Historical Reenactment: From Realism to the Affective Turn / Iain McCalman and Paul A. Pickering, eds.

About a decade ago, I was a dedicated Civil War reenactor.  While I imagine Americans would have no trouble grasping what that declaration means, I feel the need to explain it here.  Civil War reenactors are hobbyists who dress in authentic nineteenth century uniforms and gather periodically at pre-arranged sites to stage sham battles.  If this sounds like an adult version of a children’s dirt-clod fight, you have a pretty accurate picture of the practice.  Aside from it being a great deal of fun, there are those serious practitioners who have, over the years, insisted that Civil War reenactments serve some sort of educational purpose, either for the spectators of sham battles, or the participants who stage them.  I will admit at the outset that I am not one of those serious practitioners, and have always felt it little more than a harmless pastime.

Even though I had heard that occasionally Australians also stage reenactments of American Civil War battles, I had not considered the possibility that they might also undertake depictions of other events, especially home grown ones.  You can easily imagine my surprise when I picked up this book at my library the other day expecting an academic discussion on the American hobby and discovered it was actually a collection of essays by Australian, Canadian, and American scholars on a wide ranging interpretation of what “historical reenactment” means.  It opened my eyes to the practice of the hobby in your country, and how the historical community views these live performance spectacles, as well as television documentaries, musical performance, and museum exhibits.

This book is not an easy read, and is full of technical and philosophical jargon that I found difficult to understand at times.  However, I was delighted especially with the chapter by Anja Swartz describing the television program “Outback House.”  This popular broadcast was described as one that reenacted a past that “could have been,” and omitted larger issues of indigenous displacement in the settlement of Australia. Another chapter by Stephan Gapps describes his observations on reenacting by using a depiction of the Battle of Vinegar Hill as his model.  What made this chapter so entertaining to me was Gapps’ successful attempt to draw broad philosophical conclusions while simultaneously suppressing the implied fact that he had a great time at the battle!  

This is a serious work for academics that the casual reader, if not involved in the reenacting hobby, would probably find far too onerous for an afternoon’s browsing.

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I liked Confederates In The Attic by Tony Horwitz. What a life! It wasn't you, was it?
Actually, what made Horwitz book so compelling for me is the fact that I have met one or two of the people he describes!

In all seriousness, Confederates in the Attic can be seen as a perfect companion piece to Historical Reenactment, especially if one wants to understand the "affective turn" in reenacting.

One thing that Horwitz made me realize in my own life was the answer to my own interest in history, especially Civil War history. At one point in Confederates in the Attic, Rob Hodges confesses that he became interested in the Civil War partially as a result of playing with little plastic soldiers as a kid. When I was a kid, in the early 1960s, the Civil War Centennial was in full swing in the U.S., and I, too, had a set of those little soldiers!!!!

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