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Archive for September 9th, 2017

by Stephen Mullen

(I’m sorry this is going to look like a homework assignment – but this is a show that feels a bit like a homework assignment, a textbook at least. That isn’t a bad thing, of course – it’s meant to be informative as well as moving and entertaining, and it is, all of those things.)

What is it?

A historical documentary about the American Civil War, broadcast on PBS in 1990, and a huge success. (Largest ever audience for PBS, apparently.) It made Ken Burns a household name, and elevated Shelby Foote, in particular, to new levels of fame. There are 9 episodes, about 10 hours altogether, with around two hours devoted to each year of the war, with an hour for the build up and an hour of aftermath. It is straightforward history, using primary sources (period photographs and texts by contemporaries) to provide the base for narration and commentary. It digs into the primary sources – Burns’ method of showing photographs, panning and zooming around the photo, to pick out details, became iconic, and has entered the language (thanks to photo and video editing software). Texts are read, with similar attention and care, by actors, many well known (Jason Robards Jr., Sam Waterston, Morgan Freeman, etc). The show was very effective as well as popular, and for a while, seemed to be the definitive historical documentary. That, I am sorry to say, isn’t quite the case anymore – I will return to that a little later.

How is it as History?

It is quite good. It is essentially an introductory overview of the Civil War; it would make a good textbook in a basic history class. It is, to start, actual history – primary sources and commentary; everything is rooted in those sources, and in analysis by people who root their work in primary sources. It’s clear about what is sourced and what is not, and what the sources are, as clear as a television show is going to be. It is a good introduction to the war – it tells what happened, it explains it well, it covers a wide range of experiences of the war. That is important. It is not strictly military or political history: it works in the home front, the day to day lives of solders, technology (of war, medicine, communication, and so on), it covers the role and place of women in the war, it attends to the experiences, attitudes and actions of blacks – slaves, ex-slaves, and free blacks. It is quite good at conveying the lived experience of all these people, on both sides of the war. It is an introduction – if you want details on the technology of killing, or the state of medicine, or the political machinations north and south and overseas, or details about campaigns and battles and strategy and tactics, you will have to go elsewhere – though often, you can go directly to the writers and books being discussed. You can do worse than go to the sources the show presents – read Frederick Douglass or Abraham Lincoln or Mary Chestnut or Grant’s Memoirs. And there is certainly an abundant literature dealing with the Civil War. (more…)

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