Stranger Than History: The Art of Historical Fiction

Conversations at the Newberry Library recently featured “Stranger than Fiction: Tasha Alexander and Susanna Calkins on the Art of Historical Fiction.” The two authors reflected on how their backgrounds as academically-trained historians prepared them for the world of fiction-writing. Alexander and Calkins addressed concerns relevant to writing historical fiction, like heeding the historical mindset of their characters, capturing the tone and rhythm of their characters’ dialogue, and knowing how to use their research effectively to tell captivating, enriching stories.

Maggie McClain, Kelly Schmidt, and Hannah Zuber attended the event. Below are their reactions to the conversation. A full recording of the conversation can be found here.

Writing historical fiction. It seems like an exhilarating, daunting, fulfilling process. I personally have never undertaken writing a book, but I’ve always enjoyed reading historical fiction. Really great writers transport you to a different time and place through their mastery of the written word. Composing a great story requires in-depth research and clear, concise writing. Historians are trained to do exactly that, so it is no wonder that some go into the profession of historical fiction writing.

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Navigating the Past from our Pockets : Instagram and Public History

Anyone that knows me personally knows I’m quite the nerdy hobby photographer. Just read my archives on this blog to find out for yourself. So, when I caved and finally purchased my first smart phone last December, I immediately uploaded Instagram and started snapping away. For those of you scratching your heads and asking, “Insta-what?”, Instagram is a smart phone app (now also available on iPads) that functions like Twitter for the aspiring photographers of the world. You snap photos, add filters, and can share your photos with other Instagrammers who “follow” your feed. In turn, you can follow others, too.

With Web 2.0 now all the rage, a variety of history-related apps are available for our smart technologies. From the Library of Congress Virtual Tour to Historypin to Oregon Trail, history is literally right inside our pockets and purses. Smart phone technology has in many ways democratized access to history and history-related resources like never before. Which leads me back to Instragram. As a public historian, over-eager photog and smart phone user, I find these three worlds colliding on my iPhone 5 all the time.  In their photo-sharing ways, Instagram users are also sharing, shaping and navigating the past. So, how do we explore history with Instragram? How do I?

Below are just some of the ways. I’ve included my original captions with the images. To follow my Instagram happenings, you can follow my account annie_cullen on your smart technology or take a peek at my online profile here. Disclaimer: yes, I take too many pictures of my cats.

Instagramming History
Dream bathroom. #cuneomansion #oldshit #latergram #publichistory @zhenshchina

Instagramming History
Last set of books for the last semester of graduate school.

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A Public History Mixed Tape: Famous Figures

My colleagues have filled the Lakefront Historian with a number of critical reviews of historical fiction films.  And this year there so were many films to choose from: Abraham Lincoln Vampire Hunter, Lincoln, Django Unchained, and others we didn’t even get to. But another popular medium of public history has recently caught my attention: music. I’ve been keeping a long list of songs about historical events and people. Below are just a few of those focusing on famous figures. They range from past presidents (and there are a LOT of those) to French monarchs in genres as broad as country to indie pop. How such songs both reflect and shape popular memory deserves its own line of inquiry on this blog. (In fact, read Rachel Boyle’s excellent review of Fun.’s music video “Some Nights.”) I hope you enjoy this mixed tape and keep your eyes peeled for more to come.

“Andrew Jackson” by Wallace House
“FDR in Trinidad” by Ry Cooder
“Hurricane” by Bob Dylan
“Abe Lincoln” by Best Friends Forever
“James K. Polk” by They Might Be Giants
“Alexander Graham Bell” by Sweet
“Killer Queen” by Queen
“Louis Quatorze” by Bow Wow Wow
“Eisenhower is the Father” by Best Friends Forever
“Holland, 1945” by Neutral Milk Hotel
“Sacré Charlemagne” by France Gall
“Ballad of Ira Hayes” by Johnny Cash
“Cortez the Killer” by Neil Young & Crazy Horse
“So Long, Frank Lloyd Wright” by Simon & Garfunkel
“We Didn’t Start the Fire” by Billy Joel (Sorry, I had to sneak this in.)

What are your favorite songs about historical figures and people(s)?

Vengeance and History in Django Unchained

This is one of two reviews of “Django Unchained” by Lakefront Historian bloggers. See also ajdilorenzo’s post on the film.


Who would guess that in the past year two of the most talked about movies would be on the topic of American slavery? If you have not noticed yet Lincoln and Django Unchained deal with the history of slavery very differently. Some Americans, interestingly a select few African Americans, have decried the film as irreverent in its revisionism of slavery or paradoxically for its use of the “n-word”. I suggest that the film memorably revises the remembrance of slavery and, in particular, plays to the emotions of modern descendants of enslaved people.

