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The Historic Roots of A Handmaid's Tale 
Margaret Atwood’s Harvard studies planted the sees for her dystopian novel, and the new TV series it inspired
Elisabeth Moss dons the iconic red robe and white bonnet of the handmaid for the new series (Hulu)
Margaret Atwood never questioned where The Handmaid’s Tale would take place. Her disquieting 1985 novel about an extremist religious republic of the near future had to be set in the United States, and, moreover, it had to be set in one of its most liberal strongholds—Cambridge, Massachusetts.

“We tend to pride ourselves on liberal democracies, that such things couldn't happen here,” says the Canadian poet and author. She recently spoke at a sold-out Smithsonian Associates event, on the eve of a 10-episode Hulu adaptation of her best-known story. Elisabeth Moss, who played the ambitious Peggy Olson in Mad Men, delivers a hauntingly understated performance as the story’s narrator, an unnamed woman forced into sexual servitude by a fundamentalist religious order that has overthrown the United States.

The Canadian-born Atwood sees the United States as having two foundations: one 18th-century Enlightenment and the other 17th-century puritan theology. It was Perry Miller, the late scholar of American Puritanism, who introduced her to the latter during her postgraduate work at Harvard University. Her interest in Puritan America was arguably in her blood: Her mother is decended from Mary Webster, a woman who was accused of practicing witchcraft in New England years before the Salem Witch Trials. Webster, who is also the subject of Atwood’s 1995 poem “Half-Hanged Mary,” was lynched, but the rope didn’t kill her. Webster’s grim survival story embodies the rallying cry in The Handmaid’s Tale: Nolite te bastardes carborundorum, Latin for “Don't let the bastards grind you down.”

But the idea for The Handmaid’s Tale really emerged When Atwood was in West Berlin in 1984. She crossed the border into East Berlin and, at the invitation of the Canadian government, also visited Czechoslovakia and Poland. Paranoia followed her on her travels—when the bellboy brought up her bags in one hotel, he pointed to the chandelier to indicate it had been bugged. She jokes that if she needed it fixed, all she needed to do was stand under the chandelier and say: "Hello, chandelier, my light bulb is broken."

When she was in Czechoslovakia, people would head to a field if they needed to share private information, a detail that was incorporated into The Handmaid’s Tale’s waterside walks. Atwood has always emphasized that situations her characters are placed in throughout the book are drawn from real life. She serves as an executive producer on the Hulu production. “They went further than I went in the book, but it all makes sense,” she says.

Despite the bleakness of The Handmaid’s Tale, Atwood calls herself an optimist. “I just think that I'm a naturally cheerful person,” she says. “On the other hand, I grew up amongst the scientists and amongst the scientists, you're supposed to look at real reality, you know, what's actually there rather than hopeful fantasies. I think the combination of those two things is what people can’t quite get into their heads. Why would I, a naturally optimistic person, look at such gloomy scenarios? The answer is because they’re there.”

Jackie Mansky

Read the full story here

How the British Mapped America
A new interactive website and accompanying book show pre-independence America through English eyes
A 1698 map by Louis Hennepin showed Londoners the rough outlines of the new territories (Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University)
In this era of Google Earth, it’s possible to zoom into small patches of land just about anywhere in the world from the phones we carry in our pockets. When S. Max Edelson, an associate professor of history at the University of Virginia, published his latest book, The New Map of Empire, he decided to create a kind of time-traveling version of Google Earth. Readers can visit mapscholar.org/empire and look at the New World the way Londoners did generations before American independence.

“These maps were dense with images and words and ornamented with illustrations and hidden details,” says Edelson. “One could come back to these images again and again and find new meanings in them.” The maps had a great impact, Edelson says. Even British servants saw them hanging in public buildings, or in the homes of the wealthy families who employed them. 

As part of his research for the project, Edelson rode on the NOAA ship Thomas Jefferson to learn about modern cartography and recreate 18th-century surveys. He frequently takes his students out on the grounds of University of Virginia to put these old-fashioned techniques into action. He still finds it remarkable, he says, “how durable and reliable these methods are based only on careful observation and simple geometry.”

