Why I Won’t Be Watching Ken Burns This Week
I didn’t read a book about the American Civil War until I was in my mid-20s and it wasn’t Bruce Catton, Shelby Foote or a used copy of the American Heritage picture book. It was Stephen Sears’s Landscape Turned Red: The Battle of Antietam. If memory serves me correctly the next few books included David Donald’s biography of Lincoln, Eric Foner’s book about the Republican Party and James McPherson’s Battle Cry of Freedom. I read these books as I was finishing up a master’s thesis in philosophy – specifically philosophy of history. From the very beginning of what would become an entirely new intellectual focus for me I approached these books as analytical arguments that demanded careful thought and a critical eye.
My own Civil War memory is not wrapped up in visits to battlefields at an early age with the family. In fact, I have no memory of learning about the war in grade school or even high school. What prompted my foray into Civil War studies was a chance visit to Antietam in 1994. The visit certainly sparked something in me, but even this visit and subsequent visits in the weeks to follow was decidedly a function of my intellectual curiosity. It was my first visit to a battlefield apart from a family trip that included Yorktown, which I only remember as hot and boring.
One of the things that I recognize in my own relationship to Civil War history is that I am not holding on to anything for reasons having to do with nostalgia. I know this stands in sharp contrast with the personal stories of many of my friends who I have met over the years with a mutual interest in the war.
I’ve been reminded of my own relationship to the history of the Civil War in the last week as fellow bloggers and other commentators assess the re-airing of Ken Burns’s landmark documentary, “The Civil War”, on PBS. A number of people have reflected on what the series means to them and one friend even referenced it as responsible for launching his career as a historian. As for me, I can’t even remember when I first saw it, but what I do know is that my first viewing would have been driven by the same intellectual curiosity described above. Over the past 15 years I have watched it numerous times with my students and have written about how I utilize it in the classroom. I have written extensively about it here on this blog over the years. The film has shaped my understanding of the war, but as far as I am concerned it is just another interpretation of American history. As a documentary, it has its strengths and weaknesses.
A post I wrote last week about the Ken Burns series received a good deal of attention and feedback both within the post and in the form of private emails. Many comments and private emails critical of my post included some reflection about the documentary as a transformative experience. It was as if my own critical assessment was interpreted as a personal attack or as intended to undercut their own relationship to the film. Nothing could be further from the truth.
Ultimately, each of us must find our own way of pulling meaning from the past. This week many of you will do so by re-watching Ken Burns. Enjoy.