Tuesday, June 2, 2020

Review - "Entertaining History: The Civil War in Literature, Film, and Song" by Chris Mackowski, ed.

[Entertaining History: The Civil War in Literature, Film, and Song edited by Chris Mackowski (Southern Illinois University Press, 2020). Paperback, photos, figures, notes, index. Pp. 272. ISBN:978-0-8093-3757-6. $26.50]

The American Civil War's hold on popular culture and imagination has always waxed and waned. Its arts and entertainment coverage is also qualitatively inconsistent across various media types. While the non-fiction literature is rich almost beyond belief, success in other media categories (particularly novels and films) has been fleeting at best. It has been argued by many literary critics that Stephen Crane's The Red Badge of Courage remains the only truly great Civil War novel. If one's standards remain high, it might also be maintained that only a handful of good, let alone great, Civil War movies have been produced through major motion picture studios, television, and independent filmmaking. However, timing or any of a number of other factors can make up for sheer numbers, and the Civil War has certainly had, in terms of popular cultural awareness through various media outlets, its time in the sun on multiple occasions. The new edited anthology Entertaining History: The Civil War in Literature, Film, and Song contains a highly eclectic collection of perspectives on many notable examples of Civil War education and entertainment through novels, short stories, mail order book series, movies, television programs, music, and theater.

Entertaining History, part of SIU Press's relatively new Engaging the Civil War series and edited by Chris Mackowski, is a wide-ranging anthology of twenty-five essays and perspectives/retrospectives. In content, presentation, and style they represent many different approaches, from formal scholarly articles to more informal testimonial-type pieces written in first person. Though thematically arranged under the three broad media categories of literature, film, and song, the chapters are so numerous and topically diverse that this discussion will not be a review of the entire anthology but rather a look at a trio of selections that will hopefully offer prospective readers at least some idea of what to expect.

As a admirer of both Ambrose Bierce and Stephen Crane, I enjoyed Amelia Ann and Chris Mackowski's discourse on the cultural impact of both writers. There was a time when nearly every student in U.S. public education read Crane's The Red Badge of Courage and Bierce's "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge" sometime during middle or high school. The two authors were often linked together during their lifetimes, too, which annoyed the older Bierce, a Civil War veteran who wasn't shy about publicly denigrating the much younger Crane. Through interviews with historians and literary scholars, the Mackowski's effectively argue for the continued relevance of both writers in the face of their unfortunate fading from reading lists. Unquestionably, the fiction of Bierce and Crane—which combines high-level dramatic and psychological sophistication with brevity and broad accessibility—offers students of any generation (most of whom will never read a non-fiction Civil War book of any kind once they leave school) an uncommonly authentic portrait of the conflict's 'face of battle.'

Meg Groeling's tribute to the 28-volume Time-Life: The Civil War series published from 1983 to 1987 mirrors many of my own thoughts about it. Civil War enthusiasts of an older generation often cite books like The American Heritage Picture History of the Civil War as germinal influences, but I can trace the early-teen transfer of my own military history allegiance from the Napoleonic Wars and WW2 to the American Civil War in large part to the metallic-gray hardcover volumes from Time-Life. Groeling's brief chapter offers a nice capsule history of the series and how the books were produced through the combined efforts of staff writers, contract authors, and an army of researchers (one of the tasks of the last being to scour the country's public and private archives for images). Much of the text is probably pretty dated by now (and one of Groeling's interview subjects is surely correct in opining that topical emphasis and range would be very different if the series was produced today), but the visual elements created for the series still hold up well. The maps were some of the best of the period, but for me it's the amazing presentation of period photographs, artwork, and other illustrations tracked down by the Time-Life crew that keeps the bulky series on my bookshelf.

Finally, no retrospective of Ken Burns's ten-part documentary The Civil War would be complete without some special mention of Jay Ungar's "Ashokan Farewell," the haunting lament played by his string group Fiddle Fever that would occupy nearly a full hour of series audio time and earn Ungar an Emmy nomination. After noting the irony that the most memorable contribution to a Grammy-winning Civil War soundtrack was its sole non-period piece ("Ashokan Farewell" was composed by Ungar in the early 1980s), essay writer Dan Welch, using some older interviews with Ungar, briefly reconstructs the story behind its origins and creation. Significantly, Welch also credits "Ashokan Farewell" for having "revolutionized musical scores for period pieces on the Civil War" (pg. 223). Just as Burns changed the way historical documentaries were produced, the distinctive violin-led string sound of Ungar's creation influenced a great number of Civil War movie soundtracks and popular songs.

Those three chapters provide just a small taste of what is a thoroughly engaging exploration of the popularization of the Civil War in song and on page and screen. Recommended.


  1. I remember the excitement in my young heart when those Time-Life cardboard boxes (which I think had battle scenes on them) would arrive in the mail, bearing the latest volume of the "Civil War" series. :)

    Joel Manuel
    Baton Rouge LA

    1. After buying a few direct, I ended up getting the vast majority of them from used books stores. Can you remember the list price? I seem to recall $16.99 plus a very high (for the time) S/H charge a la the book and music club model.

    2. They were about $15 each, yes.

  2. One thing I forgot to mention was that I wished the book had covered Civil War popular art. There is a chapter about the Gettysburg Cyclorama, but it would have been great to see another that dealt with the Civil War art print craze (if you could call it that) of the 1990s and maybe early 2000s. For a time, print galleries filled the ad pages of the popular magazines, and the art they sold graced the magazine covers. Maybe it was just a passing collector's fad, but perhaps another reason behind the relative disappearance of the phenomenon was the absence of new blood to build upon or replace Troiani, Gallon, Reeves, Schmehl, etc.

    1. Drew, your mention of the print craze has brought on a "sense memory" of those colorful, often grammatically inept print ads in the Civil War glossies. I recall surprise at the sheer output of many artists, and just how bad many of them were, the exceptions being Troiani and a few others.

    2. There is an article in one of the academic journals from about 10 years ago about the popular memory of the Irish Brigade at Fredericksburg, which included an entertaining mention of the brigade's endless appearances in modern prints and miniatures.

    3. Will,
      Those and the ads for "collectible" trains, mugs, and firearm reproductions.


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