Tuesday, July 12, 2011
In the Introduction Horowitz writes that his boyhood interest in the Civil War was re-sparked when he met a group of “hardcore” reenactors who were acting as extras on a movie being shot just outside his home. He developed the idea for the book after joining the same group of reenactors for a weekend drilling in a cold and damp field.
He comes back to reenacting in Chapter 6, where he participates in a reenactment event of a more typical variety. At the reenactment he participates in a battle, peels vegetables with civilians and gets a pretty good picture of Civil War reenacting. A lot of the views he expresses are fairly stereotypical; but they are well articulated which makes the chapter to me a good starting off place for those of us who are looking for language to describe reenacting. He talks about hardcores, farbs and all the rest of the people in between, about the battle part of the reenactment and the civilian part around the edges, about the multiple Abraham Lincolns one might run into, about women’s roles on the outskirts of the reenactment. He encounters a lot of people who tell him they love reenacting because “life was simpler back then.” Throughout the chapter he explores the friction created by folks “playing” with a deadly serious topic, and basically ignoring the racial strife of the civil war. He captured some of his observations in the form of participant quotes:
"We're here to preserve the experience on the common soldier, North and South," said Ray Gill a gray-clad Connecticut Accountant. "I hate to call it a hobby, because it's so much more than that. We're here to find the real answers, to read between the lines in the history books, and then share our experience with spectators."
He ends up summarizing Civil War reenacting as: “a grand spectacle that glorified battlefield valor and the stoicism of civilians.” I agree that there is definitely a high quotient of spectacle in reenactment.
Reenacting shows up in several other chapters. Horowitz participates in a whirl-wind tour of Virginia sites with Civil War significance with a reenactor who insists the tour be done in garb. While Horowitz might not be terribly comfortable in the clothes himself, he is even more uncomfortable with the reactions of the public to their appearance at historic sites. As folks in costume, they get comments and stares, they also get questions and become experts just because they are dressed up. While it makes the author uncomfortable to be placed in the role of expert, his companion appears used to it, and has a routine all worked out. I think that we in the reenacting community need to come up with a proverb or an adage that warns folks who put on the clothes about what they will be expected to know.
In his chapter on Georgia (specifically Atlanta) Horowitz discovers the reenactment of fictional events when he looks at locals’ relationship with “Gone with the Wind”. He meets a professional “Scarlet” who mostly does her act for groups of Japanese tourists, and he meets the owner of “the real Tara” though there actually never was a real Tara. Anyone who has attended a Jane Austin tea or a Charles Dickens Christmas party can understand the allure of a literary history that, while based in fact, may be much more poetic than real life, and colorful, and evocative. Again, Horowitz is not a reenactor and his audience is not mainly reenactors, so he does not necessarily dwell on the connections, but they are there for those of us who see the world through a LH lens.
Horowitz also comes back to reenactment in his conclusion. He again joins in a reenactment and asks of himself and the people around him: what is the allure of the Civil War? Why this obsession? That is the question that LH folks often end up asking themselves. Horowitz does not have an answer. I don’t either, but I’m glad he asked the question.