SOME THOUGHTS ON "AUTHENTICITY"
by Jonah Begone
I realize that claiming to know something about the subject of authenticity, expressing an opinion regarding the authenticity of somebody's impression, uniform or accoutrement item or simply invoking the term in the pages of this publication is grounds for an endless controversy.
There is nothing more conversationally dull or more irritating in THE HOBBY than hearing reenactors spout some Authenticity Uber Alles sentiment, or invoking the term as if it has some special meaning. In the absolute sense that reenactors use it, the term is useless! Think about it: have you ever heard of some unit deciding they couldn't attend an event because the sponsor wrote "AUTHENTICS ONLY!" in the publicity? (What does this phrase mean? Does it mean that nobody having farby muskets with the legend "Made in Japan" or "Made in Italy" stamped on the barrel can attend?)
One of the notions that fuels all the debate concerning what's right and what's not right at reenactments is that "Reenactors are serious historians." Nonsense! How many full-time, book-authoring, primary source-researching, original thesis-writing, graduate-degreed and published real historians are there running around in wool? How come I don't see Burke Davis, Shelby Foote, William A. Frassanito or William S. McFeely at reenactments? (In other words, if reenactors are serious historians how come serious historians aren't reenactors?) And by the way, who came up with the phrase "Living Historian?" Is this a historian who has a pulse and is breathing, as opposed to, say, Bruce Catton who isn't?
I'm willing to grant that there are many well-intentioned amateur historians in reenacting, but very few "serious historians." There are, however, definitely a lot of reenactors who are touchy and defensive concerning THE HOBBY. The amount of hate mail I get from my adoring public in response to this article will be proof of that! [I was surprised. Grant printed a letter from a reenactor agreeing with this article. As far as I know I didn't get any negative mail. - Jonah] Another proof is a suggestion I once saw printed in these pages of having dismounted cavalry take on line infantry to settle the question of who's more authentic, with the asserted result of the match being the cavalry guys picking up the infantry's "dead" and "wounded." (Assuming anybody is taking hits in such an idiotic activity!)
One friend of mine has the following test to see who's really a "serious historian" and has a real desire to "experience what it was really like," and who's simply in it for the light recreational value. He suggests the serious historian allow himself to be tied to the ground and shot in the leg with a .58 caliber musket, and left to writhe in agony for a day or two under a hot sun (or in the snow for a Fredericksburg scenario). Later he can be picked up and given miserable medical treatment. Think of the reenacting credibility and bragging rights this guy'll get from this "historical vignette!" (He'll also be the only reenactor on earth who can do a 100% authentic Federal Veteran Reserve Corps impression, as well!)
Sometimes our passion for authenticity gets downright silly. I remember two friends arguing about whether or not the Confederates should be invited to a reenactment wedding of a Federal soldier and a Southern lady on the basis of it being "right" or "authentic." Unfortunately a lot of their conversation was being drowned out by the noise of the traffic along the street very near the site of the nuptials. Power and telephone lines crisscrossed overhead.
How can we resolve these weighty questions of authenticity when we are indisputably products of the our era and no one else's? Why even try? Reenacting is not battle and battle is not reenacting. If Viet Nam-style battle footage from some future war once again becomes our bloody TV fare, people - especially the parents of soldiers - will probably not want to pay to see us reenact war on the weekends. Reenacting is, or should be, recreational fun. (After all, don't we call it a "hobby?") As long as authenticity is held to the level of "a reasonable facsimile thereof" so we keep from looking absolutely ridiculous (women in the ranks as musketmen - that sort of thing) why fret about it?