American slavery remains as a stain on our history, one of its greatest philosophical hypocrisies. Slavery for many contemporary Americans is widely considered immoral and shameful yet socially irrelevant in our daily lives today. On the other hand, bring up slavery with an African American and you may get reaction ranging from ambivalence to anger to, more insidiously, shame. What Quentin Tarantino really does with his film is counteract the shame or guilt that occurs when someone asks: ‘why didn’t they fight?’ or ‘why didn’t we fight back?’ when referring to slaves. In fact, Tarantino includes that theme in his dialogue. The character Django is not the slave who is simply worked, branded, sold, and tortured (even though all of those things happen to him); he is the symbol of retribution and the Black hero who independently delivers his bloody judgment on the institution of slavery. Django is the answer to the question, at least in fantasy.

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Civility and Savagery in Django Unchained

This is one of two reviews of “Django Unchained” by Lakefront Historian bloggers. See also Courtney Baxter’s post on the film. 

In the wake of Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln, Quentin Tarantino’s spaghetti western inspired take on antebellum American slavery Django Unchained risked misinterpretation of its tone and message. Throughout the film, however, Tarantino deftly strikes the right balance between genre bending playfulness and respect for the weighty subject matter. Like his last film Inglorious Bastards, Django Unchained is a revenge fantasy, empowering an oppressed group against powerful enemies. Taking on two of the darkest chapters in human history, the holocaust and racial slavery, while maintaining his slick sense of humor and film geek B-movie references seems a recipe doomed to trivialize and offend. Yet somehow Tarantino pulls it off.ImageImage

For the record, I have never been as enamored with his work as others. Prior to Inglorious Bastards, I respected his craftsmanship and flare for dialogue, but his movies always seemed hyper referential and lacking in authenticity. It is often difficult to tell where the film geek allusions and homages end and Quentin the auteur begins. His breakthrough film Pulp Fiction, while bursting with style, offered few genuine insights or emotional depth. The promise of this recent turn toward historical (or counter-historical) subject matter is that he has found a way to employ his talent for subverting genre as a means to analyze the process of historical memory. For better or for worse, the movies have become probably the most powerful medium for the transmission of historical knowledge. There have been plenty of films that have focused on the Civil War, but few have  engaged with the savagery of slavery in an immediate way. In Django Unchained Tarantino seems to be saying, “why not remember it this way?” But the key to the success of this approach is that he delivers a serious counter-narrative within the guise of a celebrated and seemingly benign genre, the spaghetti western.

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Lincoln Review: Devin Hunter

A Lincoln statue, on Lincoln Avenue, in Chicago’s Lincoln Square neighborhood, in the Land of Lincoln. (Flickr/Brad Heird)

In this five-part series, Lakefront Historian contributors respond to the critically acclaimed blockbuster Lincoln, directed by Steven Spielberg and starring Daniel Day Lewis.

Lincoln as Challenge and Opportunity for Public Historians

Like all texts, Steven  Spielberg’s Lincoln should be critiqued on several levels. Film scholars will analyze the script and cinematography, while popular press movie critics will judge the work as both a creative and commercial product. Being a historical film, Lincoln has also attracted the attention of academic scholars. But what about Lincoln as a piece of public history? And what are its implications for public historians? These are no easy questions–and their answers can easily morph into an unwieldy meta-narrative of aesthetics, commercial production, and speculation on reception. Here, I offer a just an introduction to the public history context of Lincoln and encourage any expansion or complications of these impressions in comments below.

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Lincoln Review: Will Ippen

In this five-part series, Lakefront Historian contributors respond to the critically acclaimed blockbuster Lincoln, directed by Steven Spielberg and starring Daniel Day Lewis.

Lincoln: Public History in Hollywood

Once again a heavyweight filmmaker and a well-selected ensemble cast tackle a defining subject in American history. Once again a blockbuster forces me to reconcile the critical eye of historical training with the evangelical impulses inherent to public history. Hollywood historical fiction is a mixed blessing for public historians in an era when most Americans engage the past through popular entertainment rather than monographs or museums and tend to trust the judgment of respected filmmakers such as Steven Spielberg. Historical blockbusters expose large crowds to important historical subjects, but their biographical and narrative-driven format imposes interpretive choices that all too often minimize the film’s utility as public history. The substantial shortcomings in Lincoln, which my fellow reviewers discuss aptly, result from the genre’s conventions. My main objections include the surprising lack of African American perspectives and agency and the perpetuation of history as emanating from the words and deeds of elites.

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Lincoln Review: Rachel Boyle

In this five-part series, Lakefront Historian contributors respond to the critically acclaimed blockbuster Lincoln, directed by Steven Spielberg and starring Daniel Day Lewis.

Spielberg’s Lincoln

The opening shots were so promising.  A pan of Civil War carnage preceded any mention of Abraham Lincoln.  African American soldiers stood before The Great Emancipator and called him to task on the problem of wage inequality.  Then Lincoln subdued them with a charming anecdote, thus setting the tone of the rest of the film.  In the subsequent two and half hours, a thoroughly endearing Abe ambled through a world of rhetorical and ethical dilemmas, mesmerizing everyone with his storytelling and lawyering skills.  Indeed, Spielberg’s Lincoln succeeded as a comedic drama of white politicians debating slavery while effectively silencing other nineteenth century voices.

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