History at the Cheltenham Literature Festival 2016


The Cheltenham Literature Festival runs in early October every year and attracts thousands of visitors to attend talks, workshops and performances by leading writers, politicians and cultural figures.

On the face of it this year’s Cheltenham Literature Festival does not offer a great deal of interest to the student of history.  Yes, there are sessions on Rethinking the Somme, the Great War, Cheltenham in the Great War, and on shellshock, with contributions from Lyn MacDonald, Hugh Sebag-Montefiore, Allan Mallinson, and Taylor Dowling, plus discussions on the Royal Navy Submarine Service with Peter Hennessy and James Holland on the war in Burma; there are two sessions featuring Mary Beard talking about aspects of Roman history, and two more with Suzannah Lipscomb looking at the legacy of Henry VII and, with Anna Keay and Oliver Cox, comparing the significance of different centuries,  but perhaps there is not as much “straight” history as in previous years.


The historian Mary Beard

However, there is a great deal of contemporary history and politics, with Ed Balls, Nick Clegg,  Alan Johnson and Kenneth Clarke reflecting on their lives and experiences in politics, and Paddy Ashdown talking about an aspect of the French resistance in World War II.  More especially, this year includes a strong strand on American cultural history, literature and politics throughout the programme – a must for American historians and those interested in American Studies in different forms.

The most obvious focus is on the forthcoming presidential election and on the Obama years.  Various different sessions look at the election processes and campaigns, and others consider Obama and the Obama Years, and British commentators talking about reporting on America and on the “Special Relationship”.  The cultural aspect includes sessions of the President on Screen, discussions of films such as In the Heat of the Night and Thelma and Louise and two panels looking at the great American artists Edward Hopper and Georgia O’Keefe; a running strand focuses on The Color Purple, surely a great historical novel and essential reading in African American history and literature. An eye-catching element in this year’s programme looks at American cities and especially the music of places such as New York and Detroit (Motown), and San Francisco.


TL: Lolis Eric Elie (Stories and Recipes from the Heart of New Orleans). TR: Christian O’Connell (Blues, How Do You Do?). BL: Dom Pipkin. BR: host David Freeman.

One panel on Wednesday 12th October features the University’s own Christian O’Connell in a discussion of the music and representations of New Orleans.  Another must is the session on Woody Guthrie by Will Kaufman that will feature music and commentary on this great figure from the 1930s.  There are other American sessions, almost too numerous to mention – even two with comedian Reginald D. Hunter offering his take on America past and present.  Americanists are spoilt for choice – get the programme and take your pick!

To see what’s on at this year’s Literature Festival, click here.

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