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Why do colonial recreations remain so popular, despite the obvious lack of popular interest in reading William Bradford, John Winthrop, John Smith, and Cotton Mather? If you have ever been to one of these recreations, what did you like about it? How would Handler and Saxton explain their popularity?

7 Responses to “Colonial Recreations in the Contemporary US”

  1. Kenton Ratliff says:

    There has always been and will most likely continue to be a romanticised notion of the past. In our readings, there was fascination with the New World because through it people could fantasize simpler lifestyles that were looking gone in Europe. The late colonists romantisiced their forefathers: mimicking puritan style and beliefs without actually adhering to those values. Revolutionaries embodied ideas of minimalism and the working class man in an era where materialism and consumerism were at their highest. We saw through Washington Irving and Thomas Cole the post-revolutionary nostalgia towards a pastoral landscape. The interest in historical reenactments is based more on romance than historical accuracy. In all previous examples of the fascination with a romanticized past existing in the present, there is also an element of escapism. The popular forms we’ve studied (new world anthologies, witch trails, captivity narratives, plays, and fiction writing) all offer readers and viewers a temporary escape from reality into a non exsistant notion of the past. The current popularity of “young adult” fiction, action movies and a majority of the content of YouTube is due to that medium’s ability to offer an escape from the mundane into a reality that can never exist, whether nostalgic or not. Historical reenactment offers the best of both worlds, allowing people to escape to a notion of the past.

  2. Paul Donnelly says:

    It seems to me that one of the main reasons that these colonial recreations can remain so popular and stay in business is because of children. I could be mistaken, but it seems like a vast majority of the business that these recreations get are from school field trips and parents taking their children for a fun educational outing. When I attended Plimoth Plantation for a school field trip in elementary school it seemed like many of the people there were similarly aged to me at the time. The language in Bradford, Winthrop, Smith, and Mather makes reading these documents impossible for most children. Therefore these recreations become the best way for children to have access to something that is similar to a ‘primary source.’ While obviously these recreations are just the best attempt to recreate history through interpretations of the primary sources that we have access to – it then gives children the ability to have an opinion and reaction to something that is as close as they can get to the primary sources. Handler and Saxton state that these recreations are “contingent interpretations of the past rather than accurate descriptions.” Partially because of this and because the viewers are viewing the reenactment over 300 years removed from the actual time of the Pilgrims, Handler and Saxton and other critics argue that “replication of past states of mind is impossible.” Even though there is no way that these reenactments can be perfect, they provide an easy and fun way for children and others to dive into a world far different than their own without having to pore over more difficult textual sources.

  3. Eric Truss says:

    The modern interest in colonial recreation hinges on people’s desire to experience a different time in the same place. Having been to colonial Williamsburg and recreations in Boston, as well as Civil War recreations in Gettysburg, it always seems to me that the participants’ interest lies not specifically in the activities of the past, but rather how different the past can be from the present.

    Although not necessarily “colonial recreations,” I believe the creation of recent AMC drama “Turn,” about spies in the Revolutionary War, and HBO’s “John Adams,” highlight the level of intrigue modern Americans still feel with regards to the colonial era. With these shows, we can get a taste of the colonial recreation experience, not by churning butter, but by flipping though the DVR.

  4. Benjamin Custer says:

    As a Civil War re-enactor of 10 years, I imagine I’m coming at this topic with a different perspective from the rest of the class. I think Sophie is spot on about why people are more likely to go to Old Sturbridge than read Cotton Mather, but I’d like to challenge the idea Handler and Saxton raise that living historians as a group have some sort of aloof attitude toward written history (indeed, there are a great many things I would challenge, but too many to really keep track of throughout the article…I’ll be interested to see where our discussion goes). In my experience, re-enactors are voracious readers and I have a hard time seeing any re-enactor dissuading an interested spectator from reading a history book. If I get into a talk with someone and they seem genuinely interested, one of the first things I’ll do is encourage them to read “my unit’s” regimental history and I think that’s far closer to the norm than the smug sense of superiority over the written word portrayed by Handler and Saxton

  5. Chelsea Montello says:

    I agree with Sophie in that popular interest in these authors’ works is deterred by their inaccessibility. However, when presented in a more ‘modern’ way (whether it be historical fiction novels, reenactments, or movies) I think the public responds positively and with great interest. My personal experience with visiting colonial recreations, especially on class field trips, was such that I and others were intrigued by the ‘old’ lifestyles and by the complexities of things we take for granted, like churning butter or making candles. As far as battle reenactments go, who couldn’t find them entertaining? They’re emotional, tactical, frightening, and invigorating–aren’t these attributes what we attend the movie theater to see? Handler and Saxton view colonial recreations in the same way; the hands-on experience provided is immersive and engaging in a way we could not otherwise experience. Handler and Saxton also point out an important idea in that “reenactive interpretation strives not so much to recount the configured events of historical narratives, but to rewrite and reread them at the level of their phenomenal occurrence.” They can be used to increase our historical understanding, building on old ideas and shaping new ones.

  6. Sophie Dodd says:

    I don’t think the public’s disinterest in Bradford, Winthrop and Mather is necessary a disinterest in the material, but more a disinterest in the medium. The language is inaccessible to many and it is difficult to imagine the things they describe, especially when we are so used to visual representations as a way of learning. In the same way that films are more engaging than primary sources when it comes to learning about early American history, reenactments are popular because they engage us even more. We can see the soldiers and the blood, we can hear the sound of men and horses, we can smell gunpowder and the country air and we can even feel the costumes and touch the weapons. As Handler and Saxton explain, reenactments break down the invisible barrier between the present and the past in a way that perhaps shouldn’t be possible. I do think reenactments are an escapist experience for many, the same way that technology-free resorts are or the way books are becoming. There’s something fascinating about something that we can’t experience on the Internet or through videos or blogs, something we can only experience viscerally. Short of time travel, reenactments would appear to be the closest we will ever get to experiencing the past, and I think there’s a real draw in that and in understanding “what life was like back then.”

    Every year my family does this Christmas Eve reenactment at the Mystic Seaport and it’s one of my favorite traditions. Everyone is dressed up and we ride a carriage and it’s usually snowing and I just love the feeling of being in a world so different than my everyday life. I even turn off my cell phone (which never happens) because I don’t want to ruin the atmosphere.

  7. Daniel Reed says:

    According to Handler and Saxton, colonial recreations are popular because they allow visitors to experience “living history,” or “the simulation of life in another time.” I would tend to agree with this statement. Indeed, recreation often involves the simulation of a different life. Many of us do this as early as childhood, at which time our games involve “make-believe” that allows us to simulate various exciting situations. It is also the case for adults, who enjoy activities such as reading fiction or watching movies; both of these allow us to imagine living as other people in other worlds. To Handler and Saxton, a critical component of living history is its authenticity. They argue that real life “everyday experiences” feel “unreal” or “inauthentic,” and that historical recreations feel authentic through their simple “narrative coherence.” In other words, these places are set up as a collection of stories that all fit together. This makes them feel authentic and thus pleasing and relaxing.

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