Re-enacting and historical truth

I was listening to Keith Poulter, editor of North & South, on Civil War Talk Radio, when Poulter said that he had been advised once not to waste resources marketing his magazine to re-enactors because re-enactors don't read.

Poulter and host Gerald Prokopowicz had a chuckle before dismissing that idea.

But there is a huge point to be made. Re-enactors are, by and large I think, former nonfiction readers who wish to take their vicarious experiences to the next level. That doesn't stop them from reading more, of course, it simply subordinates reading as a lower form of experience.

And if your weeknights are about getting ready for weekends and your weekends allow little time for reading, you may be numbered among the ranks of former readers.

If your involvement with history features imagined physical activity, vivid visualizations, compelling storylines and dramatic dialog and violence, nonfiction will get you only so far. You'll find more of that and better in the historical novel. Civil War fiction heavily outsells ACW nonfiction; as it would, if story-oriented readers steadily abandon nonfiction for a purer story experience.

After you have read the story, living the story represents the next step.

From a publishing perspective, a circle emerges:

* A mass audience is captivated by the storytelling in a TV series or film or novel; it washes into ACW history where it finds

* A large number of storytellers operating in the nonfiction genre plying "real" and "true" storylines; these are somewhat less satisfying than novels and a bored audience

* Takes up with ACW novels and/or re-enacting.

The nonfiction storytellers in Civil War publishing, then, act as a waystation or perhaps a pumping engine, drawing the transient readers in, then pushing them out again. They serve to some extent to validate the films and TV shows that attracted the reader; their material also validates novels and re-enactments. But they can't keep an audience because as a story form, nonfiction cannot match fiction; and the truth of a good novel will always shine brighter than the truth of a history hacked and disfigured into story pieces to facilitate the narrative arts.

The re-enactor is someone who is consciously turning away from nonfiction reading as an avenue to historical truth and is now reaching for a higher, better level of understanding through experiential truth.

To the re-enactor then, North & South may be useful for some point of information but the re-enactor's entertainment can no longer be effected by Keith Poulter or his writers.

This gap between reading and doing is not a gap between falsehood and truth, however; the difference is merely between reading a play and acting in it. The story, being fiction, yields re-enactments which are fiction.

Truth is in the analysis (and its resulting synthesis). The historian co-exists in the same publishing space with the best-selling nonfiction storyteller. Not dealing in stories, the historian is invisible to the mass audience swimming through on its way to more intense experiences of historical truth.

The nonfiction writer is the ultimate loser. Having destroyed truth to make a story, the story fails both as literature and as historical experience and his audience moves on.

The historian, unconcerned with entertaining, plies his trade and if he has gained nothing, he has at least destroyed nothing.

And so, re-enactment offers a key to understanding Civil War publishing.