Topic: Kim Curtis

Three Degrees to Washington: What Do You Want to Be When You Grow Up?

by Kim Curtis, Research Editor
September 20, 2017

Miniature of Martha Parke Custis, as painted by Charles Willson Peale (1772). Courtesy of Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association.

“What do you want to be when you grow up?”

Throughout my childhood and young adulthood, I flirted with different answers to this ever-present question: teacher, pediatrician, school psychologist, child psychologist. Having earned a BA in psychology (and classics) from the University of Virginia in 2000, I settled on clinical psychologist, with the goal of teaching college students and treating patients. Since this required a PhD, I applied to several highly competitive doctoral programs but was rejected by all of them. What would have happened had I been accepted? For one thing, I would have missed becoming acquainted with George and Martha Washington.

It may seem like a reach for me to say that my psychology background and history, specifically of the founding era, go hand-in-hand. My father paved the way for me. For a graduate seminar in counseling, he wrote a psychoanalytic profile of Thomas Jefferson, in which he suggested that Jefferson’s fraught relationship with his mother led to his architectural fixation with domes! A field of academic scholarship with this approach actually exists: psychobiography analyzes the lives and psyches of historic figures. Psychobiographers Elizabeth Wirth Marvick, Jerome A. Winer, and James William Anderson took a psychoanalytic approach (like my father did) to profile Washington, Jefferson, and James Madison. Marvick, Winer, and Anderson concluded that Madison “most closely follows the model of the angry revolutionary striving to overcome his passivity toward the father and replace him with his own righteous authority.”1

My interest in psychology also stems from my love for biographies. In addition to exploring different kinds of people and the worlds in which they live, biographies bring readers inside the minds of their subjects. When I was about five years old (in the mid-1980s), I checked out my first biography from the local library; it was a children’s biography of Madonna! As an adult, my favorite (auto)biography is Katharine Graham’s Personal History, in which Graham recounts her time as publisher of The Washington Post (unheard of for a woman in the 1960s and 1970s) and the Post‘s game-changing coverage of the Watergate scandal.

My psychology background, along with my interest in people and history, helps me fully engage with The Washington Papers. I connect on a personal level with the individuals who wrote and received the correspondence with which we editors now are entrusted.

For example, a thread that runs throughout Martha Washington’s correspondence is her concern about her family’s well-being, especially the precarious health of her daughter Martha Parke “Patcy” Custis. Martha’s anxiety came to a head in a gut-wrenching letter (written by George on June 20, 1773) that I transcribed for the upcoming Martha Washington Papers project volume. George described Patcy’s death to Martha’s brother-in-law, Burwell Bassett:

It is an easier matter to conceive, than to describe, the distress of this Family; especially that of the unhappy Parent of our Dear Patcy Custis, when I inform you that yesterday removed the Sweet Innocent Girl into a more happy, & peaceful abode than any she has met with, in the afflicted Path she hitherto has trod. She rose from Dinner about four Oclock, in better health and spirits that she appeard to have been in for some time; soon after which she was siezd with one of her usual Fits & expird in it, in less than two Minutes without uttering a Word, a groan, or scarce a Sigh.2

As emotional as this scene is, what really hits home for me is Martha’s reaction, which George recounted in the same letter: “This sudden, and unexpected blow, I scarce need add has almost reduced my poor Wife to the lowest ebb of Misery; which is encreas’d by the absence of her Son…and want of the balmy Consolation of her Relations; which leads me more than ever to wish she could see them.”3

Now that I have a daughter, I can relate even more to Martha as a mother. I can’t begin to imagine what she felt after Patcy’s death. There are some things that even a psychology degree can’t prepare you for.

 

This blog post is the second of a three-part series, “Three Degrees to Washington,” about how my humanities majors help me at The Washington Papers. Part three will explore my educational background in film. You can read part one, about my classics degree, here.

 

Notes

  1. Elizabeth Wirth Marvick, Jerome A. Winer, and James William Anderson, “Notes Toward a Psychoanalytic Perspective on Three Virginia ‘Founding Fathers,'” Annual of Psychoanalysis 31 (2003): 163.
  2. “To Burwell Bassett from George Washington, June 20, 1773,” Founders Online, National Archives, last modified June 29, 2017, http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/02-09-02-0185. Also available in print: The Papers of George Washington, Colonial Series 9: 243-44.
  3. Ibid.

