In order to accomplish his goal, Chance must portray the white people in the story as the heroes. Chance’s interpretation does not necessarily align with the truth as he disregards McAdoo’s telling of the events of the story to focus on portraying what he calls the “psychological truth”. This “truth” is not a reality, but an ideological concept created by Chance as manipulated by his racism. Chance’s “psychological truth” is the behaviour and the psychology that predicts the behaviour that he wants to be true.

An accurate retelling of the massacre could allow Americans to learn from their past mistakes; in this case they could revisit their ways of dealing with Native Americans and perhaps atone for the atrocities they committed. Hardwick instigated the original massacre because of the hatred he holds against the Natives. Chance has a racial hatred similar to Hardwick’s and chooses to further the potential of hatred to become a part of the American culture with his films. Chance wants to destroy the most significant part about the Massacre, namely it taught “the law ought to concern itself with persons, not with races” (Goldring 102).

The accurate presentation of history using film is an impossible task. Research into the Cypress Hills Massacre will show that history is shrouded in a mystery that can never be fully unveiled. Numerous contradictory statements from witnesses marred the reliability of any one story about the Cypress Hills Massacre, and thus little can be said to be undeniably true (Goldring 82).There is no realistic way to portray the past without biases and mistakes. The original observation of the event itself holds numerous problems. Two people can see the same event and retell the story later in completely contrary narratives. When creating a historical film the creator must be aware of the bias that they are imposing on the story, and the viewer must be conscious of the bias the creator. Even the most innocuous films contain the ideology of the creator, even if unconsciously; and these films have a felt effect on society’s values. Its left to the whims of the producers and artists to share beneficial values with society and up to the viewers to digest the stories with caution.

Thomas Tomas
Distorting your reality from Vernon, BC
March 2014

Dec 6, 2013

Essays in Digest: George Orwell's "Politics and the English Language"

“Politics and the English Language” is an essay written by the novelist George Orwell and published in 1946. It criticizes the written English of his time. Orwell argues for a writing style that is plain and transparent. The most important thing in writing is to make one’s meaning clear.

Orwell brings up numerous problems that plague writers’ works. The most important of these issues is the use of canned phrases. Many writers do not take the time to craft new sentences with select words that specifically get the writer’s meaning across. Many writers rely on phrases, these phrases are then “tacked together like the sections of a prefabricated henhouse”, the result being poor writing. By the use of phrases the writer loses precision and his or her own voice. Orwell also suggests avoiding pretentious and inappropriate words. Writers often fail to visualize the words used; they often favour abstract meaningless words over concrete. He suggests that writers should avoid using everyday, well-known metaphors.

This decline in language is not permanent and can be prevented by the writer if he or she strives to write good English. Orwell suggests reasons for this deterioration of English. These poor writing habits spread by imitation. The decline of language can be explained by political and economic factors. Political writing often strives to be vague; it uses this as a technique to obscure the details. In this sense, I would argue, political writing is effective. It accomplishes what it intended to do, even if its intent is hardly virtuous. When writing I always begin with what I want to accomplish, how I wish my audience to react, or what I want them to feel or learn. However, Orwell points out that political writing is often mechanical and ineffective.

The “fix” does not entail setting up a Standard English. Orwell notes that the issue does not lie in grammar or syntax. Good writing is writing that best gets the writer’s meaning across to his or her reader. The writer should use the fewest and shortest words required and have the intended meaning already mapped before the writing process begins. Bad writing occurs because the writer is rushed and lazy. If the writer is willing to take the time to truly craft original sentences with active selection of appropriate words his or her writing will improve.

The biggest impact that this essay had on me was Orwell’s critique of phrases. I will often use canned phrases when writing, I acknowledge that this occurs due to economic reasons; it simply takes more effort and time to write well. Since reading the essay I have also begun to analyze the phrases that I use in daily speech, it would be very difficult to craft original sentences for everything that I say. There are a few key differences between writing and speaking. Speaking allows the receiver of the message to have instantaneous feedback, if the meaning is not clear the receiver can alert the speaker. In person communication also allows other aspects of communication such as body language and intonation, which are extremely important for accurate communication. The writer does not have these supporting components. The writer must ensure meaning through the use of words alone. The lack of feedback means that the writer must have an understanding of his or her target audience and write for that audience.

I think that being more active and dedicated in the writing process will lead to more effective writing where the thoughts in my mind are more accurately transferred to the reader. Words should be selected that give imagery and not vagueness. Sentences should be unique and meaningful.

James Thumb
Canning phrases in Vernon, BC
May 2014

The essay can be read here: