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Jazz, Politics, Edward Kennedy and the Ghosts of Richard Nixon: Our American Dialogue and the Hatfields and McCoys

Carl L. Hager By

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Though not overtly about politics, the timing of the Hatfields & McCoys series was unmistakable, and held the possibility of an intelligent, allegorical look at all the basest and most detestable aspects of "civilized" existence, including the currently base, detestable state of American politics. Once past some of the usual fiddle-and-banjo Dixie clichés about hillbillies and moonshine, the camera told the story, and an entirely new kind of drama unfolded. The History Channel's insistence on factual correctness provided a level of detailed accuracy rarely seen in historical fiction, or even in much historical documentary.

This is an informed, ambitious work designed to do far more than entertain. The story could well have been entitled "The American Civil War, Part II," inasmuch as it is the story of how a psychotic ex-Confederate initiated and sought to perpetuate a blood feud by indiscriminately killing a homeward-bound Union soldier. As familiar as that beginning might sound, however, Hatfields & McCoys soon departs the simplistic civics-lesson platitudes we are accustomed to accepting as the story of the postbellum South.

The warring hill folk align mostly according to family ties. These may be strange families with stranger bedfellows, but as we get to know them, they begin to look uncomfortably familiar. Eschewing sweeping generalities and corny stereotypes, the film's good writing, direction and acting from a cast headed by Kevin Costner, Bill Paxton, Mare Winningham and Tom Berenger, results in a real story about real people whose lives have been mocked and sneered at for decades. If it has a shortcoming it's that, as Los Angeles Times TV critic Mary McNamara said in her review, "when faced with a choice between historic detail and story, Hatfields & McCoys errs on the side of detail."

Such a problem.

The difficulty of getting the details right hasn't traditionally been a reason for television producers to lose sleep—in fact, the tradition has been to dismiss such concern for facts as silly, justifying their less-than-fact-based product by saying they are just "giving the customers what they want." How nice it is to see that an accurately told, meaningful story is what the customers want.



That doesn't mean Hatfields & McCoys is an easy film to watch. We are all inured by now to visual images of point-blank gunshots and exploding arteries, but the bleak devastation and economic privation of the Reconstruction South still take some getting used to. It will be a long time before the psychic wounds heal well enough that this war, the brother-against-brother battle that cost more American lives than all subsequent wars combined, will be understood. It will be longer still before Americans consider that, just as much as racial animosity and cultural dissonance, this civil war was the result of political machinations and misguided governance north of the Mason-Dixon Line as well as south of it, on Virginia's Potomac River as well as the Tug Fork of West Virginia's Big Sandy River.

True, if you feel the need to confirm any personal beliefs or prejudices about a society polarized between liberal and conservative, rich and poor, religious and secularist, educated and ignorant, you'll find some of it here. But fortunately for you, if you are looking for insight into the human condition, you'll find much more of that.

When William Anderson "Devil Anse" Hatfield finally realized that he could put an end to all of the insanity while there were still a few of his family among the living, he did so—partly because he knew that it takes two to tango, and he was tired of the dance, i.e., if he could allow his counterpart, Randolph McCoy, to proceed unobstructed with whatever he thought would even the score, and not contest it, the feud would die; and partly because something had changed in Hatfield's mind. The feud's driving animus—embodied symbolically and factually in his drunken, blood-crazed uncle Jim Vance, whose senseless original murder of Union partisan Asa McCoy had started it all, and whose endless provocations were only meant to stoke the raging fire of insanity and keep it burning—was blissfully dead at last, at the hand of McCoy ally "Bad" Frank Phillips, an ex-Pinkerton gunman. Twenty-five years after Vance had started it, after the eventual involvement of two different state governments, an 1888 U.S. Supreme Court ruling allowed Ellison "Cottontop" Mounts and seven others who had been taken from West Virginia to Kentucky without proper extradition for their part in murdering Alafair McCoy, to be tried. All were imprisoned for life except Mounts, who was hanged at 12:37 p.m. on February 19, 1890.

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