ST. BONAVENTURE, N.Y. — One of the most common ways people get interested in Civil War history is by first watching a good movie or reading an engaging novel on the topic.
A new collection of essays edited by St. Bonaventure University professor Dr. Chris Mackowski looks at some of these popular forms of historical entertainment.
“Entertaining History: The Civil War in Literature, Film, and Song,” published by Southern Illinois University Press, contains 28 essays from 20 contributors covering more than 30 books, movies, TV shows, magazines, songs and other texts.
“Popular media can spark the national consciousness in a way that captures people’s attention, interests them in history, and inspires them to visit battlefields, museums and historic sites,” said Mackowski, a writing professor in St. Bonaventure’s Jandoli School of Communication. “These forms of media can be important gateways for people to get hooked on history.”
Often, people make the mistake of assuming their favorite Civil War movie is 100 percent historically accurate, but Mackowski said there’s an important distinction between history and art.
“Movies or books might give people wrong impressions, but if it gets them through the door at a historic site, then the historian working there has an opportunity he or she would not have had in the first place,” Mackowski explained. “The movie might get visitors through the door; the historian can then give them the accurate history.”
“Entertaining History” is not intended as a comprehensive collection, but rather a jumping-off point for readers to begin their own explorations.
“The writers who contributed these essays did so because they love these books and movies and songs, so there’s a pretty high degree of ‘fanboy’ woven into the book,” Mackowski said. “We wanted it to feel like a reader was sitting down to a fun conversation with people who loved these things as much as they do.”
Essay topics range from Ulysses S. Grant’s memoirs to “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter,” from “Roots” to Ken Burns’ “The Civil War,” from “Dixie” to “Ashokan Farewell,” and from Civil War photography to the Gettysburg Cyclorama. Other works covered include “Gone with the Wind,” “Andersonville,” “Cold Mountain,” “Glory,” “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” “12 Years a Slave,” and Ted Turner’s Civil War movies on TNT.
Aside from his editing duties, Mackowski contributed several essays, including one titled “The Ken Burns Effect,” which demonstrates the boost in attendance popular media creates for historical sites. He has an essay about writer Shelby Foote, author of the monumental three-volume “The Civil War: A Narrative,” and he co-wrote an article about the rivalry between writers Ambrose Bierce and Stephen Crane, whose early Civil War writings are often the first introductions people have to Civil War literature.
St. Bonaventure alumna Hannah Gordon, ’16, also contributed a pair of essays, putting to work her Jandoli School journalism skills. For one, she interviewed best-selling author Jeff Shaara; for the other, she interviewed Pulitzer Prize-winner Tony Horwitz.
Another alumna, Rebecca Campana, ’03, an English and journalism and mass communication major, now an arts administrator at Arena Stage in Washington, D.C., contributed an essay about the Broadway musical “The Civil War.”
According to the publisher, “The contributors’ fresh analysis articulates a shared passion for history’s representation in the popular media. The variety of voices and topics in this collection coalesces into a fascinating discussion of some of the most popular texts in the genres. In keeping with the innovative nature of this series, web-exclusive material extends the conversation beyond the book.”
“Entertaining History” is part of the Engaging the Civil War Series, published by Southern Illinois University Press in collaboration with Emerging Civil War, a public-history oriented group of historians co-founded by Mackowski. You can read their blog at www.emergingcivilwar.com.
Mackowski has a Ph.D. in English/creative writing from Binghamton University, where part of his studies focused on Civil War-related literature. He has been on the faculty at St. Bonaventure since the fall of 2000.