Monday, November 18, 2013


I've been re-viewing the excellent HBO series "Deadwood." David Milch, the creator and imaginative force behind this prodigious work, decided somewhere along the line, that in order for the viewing public to understand the history of that unique and violent place, that he had to misrepresent it.

He never says so directly in the various interviews he's done about his work on the series, but he knows as well as anyone that the people living and dying in Deadwood in 1876 didn't habitually refer to each other as "cocksuckers."

The problems he faced in presenting the reality of Deadwood in its infancy, as he understands it, were twofold. First, most US citizens in 1876 would have been shocked and appalled by the language of Deadwood's placer miners, card sharps, and whores, and secondly, that Americans today would find the blasphemy, heretical utterances, and "sumbitches" employed by the prospectors and freebooters drawn to the place mild, and singularly unshocking.

What was shocking in 1876 has lost the capacity to even raise an eyebrow in this degenerated age of ours. Those who have studied history in detail understand this, but for a mass, 21st century audience, such subtleties are incomprehensible.

In the 19th century, the word "devil" was a curse word, often spelled "d --l" in print, and to tell someone to "Go to the Devil" was surely fighting words. Milch's problem lay in conveying the impact of the lawless and violent frontier, and in doing so he was forced by circumstances of the times, both those distant times and the present, to put words in the characters' mouths they surely never uttered.

The result is an unanticipated and impressive work of improvisatory imagination combined with historical accuracy, and if Wild Bill Hickock never told Jack McCall that "Your mouth looks like a cunt," we can be sure that whatever he said as the cards were dealt was hostile and insulting enough by the standards of the time to cause that useless dirtbag to gather himself together sufficiently to launch a .38 into Hickock's brain pan. He did so from behind, of  course, since Hickock, though losing his sight, was still a formidable gun hand at close range.

Such are the difficulties of presenting popular history in an ahistorical age, and in teaching the subject I've dealt continuously with the need to simplify the material without distorting it. Of course, there's no substitute for spelunking the winding and intricate passages of the past, and even when we pursue history's most intimate details, we can never be sure of adequate comprehension. In the end, basic understanding is the best we can  hope for, and as Al Swearingen might have actually said, "Any son of a bitch who doesn't agree with me can go to hell."

"Deadwood," is a great, brave work, much fun, and educational despite its flaws, but its conflating  of present and past speech conventions compromises its integrity, making its success less than total. That's not the fault of David Milch, and the faults in "Deadwood" are actually ours, not his, as they stem from historical illiteracy.

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