Shelby Foote on Civil War Entertainment

Here is Shelby Foote’s short comment at the end of The Civil War by Ken Burns on what I call Civil War Entertainment:

We think that we are a wholly superior people – if we’d been anything like as superior as we think we are, we would not have fought that war.  But since we did fight it, we have to make it the greatest war of all times. And our generals were the greatest generals of all time. It’s very American to do that.

It’s not clear to me whether Foote intends this as a criticism of our popular perceptions of the war.  If so, than I assume he means this as a self-criticism since Foote engages in just this type of speech throughout the series.  I made a similar point in a previous post:

I dare say that Americans love to remember their past when they can set the terms of the inquiry. We prefer a heroic past that is continually progressive and exceptional compared to the rest of the world. Just reflect for a moment on the way we think about our Civil War compared with news of civil wars from around the world. For most people the news of foreign civil wars conjures up images of confusion, sadness, corruption, uncertainty, and violence. Individuals and causes are rarely viewed as heroic or the product of benevolent design. No, foreign civil wars are reflective of the failure of governments and of the individuals who occupy high positions of power. We may see these nations and societies as the victims of a corrupt past void of democratic tendencies. For many it no doubt confirms American Exceptionalism. Whatever the case, civil wars are events that happen elsewhere and to others. I point this out to draw a sharp contrast with the way many Americans interpret our own Civil War. If you peel away the celebratory layers you will see that it has a great deal in common with the way we view civil wars elsewhere. It is the celebration of the war which troubles me because it seems to me that our gut reaction to foreign civil wars is a much more appropriate stance. Where is the confusion, uncertainty, violence, and sadness in our Civil War? I see the Civil War as a humbling event that serves as a reminder of the fragility of governments and the depths of violence that we all too often reach. I agree with the late historian William Gienapp that the “outbreak of war in April 1861 represented the complete breakdown of the American political system. As such the Civil War constituted the greatest failure of American democracy.” I wish more people would approach the study of the Civil War from this perspective.

Not Your Father’s Civil War Times Illustrated

Has anyone else out there noticed the drastic improvement of Civil War Times Illustrated magazine?  Today I was browsing through the local bookstore and came across the latest issue which features both an interview with Drew G. Faust and an excerpt from her long-awaited book This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War, which is slated to be released on Tuesday.  I have not read either since I want to read the book fresh.  This most recent issue also includes an article by Harold Holzer on Lincoln as well as one on handmade and commercial valentines by Ruth Ann Coski. 

I attribute this improvement to its new editor, Dana Shoaf, who recently took over after leaving his previous position as editor of America’s Civil War.  Dana has a clear vision for CWTI which can be seen in the range and quality of the articles.  During a recent conference in Richmond I had a chance to talk with Dana about his plans for the magazine.  Recent articles by Jason Phillips as well as interviews with notable historians such as Gary Gallagher, A. Wilson Greene, and Aaron Sheehan-Dean (forthcoming) promise a more engaging and educational publication.  In short, Shoaf’s editorial oversight has allowed the publication to move beyond its narrow focus on the endless loop of biographical sketches and accounts of obscure battles, skirmishes, etc.  I only subscribe to one Civil War magazine and it is not CWTI.  However, if the quality is maintained over the next few months I can easily see switching.

Ken Burns Marathon

Yesterday I returned from two days in Richmond with a fellow historian to begin work on our Ken Burns project.  We are writing a book that is centered around the script of the Civil War series.  Our plan is to edit the entire script for publication along with an extensive introduction that places Burns’s interpretation within the historiography of the last 20 years.  In addition, we will be including extensive tables that address such issues as the number of words spoken by the talking heads and the amount of time spent on various subjects and themes.  The book will hopefully be ready for the twentieth anniversary of the release of the series in 2010 and should be attractive to general readers, scholars, and teachers. 

We spent the last two days viewing the entire series and checking the script against the spoken word on the video itself.  Burns donated a number of scripts and other records to the University of North Carolina’s Southern Historical Collection (Florentine Films Archives Inventory).  It was incredibly draining as we had to fit in 12 hours of video in two days and leave enough time to discuss various issues that will be addressed in the annotations and in our introduction.  We are going to identify the sources for all of the historical references, which should not be too difficult, as well as specific factual claims made by the talking heads and the narrator. The tedious part will be the identification of every visual used in the film; Episode 1 includes 365 images alone. 

