Ken Burns and “Sour Grapes”


Yesterday I had the chance to be part of a small group discussion with Martin Luther King Jr. biographer Taylor Branch.  During the course of the conversation someone asked him if his work had been criticized by academic historians because he wrote in a narrative style and he did not have a Ph.D in history.  Branch said that many academics don’t like his books in the same way that they don’t like the work of David McCullough or Ron Chernow.  He took the criticism in stride and didn’t seem to be bothered by it.

At this point in the conversation I chimed-in and told him that I was one of those “academic historians” who happens to like (and read) narrative history.  I also told him that the criticism of narrative history writers could be best explained by jealousy.  He laughed out loud and said thank you.  My day was made and my reputation as a suck-up was firmly secured.  🙂

What about Ken Burns?

I have had more conversations about the Vietnam War in the past two weeks than I have had in my entire life.  People are talking about history.  Last time I checked, historians usually think this is a good thing.

As I have written here before, I thoroughly enjoyed Ken Burns’s and Lynn Novick’s documentary “The Vietnam War.” I am thus in full agreement with Jonathan Zimmerman‘s recent piece at The Chronicle of Higher Education: What’s So Bad About Ken Burns.”

Here is a taste:

Historians aren’t very happy with Ken Burns. He’s a simplifier; we complicate. He makes myths; we bust them. And he celebrates the nation, while we critique it.

That’s the party line, anyway, among my fellow academics. And while I agree with some of their attacks on Burns’s recently concluded TV series about the Vietnam War, there’s something else at work here.

It’s called sour grapes. Put simply, Burns has managed to engage a huge public audience. And that makes him suspect among members of our guild, who write almost entirely for each other.

We pretend we don’t envy his fame and fortune, but of course we do. We’re like high-school kids who don’t get asked to the prom, then say they never wanted to go in the first place.

That’s the only way to understand the dismissive, vituperative tone of our profession’s reaction to Burns’s series. Several scholars praised Burns for including multiple voices — especially Vietnamese ones — in his interviews. But most historians in the blogosphere took him to task for distorting the conflict, especially with regard to his quest for a shared national narrative that can bind Americans together.

Read the entire piece here.

One thought on “Ken Burns and “Sour Grapes”

  1. As always John Fea, a helpful review of a current academic conversation. How’s that for my “suck up”!! 🙂

    Though I agree with your main pt that the Burns & Novick Vietnam documentary has been a salutary contribution to historical conversation in the US about a major US issue, I must wonder aloud what you would think of such a documentary done by a Nixon / pro-war apologist.

    Is it possible that the historians critical of Burns & Novick are worried about what might happen if documentaries with an ideological ax to grind started to “flood the market”? We can be thankful that these two and PBS are careful and thoughtful researchers, but what happens if and when the documentary market is swamped by “rush limbaugh” types?

    And, I ask this with your very concern for “history for the public” in mind. How might you and the American Historical Society promote more “history for the public” – both to address that need AND to ensure that colleges and universities recognized such work as both worthy of commendation and inclusion on one’s CV when considered for tenure and promotion?


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