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Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Living More Fully in the Present by Living in the Past?

A Interview with "Man of War" Author Charlie Schroeder

I met Charlie Schroeder a few times in Los Angeles through my friend Ian Helfer. The first time I saw him, I was struck by his WASPy good looks and confidence. I thought he must be an actor. Indeed, he had a few moments of fame as "Mr. Pussy" on "Sex and the City." He also writes for publications as varied as the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, New York Observer, and Huffington Post. His first book, Man of War: My Adventures in the World of Historical Reenactment, is about war reenactments. The book has just been released in paperback. I interviewed him by email.

You were drawn to reenactments initially because of the debauchery you enjoyed as a young person at the Pennsylvania Renaissance Faire?

Not necessarily because of any debauchery, but rather my curiosity about the people who came to the Faire dressed as historical characters. Who were they, I wondered, and why did they spend so much time, money, and energy creating a "kit" (the clothing and accoutrements of a reenactor)? I wanted to know what they got out of dressing like a person from the past.

The more I thought about it, the more I wanted to know what attracts people to a particular moment in time. Why are some people Civil War buffs while others are fascinated with the 1920s? Was it historical curiosity? Or was it just a way for them to live out their fantasies?

Why are people doing this? Isn’t war awful enough? Is it a way to recast violence?

I could write an entire book about this. Wait, I already have, and the paperback version just came out.

People reenact the past (not just war, but civilian life as well) for numerous reasons, including escapism (spending a weekend without modern amenities to get away from it all); a connection to something more permanent than the ephemerality of our modern world; the opportunity to honor a relative; a love of educating people about their local history; a chance to be a war "hero" for a couple days; a fascination with militaria; and even what some reenactors call "experimental archaeology," an immersive experience into another time that helps answer nagging questions about why a particular type of soldier dressed the way he did.

Yes, war is awful enough, and I think most reenactors would agree with that. That said, many reenactors are veterans who have an interest in military strategy. It's also important to remember that for those who've served or been a reservist, their early adult years were spent bonding at boot camp. Kitting up for the weekend is often a way to reconnect with old friends who have similar interests and experiences.

Schroeder dressed as a Polish Winged Hussar at
California's Renaissance Pleasure Faire.

About to light a cannon at a French
and Indian War commemoration.
 Old Fort Niagara, Youngstown, NY.

In the book, you divide the reenactments by specific wars. But did you find that reenactors fall into camps besides the war or an epoch they identify with?

Because the hobby can be very expensive, most reenactors devote their time and energy to one particular period, so typically they fall into those camps because it'd be too expensive to reenact multiple time periods. Those with more disposable income, however, do branch out into other eras.

I was surprised to learn that many reenactors were unaware that people reenacted eras like Vietnam and Rome. In the United States, at least, Colonial America and the Civil War are the two most popular eras, so fringe time periods like 17th-century Poland and Vikings are still very underground.

There seems to be a large aesthetic interest in this endeavor, such as a focus on the right kind of stitching in a Nazi uniform or the precise rebuilding of a Roman fort in the countryside. Do you think this a response to the homogeneity of modern American culture?

Partly, yes. Although in some ways, reenactments are far more homogenous than modern America. (Because typically reenactments are a white-only affair.)

Interestingly, an entire "homegrown," noncorporate economy has sprung up around Revolutionary War reenactments. For Civil War reenactments, items are often mass-produced, but there aren't that many Revolutionary War reenactors, so clothing is made by small business owners. In that sense, there are some really wonderfully nuanced items being made, and a personal relationship develops between reenactors and bespoke tailors—not unlike the relationships soldiers of the actual time period had with their own tailors.

There is also hardly any mention of homosexuals. Why do you think this is such a straight pursuit?

History has not been kind to gays and other minorities. That, I believe, is the reason why it's a mostly straight white male hobby. If you're part of a group that's been discriminated against, why would you want to resurrect the past? The one exception I found was with a Viking reenactment group in Northern California. I met two lesbians in that group who were drawn to the era because Viking women actually enjoyed decent rights compared to their historical peers. They owned property, could divorce and kept the keys to the treasure boxes.

A "Roman fort" in Lafe, Arkansas attracts Roman
reenactors for annual mock battles.

On the St. Lawrence River. Schroeder and five
 others dressed as 18th century cargo men
and rowed and sailed replica bateaux
for four grueling days.

What did you learn from writing an entire book?

That it's a very broad hobby filled with many people who reenact for many reasons. Impossible to summarize in a sound bite or even in 87,000 plus words. I wonder if maybe I just scratched the surface of the reenacting phenomenon.

Are you working on another book? If so, what is it about?

I have some ideas, but nothing concrete yet. If I've learned anything about the process of writing a book, it's that you better really love your topic, because you're going to live with it for at least three years—and likely for the rest of your life. I haven't quite figured out what I want to devote my time to.

What are you doing in Hong Kong? Why did you move there?

I'm continuing to write and produce stories for public radio. To my surprise, I've also revived my dormant acting career. I completed a film in January, and I act in the occasional commercial, dub movies, and even use my acting skills to help teach communication skills.

But more than anything, I just wanted to live here. I first came to Asia in 2001 and met my wife in Hong Kong. After Man of War was released, I felt as though I was ready for a new adventure. The timing was right, and I'm so happy we made the move. The city and region pulse with an optimism that seems to be lost in America.

Your book seems to outline a paradox about history. On the one hand, historic reenactments can make us understand history better and thus experience our own time with greater awareness. On the other hand, it seems escapist. Do you agree?

Without question. Some people happily acknowledge that they kit up simply to get away from it all, while others truly are committed to educating themselves and the public. I suggest going to a reenactment, talking to the participants and then doing some follow up research on your own.

I'd also caution people against attending a reenactment and accepting what you see as fact. While you may meet lots of people who know a tremendous amount about history, there are others who have an agenda to revise history. The Civil War reenactment I participated in bore no historical resemblance whatsoever to the original skirmish. In fact, the Union basically "won" the original skirmish, but at the reenactment both sides won. The Union on Saturday and the Confederates on Sunday because the organizer wanted the Confederacy to win "on the Lord’s Day."

As far as what one can learn by reenacting, well, there’s a lot to take away, but the most immediate impact is that our modern lives are just so incredibly cushy. We're so fortunate to live in this day and age. I only wish more people would appreciate how lucky we are to be alive right now.

All photos courtesy Charlie Schroder


Anonymous said...

Absolutely fascinating. I've always wodered about te people who do this...

Unknown said...

I found a great book titled "Confederates in the Attic" by Tony Horwitz that tries to explain the odd phenomena. His basic take-away is that the Civil War never ended. Having lived a dozen years in the deep South I can attest that to be true.