I became a historian because of a television show. That is something I don’t often admit, but it’s true. I was home for Thanksgiving in 2009, nearly finished with my first semester as a journalism major, and I was miserable. To cope, I spent two days curled up on my parents’ couch watching the Band of Brothers marathon on Spike TV. I continued my engagement with the stories of Easy Company online, which consisted of both scholarly research and a deep dive into Camp Toccoa, a LiveJournal fanfiction community. In the midst of all this research, I rather obtusely exclaimed, “Duh! I can study history. I can write history. I can do history.”
I have always been fascinated by the ways everyday people pursue, consume, and produce historical content. Other historians have joined me in this inquiry. Roy Rosenzweig and David Thelen’s The Presence of the Past (1998) analyzed a landmark survey on popular forms of history making. One survey of selected Americans revealed that eighty-one percent of them watched historical movies or television programs that year.1 Historian M.J. Rymsza-Pawlowska recently built off this work in History Comes Alive (2017), in which she demonstrated the impact of shows like Roots and Little House on the Prairie. More importantly, she discussed the 1970s shift toward the emotional production of historical knowledge, also called affective history making, when history “became as much about feeling as about thinking, about being inside the past instead of looking upon it.”2 This analysis provided the framework I needed to better understand my own experiences in historical fandoms on the internet. I wish to extend Rymsza-Pawlowska’s conversation even further by looking at the consumption and production of historical fanfiction in the 21st century as a form of affective history making.
Historical fandom refers to fanworks (stories, art, videos, memes, etc.) based on media that are set within or draw heavily from historical settings. If we look at statistics from Archive of Our Own (Ao3) — a leading site for fanfiction readers — we can see which historical fandoms people engage with the most. Ao3’s theater category contains more historical fanfiction than any other. The musicals Les Misérables and Hamilton have over 36,000 stories combined. The historical figures from Hamilton also fill the Historical Real Person Fiction (RPF) category, which are stories about real people, rather than fictional characters from various media. I typically poke around in historical fandoms for television shows and films. Some of the top TV historical fandoms on Ao3 are Black Sails, Downton Abbey, Timeless, Vikings, and HBO War (which includes Band of Brothers, The Pacific, and Generation Kill). As for films, it is impossible to ignore the prevalence of Captain America: The First Avenger. Historical fandom largely operates within the realm of these television programs and films because these stories are most accessible to the public, and they present fans with an emotional, not just factual, exploration of history. Fans can more easily empathize with characters and transform the canon (or the past) in a way that is personalized.
Historical fandoms are dominated by women and queer people who have connected with a piece of media so much that they continue the pursuit of these historical narratives in online communities. The creation of fanfiction based on historical media reinforces Rymsza-Pawlowska’s argument that living and immersive history activities are spaces that thrive on an “embodied experience and [an] emotional understanding” of the past.3 Historical fanfiction is not always the most accurate, but to judge it by this aspect alone would be missing the point. Fanfiction is regularly an exploration of a character’s emotions and thoughts. Medieval studies scholar Anna Wilson has argued that fanfiction employs “affective hermeneutics,” which “heighten a sense of empathy, connection, or intimacy between the reader and the characters in the text.”4 Overall, many historical fanfics are intimate character studies set within a particular social and political time period, but the extent to which history drives the plot can vary depending on the author.
For some historical fanfics, it becomes clear that the author researched before writing. Yet, it is uncommon for authors to cite their sources. When they do, those resources usually appear at the end of the fanfic. One of the most prominent examples that I have come across in my personal experience is in “For the Dead There is No Story,” a Bucky Barnes/Steve Rogers fanfic set in Brooklyn during World War II, written by Hans Bekhart. In a recent interview, she told me that she is a self-identified history nerd, which is what drew her to the story of Captain America in the first place. To research that particular fanfic, she toured the Brooklyn Navy Yard, read about the roles of laborers in the city during the war, and devoured digitized issues of Life magazine. In chapter seven of her fic, she provided an annotated list of references and links to online sources, like the CUNY Center for Urban Research’s demographic maps of 1940s New York. She also mentioned the importance of George Chauncey’s Gay New York (1994) in constructing an authentic 1940s queer relationship for Steve and Bucky. Historical accuracy is as important as the character study for Bekhart, but that is not always the case with historical fanfic.
Queer relationships are significant in many historical fanfics, and they typically transform the canon. Of all the historical media mentioned thus far, only Black Sails provides centralized queer characters in the show’s plot. Slash fiction (a fandom term for same-sex relationships) is fairly popular in the Band of Brothers fandom, but also unsurprising since very few female characters exist in the canon. Because the show itself takes liberties with the actual men’s lives, fans defend the slash fic as solely related to the fictionalized portrayal. The queering of these characters can also be seen as part of the embodied experience and emotional understanding in affective history making. According to cultural critic Aja Romano, the “fundamental objective” of fanfiction is inserting yourself “aggressively and brazenly, into stories that are not about and were never intended to be about or represent you.”5 In our interview, Hans Bekhart agreed that “a legitimate part of building a queer identity is finding yourself in the past.” To their credit, writers of Band of Brothers slash fic often use it to explore the range of queer existence during World War II. In “A Time For Every Matter,” soldiers Babe Heffron and Eugene Roe try to come to terms with the fact that homosexual men, like them, were persecuted in the concentration camps their unit helped liberate. Some writers of slash fic involving World War II soldiers mention Allan Bérubé’s Coming Out Under Fire (2010) as an influential text for character and plot development. Often, when sexuality (or gender or race) is transformed from the canon, these fanfics serve as both a form of identity-building and a more nuanced history than the original work.
Since becoming a public historian, I have an increased appreciation for historical fanfics and the people who choose to engage with history in fandom spaces. If public history is about shared authority and meeting people where they are, then historical fanfiction perfectly exemplifies those concepts. Rymsza-Pawlowska says, “the Internet and other digital technologies afford ample opportunity to place oneself in the past.”6 Online historical fandoms foster a safe space for myself and others to consume and produce historical content among peers and free of judgment in ways that allow us to find ourselves in the narrative. Historical fanfiction as affective history making can help develop identity, cultivate political and social consciousness, and sustain interest in historical knowledge for both history nerds and general audiences. Plus, it’s super fun.
- Roy Rosenzweig and David Thelen, The Presence of the Past: Popular Uses of History in American Life (New York: Columbia University Press), 19. Return to text.
- M.J. Rymsza-Pawlowska, History Comes Alive: Public History and Popular Culture in the 1970s (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press), 5. Return to text.
- Rymsza-Pawlowska, History Comes Alive, 118. Return to text.
- Anna Wilson, “The Role of Affect in Fan Fiction,” in “The Classical Canon and/as Transformative Work,” edited by Ika Willis, special issue, Transformative Works and Cultures, no. 21 (2016). Return to text.
- Aja Romano, “Hamilton is fanfic, and its historical critics are totally missing the point,” Vox, July 4, 2016. Return to text.
- Rymsza-Pawlowska, History Comes Alive, 167. Return to text.