Volume 4, Number 109
29 September 2004

More on Culture Change

Dear Friends,

What makes culture change, over time? This has been a most intriguing question for me as I have read history book after history book.

Recently I have been watching silent films of ca. 1915 and been reading their reviews in publications of that era, like the New York Times and Photoplay. They speak of whole audiences rising from their seats and cheering as the innocent damsel, wronged by the villain, is at the last minute rescued by the hero (e.g., Lillian Gish on a frozen ice floe being rescued by Dick Barthelmess just before she would have plunged to her death over the falls.) No audience today would have cheered like that, if indeed they would have gone to the movie at all. What has made us more "sophisticated?"

Why did "Intolerance" get such rave reviews at the time, when Robin (my wife) and I were bored watching it almost eighty years later?

I thought of a drawing in "Punch" of about 1902, describing "the coming of air travel." A ship, the spitting image of an ocean liner (smokestacks and all), was floating in the air, tied to a flat rooftop in New York. Passengers already aboard were waving and throwing confetti at people standing on the roof as the gangplank was being drawn up. 1902-ers saw the coming air travel in terms of 1902. They could not foresee the airplane of the real inventors, the Wright brothers.

So, in order to "understand" the culture of a 1915-er, I had to think like a 1915-er. Although 1915-ers could occasionally see a football or baseball game, they had little opportunity to see real heroes. When one appeared on the screen (always a man rescuing a fair damsel), they cheered just as we might cheer a touchdown today.

In "Intolerance," the director – D.W. Griffith – showed four scenarios – widely separated in history – reflecting the intolerance of humankind. Some say he did this to neutralize critics who argued that he himself had been intolerant in "Birth of a Nation" (see below), but Griffith always denied this. The adulation for "Intolerance" occurred because Griffith had re-created ancient Babylon and (in another scene) sixteenth-century Paris, for the first time ever. Audiences had never seen such a feat! Reviewers were delighted by what today would be "normal."

Griffith introduced facial and body expressions that could not be seen in a stage play (the actors were too far away). I am dumbfounded by the amount of conversation and action I can understand from pantomime alone, plus occasional inter-titles. All this has been lost in today's sound films. Turn off the sound, and the acting cannot be understood.

Griffith did not use scripts. Scenes were rehearsed over and over, and the actors could improvise changes. Once when Lillian Gish was beaten by her screen father, he shouted to her, "Why don't you ever smile?" She put her first and second fingers in her mouth and forced it into a very awkward smile. "That's great!" Griffith shouted. We'll use that." The filmed version was always shot only once because film was expensive. After Lillian had left Griffith, she moved into a world of specialization: scripts, specialized cameramen, actors, etc. (culture change she did not like) which replaced Griffith's "family" moviemaking atmosphere.

Lillian always played the role of a beautiful, "pure" virgin, "put upon" by villains and rescued at the last minute by a hero. She refused to kiss a male actor on the mouth (until she was forced to do so in La Bohème in 1926). She was the "ideal" that Americans worshipped. (We don't worship that "pure" ideal today.) I doubt that 1915 audiences had seen anyone like her, except possibly for other "Griffith girls" (like Mae Marsh, Blanche Sweet, and "America's sweetheart," Mary Pickford). Mary, a childhood friend, had introduced Lillian to Griffith. Lillian walked the streets of New York to learn how people walked, and she visited insane asylums, to learn the grimaces of the mad.

Griffith's commands would, of course, not be recorded. Once when Lillian was being lifted by a male actor, she shouted (far from her movie style) "Drop me and I'll kill you, you son of a bitch." The biographer questioned whether a viewer might try to read her lips.

The "Birth of a Nation"

Griffith wanted movies to be more than nickelodeon reels. He produced one full-length feature ("Judith of Bethulia") that failed in the box office. So he tried again. The son of a Confederate officer, he was irked that the literature, plays, and movies of the day were mainly presented from a Yankee viewpoint. "I want to do something from a Southern point of view," he said, "but I want it to be strictly accurate." When the peace treaty was signed at Appomattox, Griffith researched and re-created the exact courthouse scene, with actors who resembled Generals Lee and Grant. Similarly, he made a model of Ford Theater, in which parts of the play ("Our American Cousin") were re-enacted. Lincoln in the movie was shot at the precise moment in "American Cousin" that the assassination had actually occurred. John Wilkes Booth jumped on to the stage shouting "Sic semper tyrannis" (an inter-title).

The movie was a 1915 masterpiece. The audience had never seen hundreds of Union soldiers fighting hundreds of Confederate soldiers in close trenches on a vast battlefield. Then came Reconstruction, in which a Black government won elections from Whites whose ballots were thrown out. A Black judge always convicted a White but exonerated a Black. Again Griffith sought total accuracy. He studied court records and questioned people who had been alive then.

