CFC: Pop vs. Public History — Why Do We Love Nonfiction?

Seabiscuit movie poster

From Monica: I want to talk about Seabiscuit. 

Being an archetypal precocious horse girl, at age 9 Laura Hillenbrand’s Seabiscuit (1999) was the first nonfiction book I remember reading. It was the first time I was conscious of the popular weight attributed to the New York Times bestseller list, and for once my childhood interests seemed positioned to transition into the adult conversations I yearned for. After I finished reading, my father took me to the nearby racetrack and taught me to bet. I won $6 on my very first race, convinced it had very much to do with my deep understanding of equine behavior. Four years later came the film. Between the Raimi Spiderman trilogy and Seabiscuit’s live action adaptation (2003), Tobey Maguire introduced me to the concept of love. Seabiscuit made me feel knowledgable and articulate and rich and virile. My historical interests had graduated from American Girl Dolls. I was a woman now!     

And then we get to adulthood, and look back. We realize winning $6 on a $2 bet means the odds were pretty good to begin with. We watch Sorkin’s Molly’s Game (2018) and realize Tobey Magurie is a giant dick. And we learn that not all horse adaptations are good movies, by which I definitely mean Spielberg’s War Horse (2011). 

Remember the Titans movie poster

But I still haven’t quite put my finger on why Seabiscuit was such a phenomenon in the early aughts for anyone who wasn’t a horse girl discovering historical nonfiction for the first time? If we pull out the comparanda, Remember the Titans (2000) and Glory Road (2006) are about combating racism. Seabiscuit is a movie about how rich white horse people created a folk hero for poor white people in The Great Depression. 

Seabiscuit did unlock my love of bestseller nonfiction, of Devil in the White City and Killers of the Flower Moon, both of which fittingly sit attached to Tobey Maguire’s self-proclaimed largest rival, Leonardo DiCaprio. But this retrospective into my favorite leisure reading books also got me thinking about my negative experiences discussing these texts with other academics. So I gotta ask: what’s with the hierarchical outlook regarding “pop” history or public history? Why are these nonfiction books automatically assumed to be less researched or less scholarly when written for a mass audience?  

Public history, in the broadest of terms, seeks to make history relevant outside the classroom to the communities it serves. It expands knowledge outside of the academic curriculum, in many cases creating space for otherwise marginalized voices. It’s a living history museum, or a battle re-enactment, or an oral history interview on YouTube, and many, many other things. And while public history as a field emphasizes its own rigorous research process and intentions to produce quality scholarship, there’s still a clear amount of judgement between choosing to attend a walking tour or a ghost tour. 

So, What’s the REAL difference between an academic book and a nonfiction book on the bestseller list? Is it the ability to be made into a movie? Why is it that in the academic community so many historians are seen as less scholarly from their participation in re-enactor events? Why are ghost tours considered so hokey when we have books like Ghostland that clearly outline that ghost stories stem from cultural anxieties of the period? Why is it seen as less prestigious to work as a tour guide than a museum docent?     

For many of us, our first exposures and interests in history probably weren’t entirely “period accurate” anyway. I watched A Knight’s Tale many, many times before wondering what medieval music actually sounded like (Spoiler: NOT David Bowie). I wore a lot of historical dress up clothing before realizing many of them should have fastened in the front with pins, rather than in the back with a zipper. The more we know, the more we seem to need to nitpick “accuracy” but this practice tends to ignore that these less historical versions were also our necessary gateway drugs into performing our own research. After all, isn’t our ultimate goal to build a community, and aren’t we kinda getting in our own way? So, this week I want to talk about why pop history is still helpful, and how overly policing accuracy can lead to harmful gatekeeping within the historian community.   

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