Edited by Chris Mackowski
Southern Illinois University Press, 2020, $26.50 paperback.
Reviewed by Stephen Davis
When Chris Mackowski writes, in this engaging collection of essays, about “the Ken Burns effect,” he’s referring to the spike in Civil War tourism seen in the year after Burns’ The Civil War aired in 1990. Different generations experience different such effects. I became a Civil Warrior in the 4th grade—when The Gray Ghost aired on CBS during 1957-58. The late Albert Castel told folks it was Gone With the Wind that turned him to the War.
Same point, though, all around: popular media, especially TV and movies, have a more magnetic effect than—well, books and scholarly journals.
Those of you who agree with me will want to snatch up Entertaining History: The Civil War in Literature, Film, and Song. It’s organized in three parts, as the title suggests: the War in words, in movies and TV, as well as in music. Example of the latter, logically, is Dan Welch’s piece on “Dixie,” which begins with Lynyrd Skynyrd’s cover. These days Daniel Emmett’s popular tune, as we know, carries cultural baggage. But that didn’t keep Bob Dylan and his band from playing it in the campy 2003 movie Masked and Anonymous.
One of the book’s charms is the handy size of its component essays. Twenty-five of them appear in just over two hundred pages. Take Kevin Pawlak’s article on Civil War photography, relating in just six pages the story of Gardner’s/Gibson’s chilling photographs of the Antietam dead. When displayed in Brady’s Broadway gallery, Americans got their first graphic look at war’s carnage.
As you’d expect, Ken Burns’ documentary pops up everywhere in this book. Yet another feature of Entertaining History is its long view. “Before Ken Burns, Bruce Catton put the Civil War on the coffee table,” Meg Groeling writes in her article about Catton’s Pulitzer Prize-winning trilogy of the early’50s. Chris Barr, a guide at Andersonville NHS, got used to visitors coming up and saying, “I watched the movie Andersonville before I came here and….” Chris would smile and finish their sentence: “Martin Blackburn is buried in the back of Section H.” The gruesome scurvy-death of Blackburn, an actual member of the 184th Pennsylvania, is depicted toward the end of Ted Turner’s TV movie of 1996. Barr’s story reminded me that decades ago, after reading The Killer Angels, all my wife-at-the-time wanted to do was just one thing: “take me to where the 20th Maine fought.”
I could go on and on. Who doesn’t have “those silver books from Time-Life”? (Meg Groeling). McPherson’s Battle Cry? (Ryan Longfellow). Who hasn’t seen Cold Mountain? (Paul Ashdown). Or gaped before the Gettysburg Cyclorama? (Chris Brenneman).
I’d ask the same about Seth Grahame-Smith’s fantastical novel, Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, or about Tim Burton’s film version, but that might be stretching it. Still, who can’t have fun with Ashley Webb’s piece, “Abraham Lincoln: Freedom Fighter, Vampire Hunter, and Zombie Killer”? Abraham Lincoln vs Zombies, she points out, is admittedly a B-movie take-off of Vampire Hunter. But who cares, especially when the nation’s 16th president “teams up with Stonewall Jackson, a young Theodore Roosevelt, two prostitutes, and John Wilkes Booth to combat the undead and reunited the Union.” (Hmmm…I have it downstairs; think I’ll watch it.)
In these days of coronavirus quarantine, one may seek entertainment any number of ways. One that I’d definitely recommend is Entertaining History.