At that point, the "oppressed" Whites formed the Ku Klux Klan and forced the frightened, superstitious Blacks to drop their arms and accede to White rule, My son (Ken) and I discussed whether "Birth of a Nation" was biased or not. It was certainly selectively perceptive, as were both sides of a divided country. It did not show that before the war, the Whites had treated Black slaves in an even worse way than the Reconstruction Blacks were treating the Whites. In a broader sense, however, it "evened the playing field" by presenting history as the White South saw it, where other literature had presented it mainly from a Yankee viewpoint.

Two New York City reviews declared the movie "biased" (even back in 1915), but all the rest were highly positive. Griffith denied that either the film or he himself was biased. Lillian Gish defended Griffith until the end of her life (at age 99). She pointed out how Griffith had "loved" the Black servants in his home. She even said that in "Birth of a Nation" Griffith had had two soldiers (one Black, one White) kissing each other as they died together in the same trench. Today, we would call Lillian's defense "paternalistic." How did culture change, so that my son Ken instead found "Birth of a Nation" biased?

I saw "Birth of a Nation" for the first time a few months ago and (at age 83) "fell in love" with 22-year-old Lillian Gish. (Robin's comment: "It's a good thing she is no longer alive.") She was 27 when I was born (in 1920) and was close to my mother's age. Apart from my obsession with Lillian, I have been entranced to look at 1915 culture, knowing that I am watching a previous generation, in which every actor is now dead. I am left to guess why they thought as they did, and how and why culture has changed since their time.

Both Lillian and Griffith thought "talkies" were a fad, and the public would demand a return to the "silents." Griffith, once considered a "great" producer, became an alcoholic, and now "no one" has heard of him. Lillian spent ten years on the stage and then re-surfaced in sound films. But as she grew older, she no longer appealed to younger audiences. Her last film, with an elderly Bette Davis, was "The Whales of August" (1987). At 93 years old, Lillian is still charming. Hanging on the wall in that movie are pictures of a younger Lillian, her sister Dorothy, her mother, and her father, a drunkard who abandoned his wife and children. But Lillian always remembered him.

I understand that the novel, Huckleberry Finn, is now banned in some schools because Huck referred to his companion, Jim, as a "nigger." Are our students never to learn about the nineteenth century as it really was.


What have I learned about culture change from watching the movies of a previous generation? Here are some generalizations (none provable) that come to me, not only from the silents, but from reading history books as well.

  1. The greatest culture change occurs because teen-agers rebel against their parents. It may begin with just one person, then spread to others, and so on. (Each one of us DOES affect our culture.) The movies moved to theatres when teen-agers were fed up with nickelodeons. (I was not an innovator in clothing. I did not change from jacket-and-tie to shirt-and-sweater until other professors had done so.)
  2. Change occurs because of economic circumstances. Griffith's original intention was "no stars." Nobody's name appeared  before that of the film. Actors were brought in from the street (Bobbie Harron was hired as an office boy and later starred in a film.) However, when Griffith found, by 1918, that movie magazines emphasized stars, and the name "Lillian Gish" attracted the public, then Griffith himself started to list and advertise the stars.
  3. Wars interrupt history, bringing sudden changes in culture. I did not live through World War I, but I did through World War II (as a conscientious objector). These wars made all of us feel differently afterwards from before.
  4. People see the future in the eyes of the present. Only historians (and not all of them) who can "live" in the past can understand it. At one Yearly Meeting, the main speaker said that early Quaker women had suffered under the yoke of authoritative men. A history professor, who asserted (not in the speaker's presence) that he "lived" in the seventeenth century, pointed out the speaker's bias: she had interpreted the seventeenth century though eyes of the twentieth. Seventeenth-century Quaker women were happyt with men's authority, he said; what they wanted was that the fear of God be recognized.
  5. People are excited by new things, but as the "new" becomes "old," it no longer excites.
  6. Technological change brings culture change (e.g., silents change to talkies), and people feel differently about "old" things. Some (Griffith) cannot adapt to the new, and they fade away. Others (Lillian) adapt and even grow.
  7. Culture change cannot be imposed by other cultures. All of history tells us that a desire for culture change must be initially discovered by those to whom it concerns (though they may copy it from others). Seeing Iraq through American eyes instead of those of Iraqis, our White House makes horribly erroneous predictions.

Sincerely your friend,

Jack Powelson

Readers' Comments:

My recollection is that we argued not about whether the movie was biased or not, but about whether it was racist; and whether its selective perception was intended to make a larger point that such racist behavior (practiced by whites against blacks) was to be honored and encouraged (at a time when it needed little encouragement.) Every director tells the story with a point of view, and what I was hearing from thy dramatic recreation of the plot, was not that this was intended as a balanced corrective to an otherwise under-reported story. It appeared that every attempt was made to vilify the blacks and to honor and justify the whites' exceedingly violent retribution.