Three Degrees to Washington: How “I Came, I Saw, I Conquered” Working at The Washington Papers

By Kim Curtis, Research Editor
July 7, 2017

Caesar Crossing the Rubicon, an illumination on vellum by Jean Fouquet (c. 15th century).

“Veni, vidi, vici.” Roman emperor Julius Caesar supposedly proclaimed this famous Latin phrase after a military victory. For centuries, young students of Latin have learned this quotation, which translates to “I came, I saw, I conquered.” Their history lessons presented another well-known general who crossed a river (Julius Caesar crossed the Rubicon in 49 BC, and George Washington crossed the Delaware in 1776).1 But as one of those junior scholars of Latin, I didn’t think  I would explore the connections between these two worlds much further. I had never imagined I would grow up to be a research editor at The Washington Papers and use my background in classics every day on the job. 

I started learning Latin to satisfy my eighth-grade foreign language requirement. At the time, I wanted to be a pediatrician and thought Latin would help me with complicated medical terms. My teacher, a seemingly mild-mannered older woman, gave my class a list of common curse words in Latin, which unsurprisingly helped further stoke my interest. I took to learning the language fairly easily and continued studying it in high school (where I won sixth place on the Virginia Junior Classical League’s mythology test) and in the University of Virginia (UVA)’s Classics Department. At UVA, I also took a required year of ancient Greek (which I didn’t like as well as Latin) and classes in Greek and Roman culture, history, and mythology. I earned my BA in Classics in 2000.

Washington Crossing the Delaware, painted by Emmanuel Leutze (1851). Courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

At The Washington Papers, one of the more obvious benefits of a classics degree is that when I’m conducting research, I understand classical references that I may come across. For example, George Washington’s favorite play was Cato, a Tragedy, written by Joseph Addison in 1712.2 Cato tells the story of Roman senator Marcus Porcius Cato (95­–46 BC), who stood up to the tyranny of a dictator and believed passionately in republican ideals.3 Sound familiar? Inspired by Cato’s stand against Julius Caesar, Washington requested that Cato be performed for American troops at Valley Forge.4  It’s exciting when my worlds connect like that!

I’ve also used my knowledge of Latin to figure out unfamiliar words while proofreading document transcriptions for an upcoming volume of The Papers of George Washington: Presidential Series. In one instance, the volume editor had transcribed a word from a Washington letter as “supernumeracy.” I had never heard of that word. As I looked more closely at the word in the original document, I could see that the “c” was actually an “r,” and so the word was “supernumerary.”  I had never heard of this word either, but thanks to Latin, I now had some clues. In Latin, “super” means “above,” and “numerus” means “number” (as you probably guessed). So, put those two parts together, and you have literally “above the number.” I looked up “supernumerary” on the Oxford English Dictionary (OED)’s website, and sure enough, “supernumerary” meant “beyond or in excess of a usual, regular, stated, or prescribed number or amount; additional, extra, or left over.” According to the OED, the Latin word origin is “supernumerarius,” a military term, meaning “appointed to a legion after it is complete.” The letter’s context backed up this reading of “supernumerary.” In this case, my Classics degree helped me solve this word puzzle and prevent a mistake in the printed volume.5

This blog post is the first of a three-part series, “Three Degrees to Washington,” about how my humanities majors help me at The Washington Papers. Part two will be about my psychology degree, and part three will explore my educational background in film.

 

Notes

1. Michael Gagarin, ed. The Oxford Encyclopedia of Ancient Greece and Rome (New York, 2010), 4:155; “To John Cadwalader from George Washington, Dec. 25, 1776,” Founders Online, National Archives, last modified March 30, 2017, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/03-07-02-0343. Also available in print: The Papers of George Washington, Revolutionary War Series 7:439.

2. Henry C. Montgomery. “Addison’s Cato and George Washington.” The Classical Journal 55 (1960), 210.

3. Gagarin, Ancient Greece and Rome, 2:62.

4. Montgomery, “Cato and Washington,” 210.

5. Because of the large number of documents to proofread for this volume, I’m unable to go into too much detail in the blog post about this letter. However, I look forward to readers seeing evidence of my proofreading work on this and other letters in the upcoming volume, Presidential Series volume 20.

Making Sense of Making History

by Kim Curtis, Research Editor
April 27, 2017

During the first episode of the new television comedy series Making History, a history professor named Chris lectures his undergraduate students about the American Revolution. “History is made by unremarkable people doing remarkable things,” Chris says. “How are you going to make history today?”