Still, it took British surveyors time to assemble a clear picture of the new territories. They mapped out the southern and eastern edges of the country, from New Orleans up to Newfoundland, over the course of about a dozen years. But their knowledge of the interior remained sketchy for a long time afterwards. Florida was a revelation to them: Initially, it was envisioned as a collection of islands, not a stable part of the continent itself. A new understanding of the terrain allowed the British to transform the area from a military outpost at the edge of the Caribbean Sea to a productive plantation colony—built, of course, on slave labor. (After the American Revolution, Britain gave Florida back to Spain.)

An interesting subplot comes through in these maps: The British took a less aggressive approach than the Americans later did to the Indian territories west of the Appalachian Mountains. “American colonists believed they had a right to colonize the New World and that this work was their greatest accomplishment as a people,” says Edelson. “When Britain tried to restrain this historical mission to expand by tracing a line of division between the settled colonies and the territories of indigenous nations, American colonists perceived this as a threat to their interests, a criticism of their history and a diminishment of their stature as agents of empire.” Still, he notes, “even before the Revolution put a definitive end to this vision, the so-called ‘Proclamation Line’ was already being renegotiated, opening more land for expansion.”

Edelson hopes the book, and the accompanying website, will allow modern readers to look at maps the way 18th century people did: not just as tools for navigation but as labor-intensive products drawing on both science and imagination. “We live in a world saturated with images,” says Edelson. “I think it has dulled our appreciation of how special a carefully produced and elegantly rendered image was in the 18th century, when examples of such artistry were few and far between.”

American Spies in Manila
How a corporal, a businessman and a nightclub owner helped pave the way for General Douglas MacArthur’s return
General Douglas MacArthur lands in the Philippines at Lingayen Gulf on January 9, 1945 (Carl Mydans/National Museum of American History)

From an American perspective, the Japanese invasion of the Philippines during World War II was marked by devastating timing (just hours after Pearl Harbor), epic cruelty (the Bataan Death March) and heroic persistence (General Douglas MacArthur’s “I shall return” vow).

But between MacArthur’s retreat from Corregidor in March 1942 and his return to the Philippines October 1944, a shadow war played out: An American corporal joined up with American and Filipino guerrillas in the jungles outside Manila. An American businessman living in Manila slipped in and out of the city to coordinate the guerrillas’ work with the eventual return of U.S. forces. And an American woman went deep undercover, passing as a nightclub owner and gathering intelligence from the Japanese officers who were her primary customers.

Their story is the one the veteran journalist Peter Eisner tells in his new book, MacArthur’s Spies: The Soldier, the Singer and the Spymaster Who Defied the Japanese in World War II, which he discussed recently with senior editor T.A. Frail.

First, sketch the security environment in the Philippines—what did the Japanese control, and how tightly?

Japan made quick work of seizing the Philippines. MacArthur fled with his troops to Bataan and Corregidor just before Christmas 1941. Ten days later, Japanese troops marched into Manila unopposed and quickly set up a puppet government and police force. They established firm control in almost every town and city in the Philippines. Newspapers and radio stations began parroting the occupation line. The Japanese said they had liberated the country from American control; they called it “Asia for the Asians,” but the Filipinos never bought that. Travel was restricted, houses and cars were confiscated. Schoolchildren started compulsory courses in Japanese. Food became scarce. And people faced daily indignities. Men and women risked a slap in the face or a beating—or worse—if they failed to bow before every Japanese soldier they encountered. Japan never won the propaganda war.

What challenges did the American corporal, John Boone, face out in the jungle? And what could he achieve from there?

