Civil War History 50.2 (2004) 192-193
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No visitor can help but notice the seemingly schizophrenic nature of the Gettysburg battlefield. On the heights immediately south of town, where the Army of the Potomac once formed the center of its line of battle, soldiers' graves now compete for space alongside motels, T-shirt stands, and snack bars. It is a paradigm repeated in countless ways across the Gettysburg landscape, an apparent struggle between commemoration and carnival. Yet as Jim Weeks ably demonstrates, to view Gettysburg as a contest between the sacred and the commercial is to misunderstand both the origin and the development of this uniquely American attraction. The relationship is not adversarial but symbiotic: "Gettysburg," he argues, "never was at odds with the marketplace, which instead played a major role in constructing and deconstructing the shrine" (7).
Weeks grounds his narrative in the vast array of promotional literature generated over fourteen decades; what emerges is a portrait of "Gettysburg as a process of interaction between producers and consumers" (6). Four distinct phases of this dynamic are identified: the initial purchases of key battlefield terrain and the erection of resort infrastructure to attract genteel visitors (1863-84); a democratized enjoyment made possible by the confluence of mass-produced keepsakes, increased access to commercialized forms of leisure, and a resurgence of interest in the Civil War (1884-1920); the establishment of Gettysburg as a national, all-purpose destination through the dominance of the automobile and mass culture (1920-70); and the current orientation toward heritage tourism in the wake of post-Vietnam era segmentation of American identity (1970-2000).
Despite the current emphasis on restoring the environs to their wartime appearance, Weeks instead argues that the significance of Gettysburg lies in its definition as a series of continually transformed spaces. "Objects on the landscape, including . . . monuments, fencing, cannon, interpretive signs, [End Page 192] and tourist attractions, can be read as texts revealing the cultural standards of those who built and visited the shrine" (3). In sharp contrast to the teleological tenor of the National Park Service's latest management plan, Weeks believes "Gettysburg is an ongoing project with no final meaning" that "always has reflected the current needs of its consumers, and the heritage vision is simply the latest stage" (225). Even more provocatively, he closes by suggesting that this fixation on authenticity makes Gettysburg less inclusive than at any previous time, especially in elevating the military events of July 1863 at the expense of the town's true moment of transcendence—the delivery of the Gettysburg Address four months later.
Many readers will no doubt challenge either the veracity or the premise of Weeks's parting thoughts. So, too, might they bristle at his frequent imaging of Gettysburg as a place of no greater significance than the sum of its Barnumesque parts, or his habit of equating the park service's restorations with Disney theme park simulacra. Nevertheless, his work not only fills a long-unaddressed gap in Gettysburg's vast historiography but also provides a noteworthy contribution to the larger debate over battlefield preservation and interpretation.