The Forest for the Trees: Historical Reenactment and the Exaltation of Detail

14 Apr

by Jeremy Manczuk-

More often than not the transition from thought to word is, for me, a difficult one. What starts in my mind as a reasonable, semi-coherent thought frequently turns into an incomprehensible clamoring in which I struggle to explain myself satisfactorily. This was the case during our classroom discussion regarding historical reenactors. Most reenactors, I imagine, are genuine contributors to their historical field of interest.  Spending time with like-minded individuals, dressing in historical costume, and interacting with history and the curious public are certainly not reasons to provoke my condemnation. In my contribution to our discussion, however, I failed to convey this sentiment. Instead my remarks deteriorated into rant and I, in inelegant fashion, suggested all historical reenactors suffer from a horribly debilitating gastrointestinal disorder. The purpose of this blog posting–besides getting right with the majority of reenactors–is to clarify my thoughts on the subject.

When I was in junior high (or, perhaps, early high school–I’m a little fuzzy on the timeline) I had a remarkably horrible history teacher. For this woman history was a collection of dates, an assortment of facts, and an accumulation of locations.  History, in her opinion, was solely comprised of what happened–there was no room for why, much less how. On test day, I regurgitated onto paper the data she inputted and promptly forgot the whole boring mess. If this was what the historical discipline entailed, I’d pass. Nearly all of us, I expect, have had a history teacher like this. Almost everyone I encounter in my non-academic life seems to think of history in this way. In their past, I envision, a terrible intermediary–a murderer of history–who confined history to detail and failed to allow appreciation for the remarkable connections human beings can make to their own history when they consider the thoughts, fears, and desires we often share with the past.

This is how I perceive the worst of the historical reenactment lot–a group of history assassins obsessed with every detail from the mundane to the profound without the ability to distinguish, much less interpret, the difference. Dyeing a uniform–even if it is made from authentic materials–with walnuts and vinegar does not tell me anything of value about a period of American history when a young nation’s ideals and values were questioned so intensely. Neither self-imposed emaciation nor the ability to resemble the dead can describe to me the experience of being a soldier during the American Civil War. Certainly some of the most enthusiastic reenactors care to engage history in a meaningful manner.  The implication of the glorification of detail–that history is constructed of inarguable fact–renders their contributions, unfortunately, detrimental to the subject they care for so deeply.

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2 Responses to “The Forest for the Trees: Historical Reenactment and the Exaltation of Detail”

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Civil War Cell Phones? Reenactments at SIUE’s Sesquicentennial Celebration « Preserving the American Past - April 21, 2011

    […] cell phone, I encountered several other parts of the encampment that seemed slightly contradictory. As Jeremy talked about in his recent post, many reenactors, perhaps particularly Civil War reenactors, tend to focus on the details of their […]

  2. Reassessing Reenactments « Preserving the American Past - May 2, 2011

    […] of St. Louis.  This event was much less confusing and even, to my surprise, somewhat entertaining. I still stand by my original claims – that reenactors are, for the most part, minutiae-driven bores with little to contribute to a […]

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