Daniel Day-Lewis as historian
   Informing imaginations

Jim Cullen has an interesting article in the wonderful online journal Common-Place. The article gives his rationale for using Hollywood films to teach American history, as a way to cultivate “an informed imagination.” He wants his students, who don’t read enough, to gain some sense of the richness and texture of the worlds that make up America’s past. He noted after the fact that all four of the films he settled on for first semester included the same actor: Daniel Day-Lewis. The four films provide something of an arc from the Puritans to the early dawn of the Progressive Era: The Crucible (1996), Last of the Mohicans (1992), Gangs of New York (2002), and The Age of Innocence (1993).

“The engine of American history” that one sees in the various roles played by Day-Lewis “is a restless individualist who strains against an inherited culture, an individual as likely to look back as to look forward, but an individual who, in that very restlessness, also paves the way for a new generation, one that will ultimately produce a new rebellion for a new age.” He sees this as a relevant vision for high schools which, “whatever their specific deficiencies, are veritable workshops of dreams.”

He goes on to note that in some ways Day-Lewis may be a better historian for high schoolers than academics who, for the most part, see vivid and sweeping storylines as too simplistic.

There is one . . . aspect of Day-Lewiss vision of American history that distinguishes it from others propagated by popular media. And that is that it is a vision, a sweeping interpretation that takes in the American past as a whole. Not many professional historians (Sean Wilentz comes to mind as an exception) consider it appropriate to even try. In this regard, Day-Lewis harkens back to earlier generations of American historians: Hofstadter, Parrington, and, especially, Turner, and maybe a few modern descendants such as Patricia Limerick. For a variety of structural and ideological reasons, the contemporary professional vision of the past is fractured, slivered into shards that are constantly being recombined into often compelling new arrangements. A postmodern playhouse. That’s fine for graduate students, maybe. But thats not what the kids I see need right now.

They need to grapple with a frontiersman in the woods.

I, too, like to use film to make other places and times more vivid. I have kids read as much as possible, but I think they also need to experience film and learn to view it critically. I wouldn’t use The Gangs of New York in class, though. It’s rated R “for intense strong violence, sexuality/nudity and language.” Hollywood deems it inappropriate for people under 17 unless accompanied by a parent or guardian, and I would hate to think Hollywood is more protective of young people than the school where I work.

What films have worked well in your classes for bringing a different time to life? What films would you recommend to enrich students’ sense of the world of circa 1910?

Posted by Michael L Umphrey






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