— Ken Powelson

 Interesting piece on culture change, left me with more questions than answers — not a complaint. Consider these few contrarian snippets:

  • The film was based on former North Carolina Baptist minister Rev. Thomas Dixon Jr.'s anti-black, 1905 bigoted play, The Clansman.

Or these notes:

  • The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907:21) and volume 17. Later National Literature, Part II.
  • Meanwhile, the view of the Union which had made secession possible was given able and sympathetic defence by Alexander H. Stephens in his War Between the States (1868), by Jefferson Davis in the Rise and Fall of the Confederate States (1881), and by Bernard J. Sage's Republic of Republics (1865)...

My suggestion: do a re-write, preceded by a re-think...

— Chuck Fager (editorial board member)

The Author Replies:

Almost every time I produce a TQE that Chuck comments on, he expects me to research the subject until I become an "expert" and therefore think as he does. This is not my idea of how to spend my retirement at age 84.

I have never said I am an expert on anything I write about. Rather, like newspaper columnists, TQE consists of my OBERVATIONS based on what I have experienced in about fifty countries over more than fifty years, and what I have read. For the present case, I have read Lillian Gish's autobiography and two books about the silent-movie era, written after her death: (1) by Stuart Oderman (Lillian's piano player) and (2) by Charles Affron (an objective historian). In addition, I have read reviews written in the New York Times and other journals of 1915. That is enough research to convince me of the accuracy of what I have written.

Ken has admitted that he did not see the movie, "Birth of a Nation". Did you see it, Chuck? Chuck suggests a number of books that I also should read but does not say he has read them. Among those he has suggested are by Jefferson Davis (the president of the Confederacy) and others, several of whom I believe (but do not know) are sympathizers with the South. (In another letter, Chuck admitted he had neither seen the film nor read the books he mentioned.)

Affron (my objective historian) reports that the film was NOT actually based on Dixon's book (as Chuck suggests). Rather, Griffith thought that every film he produced should be "based" on a well-known writing, and he paid Dixon for rights to use the title (which ultimately he did not use). When he showed the finished film to Dixon, Dixon objected: "That is a far cry from what I wrote," I have not gone into the matter further.

I believe that Chuck is seeing 1915 through the eyes of a resident of 2004.

— Jack Powelson

The Publisher Replies:

Chuck, Jack is making the point that Griffiths was trying to make a movie which represented the Southern white viewpoint. That's clear from the outset. In that context, it's probably better to say that Griffiths was always trying to be totally precise. He was trying to precisely represent a minority viewpoint which most people today think was not a very accurate view.

— Russ Nelson

Having seen "Birth of a Nation" and read several books about reconstruction, I would say that there is no doubt in my mind that the film was remarkably innovative as a work of art, and horrifically inaccurate as a piece of history.

The view of Reconstruction presented in the movie was a fairly standard view of the time, and the inaccuracies were only overturned in American historiography in the 1960s. Yale History Professor David Brion Davis has said that "in terms of ideology with regard to race, the South won the Civil War".

— Geoffrey Williams

I think it is a fine thing when an article stirs up this much conversation. I learn much from the input of your board, and as a feisty woman, I enjoy the kind of bantering that so often follows you wherever you go.  It occurs to me that the main point of the article was to look at how cultures change over time; how difficult it is to view artifacts from the eye of present time; and what a "masterpiece" looks like at its inception, and then 80 or 90 years later. I think the point of looking at artifacts from the eye of present time is very aptly demonstrated by the discussion among members of the board, and I find it enjoyable and a little ironic!

— Valerie Ireland

What a mess. Who goes over the editorial or op-ed pages before they are published?

— J.D. von Pischke

The Editors Reply:

Yes, we know. Steps are being taken to improve the format of the internet version of this newsletter. The format of this page shows off the new look.

— Loren & Jack

Culture change cannot be imposed on another culture in a controlled, predictable fashion, unless one has a deep understanding of that culture. There is no denying that cultures can influence and shape each other in unintentional ways. Isn't "westernization," primarily through Hollywood movies, greatly feared by France, not to mention the Iranian clerics? Perhaps culture exchange (even if primarily one way) should be another item on thy list of how cultures change.

Thee is so right that without extraordinary effort, people see other cultures (from other countries or other times) through the eyes of their own culture. Being able to see another culture as a native sees it is very difficult, but necessary if one is to attempt to deliberately influence that culture. Unfortunately, this administration thinks that anyone who attempts to understand Arab culture is a terrorist apologist and a traitor, which is why their efforts at "westernization" of Iraq are doomed to fail.

