“A Noble Spirit Embiggens the Smallest Man”: Problematic Public History in The Simpsons

H.L. Gassmann

No one is safe from The Simpsons. Not even public historians.

In the episode “Lisa the Iconoclast” (originally aired February 18, 1996), consensus history, a new primary source, and an amateur public historian clash. As Springfield prepares for its bicentennial celebration, Lisa Simpson’s second-grade class is assigned an essay on the town’s founder, Jebediah Springfield. When she learns that Jebediah isn’t the hero he’s made out to be, she tries to convince Springfield of the historical truth. The episode puts a comical twist on major problems in the practice of public history.

The Problematic Public Historian

Lisa takes a trip to the Historical Society of Springfield to begin her research. Curator Hollis Hurlbut has collected items from Jebediah’s life. Hurlbut’s character spoofs your typical local historian. He loves Jebediah Springfield a lot…maybe a little too much.

“Some historians consider Jebediah Springfield a minor patriot, but I think you’ll find he’s easily the equal of William Dawes or even Samuel Otis.”-Hollis Hurlbut

Hollis Hurlbut

Hollis Hurlbut talking Jebediah with Lisa. Image generated using Frinkiac.

Unfortunately, Hurlbut is not a very good public historian. His mediocre museum isn’t engaging anyone – Lisa has the place to herself. Effective public history sites present multiple narratives: visitors are exposed to varying perspectives on a single topic, are encouraged to think critically, and hopefully reach their own conclusions. Hurlbut’s exhibit has a single narrative, and it’s not hard to swallow: Jebediah Springfield is a hero.

“This case holds our most treasured exhibit: objects owned and used by Jebediah. Here’s his fife, upon which he sounded the sweet note of freedom; his hatchet, with which he hacked at the chains of oppression, and his…chamber pot.” –Hollis Hurlbut

Hurlbut leaves Lisa to explore the exhibit by herself. Get ready to cringe – Lisa picks up Jebediah’s fife with her bare hands and tries to play it. Hollis, why are you leaving an eight year old alone with an open display case? Did you forget your preservation coursework? This is my public history nightmare.

Okay, one of my public history nightmares.

The Problematic Primary Source

When Lisa blows into the fife, she discovers a tattered piece of paper inside it. It’s a handwritten document that seems to be authored by Jebediah himself, entitled The Secret Confessions of Jebediah Springfield.

“Know ye who read this there is more to my life than history records. Firstly, I did not tame the legendary buffalo. It was already tame, I merely shot it. Secondly, I have not always been known as Jebediah Springfield. ‘Til 1796, I was Hans Sprungfeld, murderous pirate and the half wits of this town will never learn the truth! Ha ha ha ha ha, ha ha ha ha ha, ha ha ha ha ha!”

 

Jebediah Penning His Confession.jpg

Jebediah Springfield penning his confession. Image generated using Frinkaic.

Lisa discovers a new primary source that turns the historiography of Jebediah Springfield upside-down. The confession is supporting evidence for a new argument about Springfield’s founder. This is the stuff historians dream about, but as Lisa is about to discover, new sources can create public history nightmares.

The Problematic Public

Jebediah is the source of civic pride for Springfieldians. How can Lisa break it to her town that their hero is a fraud?

With this plot point, “Lisa the Iconoclast” taps into a common public history dilemma. Well-trained historians recognize that even historical figures with the best PR teams have flaws and avoid hero-worship in their arguments. It’s easy to communicate difficult ideas about “Great Men” (and women!) in a research paper. It’s hard to disappoint someone who feels a connection to history because they have been exposed to hero-worship or mythology. And, as Lisa learns, it’s even harder to market a challenging narrative to people who are more interested in a happy history than a true one.

“Lisa, honey, when my family first came to this state they had a choice of living in Springfield or Stenchburg. You know why they chose Springfield? Because everyone knows Jebediah Springfield was a true American hero, end of story!” –Marge Simpson

Jebediah and Hans.jpg

Lisa compares Springfield and Sprungfeld. Image generated using Frinkiac.

Lisa’s essay is titled “Jebediah Springfield: Super Fraud.” Her teacher, Ms. Hoover, gives her an F.

