American History Night With Ken Burns


Thursday night, March 26, 2020.

Here is PBS press release:

PBS will make the Ken Burns documentary The Roosevelts: An Intimate History available to its stations beginning March 26. PBS is calling it “American History Night with Ken Burns.” The event happens on Thursdays. The documentarian’s The National Parks: America’s Best Idea and The War will follow The Roosevelts in the series.

PBS is looking to provide viewers more intriguing entertainment amid the coronavirus crisis. Earlier this month, it made the Burns documentary Baseballavailable for streaming on demand.

The American History Night programs will also be available for streaming on all station-branded PBS platforms.

“PBS and our member stations are committed to using our broad reach and local presence to help Americans find light and hope during these uncertain times,” said Paula Kerger, president and CEO of PBS. “Through his epic films, Ken Burns has shown us time and again how our country can accomplish great things in the face of tremendous adversity, and we look forward to sharing these extraordinary stories with our audiences in the coming months.”

Read the rest here.

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.

More Reviews of “The Vietnam War”


The Burns-Novick eighteen-hour documentary on the Vietnam War ended earlier this week. I am still trying to get my head around everything I saw.  Since I am not a historian of the war and have not read too much about it, I am finding it hard to anchor my emotions.  And since I do not plan on digging deeper (at least in a scholarly way) into the Vietnam War any time soon, I will need to rely on what others are saying.

More reviews are rolling in:

Was there a lesson in the documentary about fake news?

Here is what Burns wants you to remember

Bad history can be very entertaining

Christian Appy reviews Episode 1

On “lessons” and “empathy”

Tom Ashbrook and his guests

Did Burns gloss over the civilian toll?

What about Donald Trump’s Vietnam?

A history professor reflects on the documentary and his own experience in Vietnam

Reviews of Ken Burns’s “The Vietnam War”


I am not an expert on the Vietnam War.  I have not taught this subject in nearly sixteen years.  As a result, I am no position to offer a critique or review of Ken Burns and Lynn Novick’s PBS documentary, The Vietnam War.  I have now watched the first two episodes and about half of the third episode.  I am enjoying it immensely and learning a lot of new information.

I have also been reading reviews to get a sense of what historians of the era and other commentators have to say. Here are a few that caught my eye:

L.D. Burnett likes it.

Andrew Bacevich says that the series “doesn’t answer the questions about the Vietnam War that many are seeking.”

James Fallows at The Atlantic

Jeremy Kuzmarov says the documentary is “misleading

George Will thinks it is a masterpiece

Jerry Lembcke also thinks it is “flawed

Tim Lacy thinks Burns and Novick do a nice job covering the Diem regime

Drew Gilpin Faust Defends the National Endowment for the Humanities


Drew Gilpin Faust, a Civil War historian and president of Harvard University, has taken to the op-ed page of The New York Times today to defend the National Endowment for the Humanities.

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — Sept. 17, 1862, was the bloodiest battle day in United States history. More Americans — some 3,600 — died as Northern and Southern armies clashed at the Battle of Antietam, in western Maryland, than on any other single day before or since, even more than on Sept. 11.

One hundred and fifty years later, as the National Park Service commemorated the terrible loss at Antietam, I stood on the stage in a large tent on the battlefield before several hundred eager tourists, curious locals and enthusiastic Civil War buffs of every age and origin.

We had gathered to discuss a documentary made by Ric Burns based on a book I had written about death and the Civil War, a chronicle of the experiences of more than 700,000 Americans who died between 1861 and 1865, leaving a nation of mourners in a world profoundly altered by the scale of such human tragedy. The audience posed questions to Ric and me about history, about war, about patriotic sacrifice, about American identity, about the meanings of life and death and human mortality — and about how all those things were both different and the same across the century and a half that separated us from our Civil War ancestors.

Ric’s film, and the moving discussion it generated, were made possible by the National Endowment for the Humanities. Reports suggest that the Trump administration’s coming budget will defund the endowment.

I would wager that few readers of this newspaper, and probably few Americans anywhere, are untouched by an N.E.H.-sponsored project or program. In 1990, for example, Ric Burns and his brother Ken produced an 11-and-a-half-hour documentary on the Civil War that was broadcast over five consecutive nights and seen by more than 40 million viewers. For much of the nation, it was an early form of binge-watching. The humanities endowment made that film possible.

Like its sibling the National Endowment for the Arts, the endowment brings the humanities into parts of the country that might otherwise never get to see a world-class museum exhibition or hear a lecture by a Pulitzer-Prize winner.

Read the rest here. In case you haven’t seen it, here is my Congressman’s take on this issue.

Ken Burns Defends the Humanities and Storytelling

Ken-Burns-photo-3-06-Cable-Risdon-1-610x397Last night documentary film-maker Ken Burns used his National Endowment for the Humanities Jefferson Lecture to defend humanities and the art of storytelling.