Making History: (from left to right) Leighton Meester, Adam Pally and Yassir Lester in the “The Shot Heard Round The World” episode of Making History, which originally aired on Sunday, March 12 (8:30-9:00 PM ET/PT) on FOX. ©2017 Fox Broadcasting Co. Jennifer Clasen/FOX

Directed by Jared Hess (writer and director of the movie Napoleon Dynamite), Making History introduces us to Dan (Adam Pally, Happy Endings and The Mindy Project), a facilities manager for the same fictional college in present-day Lexington, Mass., at which Chris lectures. At the end of each workday, Dan travels through time, via his late father’s duffel bag, to Lexington in 1775. Dan’s girlfriend in 1775 is Deborah (Leighton Meester of Gossip Girl), who happens to be the daughter of Paul Revere.

In Making History‘s first episode, Dan and Chris (Yassir Lester) climb into the duffel bag and time-travel to Lexington on April 21, 1775, two days after the American Revolution should have started. The rebellion has been delayed because Paul Revere is too depressed and angry to make his famous ride. It seems that his daughter Deborah has broken her engagement to a blacksmith and has another suitor (who, unbeknownst to Revere, is Dan). Can Dan, Chris, and Deborah figure out a way to kick off the Revolution so that the America we know today can come into being? As the characters discover, Making History asks how our actions (“unremarkable people doing remarkable things”) can affect the outcomes of history.

At face value, accuracy seems important to Making History creator and executive producer Julius Sharpe. In January, Sharpe told reporters at the Television Critics Association winter press tour:

One of the first things we [Making History‘s production team] did is we had a physicist who is way smarter than any of us come in. The thing to me was getting to a point where people who are obsessed with the logic of time travel won’t be distracted by what we’re doing, but people who aren’t necessarily as sci-fi literate and don’t care about it won’t constantly be plagued by discussions of like . . . photons. I think the thing for us was getting, at least in Season 1, the rules as simple and clear as possible so that they were out of the way and you weren’t thinking about it and you could just enjoy the fact that they had gone [through time].1

Sharpe takes this approach to the show’s scientific accuracy and applies it to the show’s historical accuracy as well. By sticking to the basic facts and spirit of the Revolution, Making History avoids getting too caught up in the minutiae, which might be detrimental to attracting (younger) audiences who otherwise might not be interested in history. For those audience members, Making History can serve as a jumping-off point to learn more about the people and events of the Revolutionary War as well as history in general.

For example, Paul Revere did indeed have a daughter named Deborah (b. 1758). Deborah married Amos Lincoln, a mason who participated in the Boston Tea Party. The couple had nine children. Incidentally, Amos wed two of Paul Revere’s daughters. After Deborah died in January 1797, Amos married her sister Eliza later that year. In addition, Amos Lincoln’s brother Jedidiah married another Revere sister, Mary. But wait . . . there’s more! Amos and Jedidiah’s cousin Thomas was the father of Abraham Lincoln.2

Also, consider the second episode’s portrayal of the Battle of Lexington, which occurred on April 19, 1775. Dan, Chris, and Deborah decide to coordinate the start of the Revolutionary War since Paul Revere and the other colonists don’t seem to know what to do about the occupying British forces. Deborah resolves to disguise herself as her father and warn everyone, on horseback, about the imminent British attack. At Dan and Chris’s urging, the colonists position themselves in front of a barn filled with their weapons, but the colonists and British would rather debate gun rights than start fighting. So, Chris and Dan, hidden behind a bush, fire “the shot heard ’round the world,” which leads to the battle’s commencement and (inaccurately) to the first American victory of the war. According to historian David Hackett Fischer, while some witnesses claimed they heard the first shot come from behind a hedge (similar to from where Dan and Chris shot), other witnesses swore the first shot sounded from behind a stone wall or around the corner at Buckman Tavern. Ultimately, no one knows from where or how the first shot happened, but Making History enfolds Chris and Dan into the action by having them fire the first shot.3

Although Making History depicts the colonists defending their arsenal at Lexington, the weapons actually were stored at Concord and Worcester. The Battle of Lexington happened almost accidentally; the British were supposed to go to Concord for the stockpile, but the Lexington colonists intervened. Unfortunately, Lexington was hardly an American victory; seven colonists were killed, and nine were wounded. The British only endured one injury.4

Overall, while Making History includes some clever commentary of race and gender relations, its infantile humor sometimes distracts from its strengths and dates the series.5 Still, Making History consistently explores the ever-changing balance between how best to serve historical accuracy and entertainment and how best to make history accessible to everyone.

