Ken Burns and “Sour Grapes”

Vietnam

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.

The Unintended Consequences of Identity-Based American History

King

Steven Conn teaches American history at the University of Miami-Ohio.  Some of you may recall that a few years ago Conn wondered if a Christian college was an oxymoron. We covered that Huffington Post article here and here and here.

In his recent piece at The Chronicle of Higher Education he argues for a return to grand narratives in the study of the American past.  He writes: “Imagining a desirable future cannot happen unless we have a version of history upon which to build it. And if historians don’t provide that kind of narrative, we have already seen who will.”

Here is a taste:

That impulse evolved, and historians’ attention moved from the “bottom” to the “margins.” In this sense, American historical practice tracked the drift of leftist politics in the 1970s and 1980s. Identity history became a companion to identity politics — subjects like African-American history, women’s history, Latino/a history, Native American history, and gay history developed into their own subspecialties. Marginalized no more, these subjects have flourished, with their own journals, conferences, professional societies, and book series, even while some scholars have quietly fretted whether there could ever be a whole of American history greater than the sum of its multiplying parts. I don’t know if Jean-François Lyotard had been reading any of the new American history when he formulated his thesis about the “incredulity toward metanarratives,” but by the time he published The Postmodern Condition, in 1979, American historians were already pretty incredulous about any grand narratives of the American past.

The tendentious, j’accuse! strain of this scholarship reached a crescendo of sorts in 1980 with the publication of Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States (Harper & Row). I loved that book when I first read it as a high schooler, and I like it still. But in truth, Zinn reduced the story of American history to a conspiracy of “elites” against “the people,” and, in turn, he portrayed the people largely as victims of that vast conspiracy. The line between valorization and victimization got blurry pretty quickly.

Let me hasten to add that I am not bemoaning the new directions that American history took toward “the bottom” or “the people.” I do not think historians have somehow exaggerated the brutality of slavery or its centrality to developing American capitalism; nor do I think that American foreign policy has been any less destructive or feckless than historians since William Appleman Williams have argued it often has been.

Rather, my point is to wonder about the unintended consequences of historical scholarship over the past two generations. One of the things lost, I think, is a coherent narrative about the past that is more inspiring than the story of “turtles crushed while crossing the highway,” as one of Zinn’s reviewers described A People’s History. And here is the bitterly ironic lesson of 2016. Voters who feel themselves to be on the losing end of the American bargain tipped the electoral scales. Never mind that they voted for a candidate who won’t make their lives measurably better and may well make them worse. It turns out that many of those on the bottom and at the margins do not want to hear that their America has never been great.

There’s more at stake here, and not just for historians, than the nostalgia for an earlier, easier age when you could make categorical statements about “the American mind” because you could exclude any minds that did not fit neatly into the story. Whatever goes on inside the historical profession, driven by its own imperatives and logic, outside the academy politics is built on narratives, and particularly narratives about the past. If historians don’t provide those narratives, then someone inside Trump Tower will. As an old mentor of mine said to me years ago: It’s great to tear down people’s myths. What will you put in their place?

Read the entire piece here.

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.

"To Produce A Mighty Book, You Must Choose a Mighty Theme"

This is some good writing advice from Herman Melville.  I ran across this quote in James Green’s History News Network article on Adam Hochschild and the art of writing historical narrative.  In a recent conference on “The Power of Narrative” at Boston University, Hochschild talked about how to “sound original” when “there are 15,000 books on your subject.”  Here is a taste:

Why, he asked, should an academic historian only choose a topic so specialized or so esoteric that no one has examined it before? Why not follow the advice of Melville who wrote: “To produce a mighty book, you must choose a mighty theme”? Of course, the answer is that scholars feel the need to conduct original research and make a novel “argument.” But this form of scholarship may no longer be the only way to publish, even in prestigious university presses. As an editor for one of these publishers told me recently: “We can’t publish a lot of Ph.D. theses produced by students in the best history departments because the topics are too obscure and the writing is too dense. We are looking for manuscripts of interest to the general reader.” 

Second, Hochschild personalizes his narratives. For the new book on the American volunteers in Spain he has spent months finding characters whose experiences, memories, and letters can provide the keys to his kind of storytelling. Some of these men and women interacted with one another during the Civil War in the sort of surprising ways we saw the characters mesh and clash in his profound story of Great Britain’s agony during the Great War. Though none of them were as prominent as writers like Hemingway, some of these new characters are valuable because they open aspects of life in Republican Spain often ignored by journalists at the time and by latter day historians: notably the remarkable social reconstruction of Catalonia by the Anarchists.
Over breakfast, I asked Adam if a character-driven approach to history has been the key element in his narratives, and he said, yes, “so far,” but that this was by no means the only effective method of storytelling.
Third, Hochschild believes in the importance of “scene setting,” speaking of this as though he was a set designer in the theater. In one session, the author described how he used steam boat schedules to recreate a scene for King Leopold’s Ghost when Joseph Conrad’s steamer passed by the boat on Congo River carrying George Washington Williams, the black American journalist who wrote the first major exposé of the atrocities in King Leopold’s Congo. In another session Adam offered a sneak preview of the opening to his forthcoming book, the recreation of moment which sets up the big question he will confront: why did a bunch of Americans risk their lives by going to fight in Spain? Of course, none of this staging can be imagined even though in Hochschild’s hands scenes do read as though written for a novel.