— Larry Powelson, Seattle, WA

I really enjoyed this letter on cultural change. I have a degree in Popular Culture and have often made this same point that a historical artifact needs to be considered in the context of the culture of its time, in order to truly understand it. If you try to "cleanse" an artifact to fit it into current moral values, not only is it harder to understand the artifact's influence, but you no longer have an accurate picture of what that time period was like. Sure, it would be nice to forget the horrible things done in the name of racial purity, but "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it."

— Amanda Reno, Minneapolis, MN, childhood attendee of Fall Creek Friends Church, Hillsboro, OH

I think the word for "cultural change" is "evolution," a process which has its own drivers. The drivers are information accumulating in the culture. I believe that both biological and cultural evolution turn on the same process of accumulated information. In the biological case the information accumulates in the DNA. The accumulated information produces a diversity of organisms and diversity begets diversity. In the case of culture the information accumulated produces a diversity of cultures cross-sectionally and longitudinally and the information is both of a technological and conceptual variety.

I don't believe cultural change is willed, which is to say that no one is in charge, although plenty of interests would like to be.

— Bob Davis (Unitarian), Boulder CO.

I have long suspected that the "free market" was largely a philosophical construct, one in which no one could make a profit for long, and thus unlikely to persist in the real world. The transportation market isn't my invention, and it casts a huge shadow on all so-called "free markets." How can economists ignore or belittle such factors? Banking, communications, insurance, breakfast food, are hardly free markets. So why does the idea of a "free market" explain much of human behavior?

— Steve Birdlebough, Sacramento (CA) Meeting.

The free market is far from perfect, but demand and supply do determine the price of bread, bananas, and silk, among many other things. And Steve, how long is "long?" Many corporations have been thriving for more than 100 years (Bank of England, for example (1696)). — Jack

Thank you for just justifying the existence of every "reenactor" and "living historian" out there. I've done reenactments or other "period" events open to the public set in Roman times all the way up to WWII. There are a lot of amateur historians out there who try very hard to portray life in the past as accurately as possible. Sadly, the most common question I get asked is "Are you hot in those clothes?" The next most common question is usually something like "So when was *insert time period*?" (This is particularity funny at War of 1812 reenactments.) The rest of the time is usually spent dispelling common misconceptions like women never did anything more than cook, sew, and raise children or that people 200 years ago never took baths. Thankfully, there are appreciative people out there who recognize the time period and can identify with it. "My grandmother used to do that exactly like you're doing it," or "I served in WWII and haven't seen someone dressed like you in over 60 years." And kids take a moment to think when I explain to them that if you wanted clothing in Roman times, you had to spin your own wool from scratch using a drop spindle as spinning wheels wouldn't be invented for another thousand years or so. Maybe for a split second, they realize how fortunate they are to have shopping malls, grocery stores and electricity and don't have to spend their days working in the fields, spinning wool, or training to fight in an army.

— Deb Fuller, Alexandria VA Friends Meeting

I think the word for "cultural change" is "evolution," a process which has its own drivers.  In a word, the driver's are information accumulating in the culture.  I am satisfied to believe that both biological and cultural evolution turn on the same process of accumulated information.

In the biological case the information accumulates in the DNA. The accumulated information produces a diversity of organisms. Diversity  begets diversity.  In the case of culture the information accumulated  produces a diversity of cultures cross-sectionally and longitudinally. The information is both of a technological and conceptual variety.

Now, if one thinks of cultural change since the "Birth of a Nation" was produced, there are rich lodes of technology and concepts (including moral concepts)  similar to mine. I don't believe cultural change is willed, which is to say that no one is in charge, although plenty of interests would like to be in charge.

— Bob Davis, Unitarian, Boulder (CO).

TQE is always enjoyable and thought provoking.

— Wink Halsted, Racine WI.


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Publisher and Editorial Board

Publisher: Russ Nelson, St. Lawrence Valley (NY) Friends Meeting

Editorial Board:

  • Chuck Fager, Director, Quaker House, Fayetteville, NC
  • Virginia Flagg, San Diego (CA) Friends Meeting
  • Valerie Ireland, Boulder (CO) Friends Meeting.
  • Asa Janney, Herndon (VA) Meeting.
  • Jack Powelson, Boulder (CO) Meeting of Friends, Principal Editor
  • Norval Reece, Newtown (PA) Friends Meeting.
  • J.D. von Pischke, a Friend from Reston, VA.
  • John Spears, Princeton (NJ) Friends Meeting
  • Geoffrey Williams, Attender at New York Fifteenth Street Meeting.
  • Members of the Editorial Board receive Letters a week in advance for their criticisms, but they do not necessarily endorse the contents of any of them.

Copyright © 2004 by John P. Powelson. All rights reserved. Permission is hereby granted for non-commercial reproduction.

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