Making History airs on Sundays at 8:30 p.m. ET on FOX.

 

Notes

1. “Making History: Why FOX’s New Comedy Turns a Duffel Bag into a Time Machine,” IGN Entertainment, last modified Jan. 11, 2017, http://www.ign.com/articles/2017/01/12/making-history-why-foxs-new-comedy-turns-a-duffel-bag-into-a-time-machine.

2. William Richard Cutter, New England Families, Genealogical and Memorial: A Record of the Achievements of Her People in the Making of Commonwealths and the Founding of a Nation, 2 vols. (New York, 1913), 2:670.

3. David Hackett Fischer, Paul Revere’s Ride (New York, 1994), 193.

4. Fischer, Paul Revere’s Ride, 80, 89, 198-200, 197.

5. At one point, John Hancock tricks Chris into drinking from a chamber pot. In another scene, after Chris makes a speech, Samuel Adams says to him, “You bombed up there, brother!” An interesting dynamic, for a future discussion, is the fact that Chris is an African-American attempting to navigate 1775.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Washington Papers Editors Share Work, Meet Hamilton’s George Washington at Human/Ties National Endowment for the Humanities Conference

by Kim Curtis, Research Editor
September 30, 2016

From September 14 to 17, the University of Virginia (UVA) hosted Human/Ties, a four-day celebration of the 50th anniversary of the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH). To explore and honor the vital role played by the humanities in today’s world, the forum brought together multiple University departments and programs, including the Washington Papers, as well as speakers and artists from across the country and around the world.

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Lessons in Courage and Responsibility: Ian Kahn of Turn: Washington’s Spies

By Kim Curtis and Lynn Price
June 7, 2016

IMG_0205[3]Ian Kahn knows George Washington. For three seasons, he has played the General on the AMC television series Turn: Washington’s Spies. An accomplished stage actor, Kahn has also appeared on Dawson’s Creek and Sex and the City. Washington Papers editors Kim Curtis and Lynn Price recently spoke with Kahn about his work on Turn, what this season holds in store, and what George Washington means to him.

When he initially heard about the role of General Washington on Turn, Kahn says, “I thought how wild and wacky it was to play George Washington, but then I read the character description… and I thought, ‘I think I’ve got an idea about how to do this.’” As Kahn began working on the script during his first audition, his hopes were confirmed that he could indeed figure out how to play someone like Washington.

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George Washington in D.W. Griffith’s America: Or Love and Sacrifice (1924)

Photo of D.W. Griffith in 1919. PD-US.

Photo of D.W. Griffith in 1919. PD-US.

By Kim Curtis, Research Editor
March 18, 2016

Silent film director D.W. Griffith may be best known for his narratively and technologically groundbreaking but controversial 1915 film The Birth of a Nation. However, his filmography also includes a little-seen movie called America: Or Love and Sacrifice (1924) that is worth looking at as well.

Based on the novel The Reckoning by Robert W. Chambers, America tells the story of the American Revolution through a romance between Nathan Holden, an express rider and minuteman, and Nancy Montague, the daughter of a wealthy Tory.

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A Morbid Child Remembers George Washington

By Kim Curtis, Research Editor
December 14, 2015

GW death lithograph_cropped

Life of George Washington The Christian death, lithograph of painting by Junius Brutus Stearns, c. 1853. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

 As a child, I had a morbid curiosity about death. When I was eight years old, a family friend gave me what I thought was the greatest Christmas present ever: a copy of the book, Hollywood Heaven, which detailed the lives and (more importantly) the deaths of film and television celebrities.

While visiting Los Angeles in the 1990s, my mother and I went on a guided tour of the city, during which instead of riding by the homes of the stars, we were driven in a hearse to see locations where stars died. Even when traveling as an adult, I find a certain calm when visiting cemeteries, whether in New Orleans or Paris.

Reading Hollywood Heaven (which I still own) and learning about the facts of various celebrities’ demises has led me to a more generalized interest in history. I have found myself constantly encountering the Founding Fathers, especially Thomas Jefferson, ever since.

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