... the way that modern Britons form their ideas about the war as historical event - what it was like and what it was meant - from literary sources - either the poetry they are taught in schools or the modern popular fiction which uses the war (WWI) as a setting.On the ACW side, there is nothing like the body of literature around WWI. On the other hand, the ACW does see a steady stream of bestselling potboilers and I have long wondered if the fiction reader can be classified as part of the Civil War audience.
I took part in a colloquium on 'Periscope and Telescope' at Wolfson College Oxford. The aim was to bring together 'literary' and 'military' historians to discuss 'conflicting views of the Great War'.We need a Civil War a symposium like that in the US.
In a session set up as a debate, I was asked to speak against the motion that 'Historians need creative imagination as much as imaginative writers need historical information'. Facetiously, I opposed it on the grounds that it was insufficiently strong: historians need far more creative imagination (whether in devising a methodology, analysing incomplete information, or writing without committing the crime of 'psychological anachronism') than do imaginative writers. [My emphasis. There is analysis and then synthesis.]
The problem for many historians of the war is that readers tend to accept these works of historical fiction as accurate pieces of reconstruction. This suspension of disbelief is probably true of all historical fiction, but is particularly the case for a war in which many Britons still feel bound up by myths of family involvement. Like many of my colleagues, I have had otherwise perfectly reasonable and intelligent people tell me that books like Birdsong or Regeneration told them the 'truth' about the First World War.
This frustrates historians for three reasons: 1) we see the errors, plagiarism and anachronisms, 2) we can't understand why readers get confused between fact and fiction, 3) some of these books sell in quantities we could only dream about and reach audiences we never will.