I’ve never viewed the entire documentary in its entirety in this way and I suspect that most people have not.  After all, who has 12 spare hours these days?  I have to say, however, that viewing it in this way has given me a very different perspective on the interpretation as a whole.  In short, I am much more impressed with it.  Burns addresses a wide range of topics and he does so in a very sophisticated way.  For example, the theme of emancipation and the role of African Americans in bringing it about is much more apparent than if you were to only view specific sections, which I am no doubt guilty of doing. As an example of popular memory of the war Burns is well ahead of the curve.  This is not to deny that there are no interpretive issues that need to be addressed and many of them were analyzed in a book edited by Robert Brent Toplin.  Eric Foner does an excellent job of analyzing the reconciliationist theme of the film which the documentary clearly leans towards.  Foner’s concern is that the emphasis on emancipation ignores the extent to which African Americans struggled both during Reconstruction and in the years to follow.  I’ve noticed a similar tendency in the past, but this time around I concentrated much more on the script and not as much on the images which in this case includes extensive video of both the 50th and 75th anniversaries of Gettysburg.  Those images of the veterans in various acts of friendship and camaraderie works to drive home the theme of reconciliation.  The absence of any substantial commentary on politics and ideology is striking.  While I understand that Burns did not want to address Reconstruction in his film he could and should have spent some time on wartime Reconstruction, including Abraham Lincoln’s Ten Percent Plan and Wade-Davis Bill – at least as much time as he spent on "shoddy." 

Finally, having the script in hand places the talking heads in their proper perspective.  It is easy to magnify the importance of individuals like Shelby Foote who – depending on your perspective – either makes or breaks the series.  While I find him to be a colorful character much of what he says falls flat in terms of its scholarly import.  One wonders whether Foote has any conception that not all "southerners" were white.  Barbara Fields, Stephen Oates, and James Symington are much more impressive.  Following along with the script, however, reveals how little they actually contribute to the overall interpretation and this is one place where our tables will be useful.  Shelby Foote makes 97 appearances throughout the 9 episodes for a total of 7,771 words (71.6% of all words spoken by talking heads) while Barbara Fields comes in a distant second with 12 appearance throughout for a total of 1,109 words (10.26% of all words spoken by talking heads).  So, compared with the other talking heads Foote’s impact is apparent; however, taken together and compared with the overall narrative by David McCullough the amount of time devoted to the commentators is minimal.  Again, this emerges much more clearly when following the script.

Viewing the film in its entirety has made me much more sensitive to Burns as a documentarian than as a historian which he consistently maintains that he is not.  In fact, I need to read much more on the process and, more specifically, how Burns goes about constructing films.  I guess the historian in me is overly sensitive to distinctions as well as a certain analytical style. You can expect to hear much more about this project in the months to come.

WARNING: Viewing The Civil War in its entirety and in a short space of time can lead to the narration of dreams in the voice of David McCullough.

Lt. Col. Theodore Lyman’s New Years Wish

Lt. Col. Theodore Lyman’s entry for January 1, 1864: "How are you New Year?  I do hope I may be spared to the next, and that we may eat our New Year’s dinner with Peace about us!"

I recently purchased Meade’s Army: The Private Notebooks of Lt. Col. Theodore Lyman, which is edited by David W. Lowe.  Many of you are no doubt aware of his letters, but I have to say that this is one of the most interesting diaries that I’ve come across in recent years.  Lyman’s descriptions of fellow officers and of the battlefield are incredibly rich.  The books is part of Lesley Gordon’s edited series for the Kent State University Press.  It is well worth the steep price tag of $45.

Happy New Year!

A Tough Review

Yesterday I completed a review of a new book on the battle of the Crater for the Journal of Southern History.  It was one of the most difficult book reviews I’ve had to write in recent years, in large part, because I could find nothing positive to say about it.  No doubt, the fact that I wrote it for an academic journal shaped my assessment of the book.  I had to critique the formal argument (to the extent that there is one) along with an analysis of how the study contributes to our understanding of the Civil War and fits into the relevant historiography.  Throughout the review I was conscious that I was writing for fellow historians and not a general audience.  This is not to suggest that a reviewer does not have an obligation to offer an honest critique for a non-academic audience, but clearly their interests diverge at some point.  I should note that most of my points would have been included regardless of venue.  Given the dearth of studies on the Crater the book at least provides a basic overview of the important figures involved as well as the planning and execution of the mine along with the flow of battle.  I have no doubt that for most general readers their interest in the battle ends here.

The most difficult part of a negative review is that it falls far from my feelings of admiration for anyone who can complete a book-length work of history – even if I don’t have anything positive to say about it.  I have found it very difficult to muster the kind of focus necessary to finish my own book project on the Crater.  It takes a certain ability to isolate one’s self for long periods of time and to block out potential distractions.  I am not very good at this as I love to play my bass guitar, browse blogs, watch bad television, and hang out with the wife whenever possible.  So, if you happen to be the recipient of a negative review by me know that you have my utmost respect for your accomplishment.