“This is nothing but dead white male bashing from a PC thug! It’s women like you who keep the rest of us from landing a husband!” –Ms. Hoover

Lisa comes home in tears. Homer tries to comfort his daughter (“I’ve been called a greasy thug too, and it never stops hurting”). He encourages her to enlist the help of Hurlbut. But even the professional public historian is unreceptive! Blinded by hero-worship, Hurlbut insists the confession is a forgery. When Lisa presses him, he bans her from the historical society.

Hurlbut, again, is failing. If public historians want their “public” to be receptive to them, they need to be just as receptive to the ideas of their “public.” Remember: a degree in history doesn’t automatically make your contributions to the field valuable. Hurlbut must have forgotten this, because he’s a total snob. Effective public historians engage non-historians, encourage their historical inquiries, and certainly don’t ban 8-year-olds from their museums.

Lisa refuses to give up. She prints flyers proclaiming the truth, but Apu won’t let her hang them in the Kwik-E-Mart. None of the regulars at Moe’s are interested either.

“I support most any prejudice you can name, but your hero-phobia sickens me!” –Moe

An outraged Moe reports Lisa to the Town Jubilation Committee. Lisa appears before the committee, which consists of the most powerful and influential men of Springfield: Mayor Quimby, Chief Wiggum, Rev. Lovejoy, Principal Skinner, and Dr. Hibbert. They denounce her as misinformed and unpatriotic. Unfortunately, the corporate sponsors overhear. When it comes to festivals of civic pride, big money can be involved. Shocked and offended by Lisa’s narrative, and they back out of their financial commitment to the bicentennial.

“A pirate? Well, that’s hardly the image we want for Long John Silver’s!”

The Problematic Ending

Jebediah’s body is exhumed. George Washington visits Lisa in a dream. Lisa discovers the missing piece of that famous George Washington painting. A lot happens. Watch the episode.

On the day of the bicentennial celebration, Hurlbut admits to Lisa that she’s been right about Jebediah all along and that all of Springfield needs to know the truth. Standing on a stage in the center of town, Lisa looks out into the crowd that has gathered for the festival.

“I did a lot of research on Jebediah Springfield and…Jebediah Springfield was…Jebediah was…great. I, um, just wanted to say that I’ve done some research and, uh…he was great!”

And the crowd breaks into thunderous applause.

he was great

Springfield reacts to Lisa’s speech. Image generated using Frinkiac.

This moment is painful yet admirable: Lisa reminds us that even the historical truth has a time and place. There is a better day than Springfield’s bicentennial to unhinge the civic identity of the town. It’s been 200 years – what’s another few weeks?

But when Hurlbut asks Lisa why she didn’t say her piece, her reply is unsettling.

“The myth of Jebediah has value, too. It’s brought out the best in everyone in this town. Regardless of who said it, a noble spirit embiggens the smallest man.”

Except it does matter who said it. History is uncomfortable, it’s challenging, sometimes it hurts. Public historians can’t shy away from it. We don’t concede to consensus histories. They don’t bring out the best in us. They prevent us from grappling with complex realities.

The Simpsons is a cartoon, but the battles are all too real. Public historians in the workforce are caught between truth and money, truth and politics, truth and pride, hard truth and easy truth.

Lisa, our amateur public historian, comes up against the public opinion, political machine, law enforcement, religious power, and even the historical authority of Springfield. This is all meant to be comical, and part of the joke is that the small-town Americans of Springfield take Jebediah way too seriously.

But this public-historian-in-training is arguing that it kind of is serious.

 

Citations

“Lisa the Iconoclast.” Written by Jonathan Collier. Directed by Mike B. Anderson. Originally aired on FOX on February 18, 1996. Released on DVD on December 19, 2005. The Simpsons: The Complete Seventh Season. Los Angeles, CA: 20th Century Fox.

“A Noble Spirit Embiggens the Smallest Man (The Simpsons).” Youtube video, 1:16.  Uploaded on November 26, 2015. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FcxsgZxqnEg.

All images generated using the search engine Frinkiac. Created by Paul Kehrer, Sean Schulte, and Allie Young.

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