Scott Jaschik of Inside Higher Ed reports:

Ken Burns, the documentary maker who brought the Civil War, the histories of baseball and jazz, and the biographies of the Roosevelts to film, had a chance Monday night to honor the National Endowment for the Humanities, which supported much of his work. He praised the NEH for both its grants and its standards, and thanked the endowment for naming him to deliver this year’s Jefferson Lecture, the nation’s highest annual honor in the humanities.

Burns used the lecture to defend the humanities from its many attackers, to describe how those who work on issues of race (as he has done in many projects) face particular criticism and to champion the art of the narrative as a tool to advance history and promote a common understanding of society.

In his talk, Burns repeatedly said the humanities — by helping us understand such a broad range of different topics and perspectives — in fact promote unity through understanding. But he freely admitted that the denigrators of the humanities don’t see it that way.

“In a larger sense, the humanities help us all understand almost everything better — and they liberate us from the myopia our media culture and politics impose upon us. Unlike our current culture wars, which have manufactured a false dialectic just to accentuate otherness, the humanities stand in complicated contrast, permitting a nuanced and sophisticated view of our history, as well as our present moment, replacing misplaced fear with admirable tolerance, providing important perspective and exalting in our often contradictory and confounding manifestations,” he said in the prepared version of his talk. “Do we contradict ourselves? We do!”

Yet Burns said he worried that so many people don’t see value in contradictions that are informed by knowledge and perspective. “Somehow, in recent times, the humanities have been needlessly scapegoated in our country by those who continually benefit from division and obfuscation. Let me make it perfectly clear: the United States of America is an enduring humanistic experiment,” he said.

Read the rest here.

What If Ken Burns Produced *Star Wars*?

I know nothing about Star Wars.  I will not be seeing the new film (I honestly do not know the title of it–I will have to look it up).  I have never seen any of the Star War films.  Isn’t there some guy in it named Obie Juan Kenowbee?

I actually have met people who think “Empire Strikes Back” is a better film than The Godfather and Godfather II.  I am deeply offended by this comparison.

So when a few people shared this video (below) I hesitated to post it.  And then I realized that some folks who read The Way of Improvement Leads Home might be fans of both Ken Burns and Star Wars.

This video is thus a blatant attempt to get more readers.  I think the kids call it “click bait.”


Does Ken Burns’s *The Civil War* Have a "Lost Cause Narrative?"

Shelby Foote

I have seen Ken Burns’s The Civil War  multiple times.  I often showed clips of it when I taught a course on Civil War and Reconstruction.  I was glad to see that PBS will broadcast the documentary on September 7 to honor the 25th anniversary of its release.

Much of The Civil War holds up well twenty-five years later, but, as Kevin Levin argues at Civil War Memory,  “a clear Lost Cause narrative is discernible.”  Here is a taste of his very interesting and insightful post:

To be fair, the series does place slavery at the center of the narrative at different points, especially in early episodes leading to the war. Talking heads such as Barbara Fields devote substantial time explaining the unraveling of slavery midway through the war as well as Lincoln’s own rocky road toward emancipation. Even with all the attention that slavery and emancipation receive throughout the series a clear Lost Cause narrative is discernible. It is given voice by none other than Shelby Foote, who dominates the series as the most vocal talking head.
In fact, Foote spoke 7,653 words compared to the second highest speaker, who spoke 1,112 words. Foote’s choice of words is worth exploring. As a total percentage of words spoken by talking heads, Foote’s commentary reached 73.5. It is important to remember that this does not include what was edited out of the final script. Remarkably, in all of the words spoken by Foote he referenced slavery in one form or another only three times. Never once did Foote reference slavery as having anything to do with secession/the cause of the war or as a motivating factor for Confederate soldiers at any point during the war.
Read the whole post here.  What do you think.  Does The Civil War have a “split personality?”

Ken Burns: "The Address"

Ken Burns is working on a new documentary film about the Civil War.  It is called “The Address” and it chronicles the story of a group of Vermont schoolboys with learning disabilities who memorize and recite the Gettysburg Address.  Here is a taste of an article on the documentary in USA Today:

Greenwood School Headmaster Stewart Miller said that reciting the Gettysburg Address has been a core of the school’s curriculum for all of its 35 years. This year, about 250 parents, fellow former students and others attended.

“When you memorize something, you really own it, it becomes a part of you,” Miller said.

The Gettysburg Address “is not a long speech, but it has a lot of complexity,” Miller said. “It is about finding the inner strength to push through. What we talk about is grit — setting a goal and sticking to it.”

Burns said he thinks the 150th anniversary is an opportunity for all Americans to revisit Lincoln’s message in the darkest days of the Civil War.

“We will challenge the rest of America to try to memorize the Gettysburg Address and we are hoping it will be among the greatest mass memorizations in history,” he said.