A Journalist on the History Beat
In college I wanted to be a historian and spend my life (as I imagined it then) burrowing into the past at a bucolic New England campus. But my thesis advisor knew me better than I knew myself. Or perhaps he was just being kind about my prospects. After reading my final paper, he gently suggested I set aside plans for graduate school and “get out in the world for awhile.”
Which I did: first as a union organizer in Mississippi (a poor career choice) and then as a newspaper reporter and war correspondent, mostly in the Middle East. By my mid-thirties I’d become a nomadic, caffeine-addled newshound with a shortwave radio and Kevlar vest—the opposite of the archive-dwelling scholar I’d dreamed of in college. Whenever I tried to sneak a few paragraphs of history into my dispatches, the copy desk invariably excised them. “We’re in the news business,” one editor tartly reminded me.
I wanted a way back to studying history, but lacked the temperament or skills set. All I knew how to do was catch planes to strange lands, improvise once I got there, and chat up people entirely unlike me. Gradually it occurred to me that I could apply this m.o. to history. By going to the places where history happened and reporting on what I saw and the memory-keepers I met. A journalist on the history beat.
This led to a book, Confederates in the Attic, about the contemporary obsession with the Civil War. I went to rebel-flag rallies, meetings of the Sons, Daughters, and Children of the Confederacy, dawn vigils at Shiloh, and pilgrimages to Tara. As a reporter I’d often done participatory journalism—riding camels with border guards in Egypt, or working at a chicken slaughterhouse to write about the poultry industry—so it seemed natural to engage in participatory history. I joined a band of “hardcore” reenactors, who seek absolute fidelity to the 1860s by sewing their own uniforms (to match the thread count of the originals), gnawing on hard tack, and starving themselves into the gaunt, hollow-eyed soldiers of Civil War tintypes.
Historians tend to regard reenactors as annoying amateurs who sanitize and simplify the past, turning war into pure spectacle. And it’s true, many reenactors do: their mantra is honoring the heroism and sacrifice of soldiers both North and South, rather than debating the causes and passions that underlay the conflict. Reenactors also imagine that by donning uniforms and shooting blanks they can travel through time and experience what’s called a “period rush.”
It’s easy to laugh at this, but after weeks by campfires and bloating on mock battlefields, I came to see value in play-acting history. No matter how much you read about the misery of long marches in Virginia heat, or the tedium of camp life, you’ll appreciate it a little better after trudging for ten miles in heavy wool and ill-fitting boots, or spooning all night with rank Confederates and eating salt pork cooked on bayonets over a sodden fire.
Reenacting also helped me grasp how everyday Americans experience history. This isn’t a fringe hobby; reenacting is now the main vehicle for Civil War remembrance, attracting tens of thousands of participants and spectators, including many women and a small but growing number of African-Americans. Most of those I spoke to have a reverence for the past and a low-grade discontent with modern life. Reenacting offers vicarious contact with an era that seems simpler and more heroic, a time when roles and causes were clear-cut and individuals could make a difference. The hands-on populism of reenacting—most adherents call themselves “living historians,” in implicit contrast to the dead historians of the academy—also parallels the Internet revolt against the “mainstream media.”
For a later book, Blue Latitudes, about Captain Cook’s Pacific voyages, I did more reenacting, this time by spending a week before the mast as a sailor aboard a replica of the Endeavour. Again, I found this instructive. Today, work is all about saving time and labor, and many of us spend our days alone, at a computer terminal. On 18th-century ships, there was plenty of time and labor, and each task required back-breaking, collective exertion. Sleeping in a hammock belowdecks, a few inches from other sailors, I also sensed how claustrophobic it must have been for a hundred men, plus animals, to be crammed on a small wooden ship for three years at a time. This helped me appreciate the way Cook’s men behaved, both their drunken brawling at sea and their eagerness on land to flee the strictures of Navy life for the libertine customs of Polynesia.
I don’t mean to suggest that my time on the Endeavour, or as a Confederate reenactor, was in any way comparable to what English sailors or Civil War soldiers endured. Nor should play-acting history serve as a substitute for the hard work of archival research. However, in small doses, reenacting can be a complement to traditional scholarship, and a way to enliven history for general readers.
There is, I think, even more value in visiting historic ground. While researching Blue Latitudes, I crisscrossed the Pacific in Cook’s wake, and did much the same for the book I’ve just finished, about pre-Mayflower explorers of North America. When I set off on these journeys, I wondered if I’d find anything of historic value on beaches and at vanished settlements where Europeans and native people first encountered each other centuries ago. Often the landscape is too changed, or the primary sources too sketchy, to be sure you’re in the right place. Even if you are, it’s hard to catch echoes of the distant past with traffic passing or planes overhead. Also, as anyone who has done this sort of travel knows, monuments and local knowledge and oral histories are riddled with myths and misconceptions. The Vikings, to judge from the countless runes and other relics attributed to them, got everywhere in America, even landlocked Oklahoma.
Nonetheless, as a footloose writer unencumbered by academic obligations, I felt fortunate to do what few professional scholars can. At Newfoundland’s inhospitable northern tip, where the Norse briefly settled a millennium ago, the remains of sod longhouses and a bog-iron furnace helped me grasp the harshness of life for North America’s first European settlers. The same was true at a ruined pueblo near Zuni, New Mexico, where archaeologists have uncovered 16th-century Spanish musket balls and horseshoes—evidence of the shock-and-awe assault by conquistadors on natives who had never seen guns or armored men on horses.
More broadly, research of this kind helps put me in the right frame of mind to think about the history I’m recounting. I can’t possibly recapture the freshness of first contact, or the sensation of sailing into the complete unknown. But traveling in the footsteps of early explorers, I felt a little closer to the vertigo and wonder of discovery: to the feeling of being blown off course, like the Vikings; of having to improvise in a strange and hostile land, like the Spanish castaway, Cabeza de Vaca; of seeing something entirely alien, like the naturalist aboard Cook’s ship who was so baffled by a kangaroo that he described it as an 80-pound mouse.
“Travelers,” Cynthia Ozick observes, experience the “ghost-seizing, brightness, eeriness, firstness” of childhood. “They are, for a while, floating vagabonds, like astronauts out for a space walk on a long free line.”
On good days, tracking history in the present, I feel a little like that: a vagabond, floating through time instead of space, hoping to bring back a glimpse of that foreign country, the past.
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Jon Martens - 8/19/2008
It's because your average reenactor gets it wrong.
I'm a reenactor and I aspire to one day be an academic... my study has led me down the "hard-core" path, but not nearly as hard-core as the guys Horowitz falls in with. Hard-core in terms of getting it right.
I don't like to attend big reenactments because the farbies make me mad too much. Blue tarps, coolers and lots of cooking iron are the standard accouterments of the "average reenactor". Better not to do it than to do it wrong.
Michael Davis - 8/18/2008
I could never understand why academics disliked 'amateur' civil war reenactors and the like.
You would think, after listening to so many in college decry the fact that Americans had no sense of history, that they would be encouraged by this hobby. Albeit, one that was short on academics, but long on historic meaning and reverence.
Anyway, I look forward to reading his new book.
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