The resistance, which would involve hundreds of Americans and thousands upon thousands of Filipinos, had several phases. At first, it was a matter of survival. Boone and hundreds of others had been separated from their units while fighting in Bataan. They needed food, medicine and shelter; with the help of Filipinos in the hills, they learned to hide and live off the land. Pretty soon, Boone realized Filipinos wanted to join the Americans and fight the Japanese. Early on, they staged harassment raids on Japanese patrols. Boone eventually placed spies inside Japanese military units. They were successful enough that Japanese commanders assigned intelligence units and raiding parties to track them down. While Japan held the cities and towns, the guerrillas operated in the jungles and kept on the move to avoid capture. Some were caught, and a number of rebels died in Japanese raids, but the harassment took its toll. Japan never managed to put down the guerrillas.

How did the American businessman, Chick Parsons, manage not to be imprisoned when the Japanese entered Manila?

In addition to having friends all over the Philippines, Parsons spoke Tagalog and Spanish and blended in. Also, he had papers that allowed him to masquerade as Panama’s consul-general.  He remained in the Philippines until June 1942, when he sailed out with his family—only to return as a spy in 1943.

And Claire Phillips? What in the world was she doing in that war zone?

Claire Phillips was an adventurer and an alluring singer who performed in a bunch of variety shows in the Pacific Northwest. By the time she arrived in Manila, in 1939, she was 31 years old and had been married three times. I like to think she was escaping from something or someone— maybe from the last of those three marriages. No one knows. When the war broke out, she proved to be both an American patriot and a natural con artist. She avoided imprisonment as an American by resurrecting records of her marriage to a Filipino man and passing as a native. Then she opened her nightclub and started gathering intelligence, at times risking her life. Her talent for making up stories was so enduring that when she died, in 1960, she took many of the facts of her life to the grave.

Her nightclub, Club Tsubaki, must have had a lot of competition. How did she keep elite Japanese officers coming through her doors?

She made Club Tsubaki into the happening place in Manila by befriending the top Japanese propagandists, advertising heavily, inviting Japanese celebrities when they were passing through town—and stealing other clubs’ talent. Her right-hand gal, Felicidad Corcuera, was a lovely performer who could sing in Japanese, Tagalog and English. Another of her spy friends, whom they called Fahny, was billed as the Filipina Josephine Baker—a striking coincidence, given that Baker was working for the French underground during the war. It didn't hurt that Claire used her connections to the underground to secure a steady supply of beer despite rationing.

What roles did these three play in the liberation of the Philippines? To what extent did they enable MacArthur’s return?

Parsons was MacArthur’s point man. He organized submarine supply operations between U.S. military headquarters in Australia and the Philippines, transporting tons of weapons and other supplies and sneaking spies in and out, along with intelligence reports from the guerrillas and the underground. John Boone and Claire Phillips knew they were working for Parsons. Boone was integral in organizing the resistance on Luzon Island, where Manila is located; he said later that Claire’s intelligence was excellent. Perhaps one of her more poignant roles was to support the POWs at Cabanatuan, which housed survivors of the Bataan Death March under horrendous conditions. She sent food, clothing and medicine and wrote letters to the men to build morale. Many of them wrote back to her during and after, crediting her with saving their lives.

Their efforts, of course, must be remembered in context: Hundreds of thousands of Filipinos also fought and died in World War II. “Looking at it in terms of the whole picture of World War II, Manila should be on the map,” Ricardo T. Jose, a prominent historian at the University of the Philippines, told me. “And yet few people know that. It was one of the worst battlefields of the war.”

Smithsonian in the World
At a time when people are taking to the streets to march for science, Smithsonian scientists are hoping to inspire optimism. “It isn't all anger out there,” says Nancy Knowlton, a noted coral biologist based at Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History, of the Earth Optimism Summit she helped organize. Read more at Science.

On the 25th anniversary of the L.A. riots, the Smithsonian Channel premiered The Lost Tapes, an innovative documentary. With no interviews and no narration, it uses only media clips to tell the story of what happened to the city after police officers were found “not guilty” to beating Rodney King. Read more at The Daily Beast.

Smithsonian scientists have named a newly discovered ant species Sericomyrmex radioheadi, after a British band from the 1990s. The researchers say they wanted to honor Radiohead’s music as well as its high-profile conservation efforts. Read more at Phys.org.

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