Friday, March 20, 2009

History, Memory, and.........Andy Griffith?

The hot topic for the last 10 to 15 years in historical scholarship is the relationship between history and memory. Numerous books, articles, dissertations, and thesis have covered this aspect in almost every era of American history. If you take a minute to think about is fascinating isn't it?

I am wondering if some previously considered prescient historian didn't bumble into this groundbreaking field by watching some television reruns (of course I'm being facetious). But let me explain.

Last night while channel surfing during breaks in March Madness I ran into an episode of The Andy Griffith Show that covered the topic of history and memory quite well. Now, I had seen the episode several times before, but I had not made the connection until last night.

In this episode Ms. Crump, Opie's teacher, assigns an essay to her students. The reward for the winning essay is to have it printed in the town newspaper. Opie decides that he is going to write on the Battle of Mayberry; an 18th century contest between the new town settlers and the Cherokee Indians. Like an investigator, Opie polls the community for any information, and assiduously takes notes. Everyone he visits tells him the glorious story of how the outnumbered settlers beat back the bloody savages. Each person includes that their ancestor was the bravest that day, and somehow each person's ancestor was the colonel in command. Ms. Edwards even brings over the sword that her ancestor wielded in the battle. To provide an unbiased account of the events, Opie even visits Tom Strongbow a Cherokee descendant who informs Opie that it was the Cherokee not the settlers who were out gunned and out numbered. Mr. Stongbow even shows Opie the musket ball taken out of his ancestor (nothing like relics for historical evidence).

Well, Opie can't make heads or tales of all the numerous stories, so like any good historian he has Andy take him to Raleigh to dig up the primary sources, and hopefully get at the truth. He does indeed find a newspaper article about the battle, but to his surprise there is little glory to be found. Opie writes his essay and turns it in. His is of course voted best and is printed in the newspaper. The excited townspeople read the article of how a cow was mistakenly shot by a Cherokee and a possible fight was to ensue...but just in time Lieutenant Edwards (not colonel) brought out a jug of spirits and they all got "gassed," then went off into the woods and shot some deer. Later the supposed combatants told the women folk of both sides what a battle they had in the woods. Thus, the Battle of Mayberry was preserved to posterity as a dramatic and heroic event when in fact nothing of the kind took place. The Mayberry community is of course disappointed to find out the truth and they scorn Andy and Opie for the next week or so. The townspeople then hear the governor on the radio praise Mayberry for its historic spirit of cooperation instead of violence, and Opie for his honesty and ability. In the end all is well and another myth is put to rest.

After thinking about it, this is not the only Andy Griffith Show episode to take on the subject of history and memory. There was one where the town was going to honor a Taylor ancestor by erecting a statue, only to find out at the last minute that he was a "shyster." Again, all ends well as the issue is spun to still honor the ancestor for keeping Mayberry the small town it became rather than a larger city like Mt. Pilot.

So there you have the early 1960's Andy Griffith was doing groundbreaking historical work...he just probably didn't know it.

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