Academic Hardcores and Academic Farbs

In the book Confederates in the Attic, Tony Horwitz encounters Civil War re-enactors of varying levels of seriousness about their craft. They divide into two main categories: hardcores and farbs. The hardcores get into their roles as accurately as possible, even starving themselves so they look like haggard Confederate soldiers. They eat, drink, and breathe the Civil War. (One hardcore says, “I don’t do drugs; I do the Civil War.”)[1.  Tony Horwitz, Confederates in the Attic: Dispatches from the Unfinished Civil War (New York: Pantheon Books, 1998), 14.] By contrast, the farbs dabble in re-enactment but do not trouble with the exacting details of appearance and behavior that hardcores do. Hardcores, of course, disdain farbs and farby behavior.

Horwitz gets involved in this dichotomy of re-enactor culture because he joins up with a super-hardcore named Robert Hodge. In the course of his travels with Hodge, Horwitz learns just how far hardcores will go to preserve the illusion of actually living in the past. He experiences, as much as is possible, the life of a Confederate soldier.

In a class discussion of the book, the question was raised: Are academic historians hardcore about their discipline, or are they farbs? 

The class suggested that most academic historians would call themselves hardcore. However, many historians have never lived where their subjects lived, or worked with their subject matter, so perhaps they are in fact farbs. (Our professor gave the example of a historian writing a book about wood without ever having done any woodworking.)

The question about hardcores and farbs, re-enactors or historians, is whether painstaking and total immersion into the culture about which you are focused is really beneficial to your understanding. Do you have to have experienced in some way your subject in order for you to write about it intelligibly?

For some subjects, it seems impossible to have any meaningful present experiential connection with your work. (For instance, there’s not really enough information about ancient Sumer to definitively experience it.) But for a subject like mine, the navy, I do wonder whether learning to sail would help me to understand a ship’s culture in a more meaningful way.

This idea dovetails with the reading for my other class for this week: Clifford Geertz’s “Thick Description” and “Deep Play,” as well as Robert Darnton’s “The Great Cat Massacre.” These works demonstrate that no matter how ingrained you get in a foreign culture (whether present or past), you will always be Other. You can’t be in the Civil War just because you look like you’re from the Civil War. But you can read about the Civil War, and apply the principles of thick description, trying to understand the symbolic meaning of the rituals of the Confederacy instead of emulating their hygiene practices.

My reading of Geertz indicates to me that no one can ever be 100% hardcore. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that a historian ought not try.


What do you think? Are you a hardcore? If you are, why are you? If not, why not? (Also, if you’re in another discipline, are there parallels for your discipline?)



2 responses to “Academic Hardcores and Academic Farbs”

  1. Abby, this is a fascinating question, and it’s beautifully framed. I think it might usefully be paired with Peter Novick’s That Noble Dream, and in particular, the chapter entitled: “Every Group its Own Historian.” Novick’s take is hardly unproblematic, but it offers a useful summary and an entry-point into a heated conversation.

    What you’re ultimately asking, I think, is a much broader question than whether a historian writing about the age of sail ought to spend two years before the mast, so to speak. It’s how we conceive of the subject-position of the author in relation to her work. Are veterans of the Navy best-qualified to write about the Navy? Sailors, because it was the age of sail? Men, because almost all of their subjects were male? Or, simply, historians – however great or small the personal experience they can bring to bear on their subject?

    Those questions should make us squirm. They’re not simple, nor simply resolved. But they’re worth raising.

  2. Yoni brings up an important work by mentioning Novick’s That Noble Dream. Here are two other historians who come to mind.

    First, Francis Parkman was well known for going out and visiting the sites that he wrote, especially—if memory serves—for The Oregon Trail. I think it’s accurate to connect Parkman’s writing of history to the late nineteenth-century cult of the strenuous life. Parkman can stand as a type of the amateur historian for whom history was doing as much as writing. Certainly Parkman’s lucid prose was due in part to his experiences. But we don’t need to dismiss Parkman out of hand to recognize that his brand of history writing has a number of political and methodological problems.

    Second, Samuel Eliot Morison would have wholeheartedly agreed with the idea that a naval historian had to spend a few years before the mast. To write his biography of Columbus, Admiral of the Ocean Sea, he sailed Columbus’s voyages again. His history of the American navy during World War II was made possible by a naval commission that gave him access to the navy while the war was being fought. Morison was very much a gentleman historian in the mold of Parkman, but he was also working at a time when history was increasingly becoming a profession. (Perhaps on the basis of his works about WWII, a comparison to Thucydides is not out of order.) Morison too was among our best prose stylists.

    Here is Morison’s answer to your question, from “History as a Literary Art”:

    Finally, the historian should have frequent recourse
    to the book of life. The richer his personal experience, the wider his human contacts, the more likely
    he is to effect a living contact with his audience. In
    writing, similes drawn from the current experience
    of this mechanical age, rather than those rifled from
    the literary baggage of past eras, are the ones that
    will go home to his reader. Service on a jury or a
    local committee may be a revelation as to the political thoughts and habits of mankind. A month’s
    labor in a modern factory would help any young
    academician to clarify his ideas of labor and capital.
    A camping trip in the woods will tell him things
    about Western pioneering that he can never learn in
    books. The great historians, with few exceptions, are
    those who have not merely studied, but lived; and
    whose studies have ranged over a much wider field
    than the period or subject of which they write.

    The veterans of World War II who, for the most
    part, have completed their studies in college or graduate school should not regard the years of their war
    service as wasted. Rather should they realize that the
    war gave them a rich experience of life, which is the
    best equipment for an historian. They have “been
    around”; they have seen mankind at his best and his
    worst; they have shared the joy and passion of a
    mighty effort; and they can read man’s doings in the
    past with far greater understanding than if they had
    spent these years in sheltered academic groves.

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