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Friday, October 06, 2006

I’d like someone to please explain to me why Ken Burns and his Civil War series is so universally despised by historians and the academic community. Maybe I wouldn’t be posing this question if I took the time to read “Ken Burns’ The Civil War, Historians Respond.” I’m only raising this dead horse issue because I read a recent Blog in which one person is still screaming about something that aired twelve years ago.

I’m not a historian and I don’t even pretend to be an expert on the Civil War. But regardless of whether Burns glossed over or misrepresented facts, or failed to tell the whole story, his film struck a chord with the American public and probably did more to stir interest in the Civil War than the entire inventory of books that’s been published on the subject. I can understand the frustration and horror some might feel because a lot of people have accepted Burns’ series as gospel. But that leaves me wondering about this. Why did historians leave it to an “amateur” to come up with the idea and commit that idea to film? Why have there been only 17 big screen films made on the Civil War and most of those based on works of fiction? Am I wrong in suggesting a possible bias within the academic community toward television and film, or yet, are historians simply writing for other historians? Why is it when I scan the index of a book I find the same small number of Massachusetts infantry regiments cited over and over again? Why it is when I read a biography of General James Barnes by different authors it smacks of plagiarism? If we’re not academically trained as historians, does it mean we forgo the right and privilege of pursuing something we’re deeply interested in and passionate about? Should we be smacked on the hand if we try to commit our research to paper or post it and our thoughts on the Internet? Or do we leave it to the experts to give us the facts ma’am just the facts?

Trust me, I'm not out to knock anyone for their opinion, but you know what? Now that I’m at this point in my writing, I’ve come to the conclusion that I’m really not interested in reading anyone’s explanation as to why Ken Burns is more hated and despised than John Wilkes-Booth.


I’ve always likened this adversary relationship with that of Microsoft People vs Anything but Microsoft People. Because Microsoft is the biggest software company and what most people like and use, it has to be bad.

When you mention the Civil War over the last decade, most people immediately think of him, there are some that hate him specifically because he was successful. It may have a lot of flash and toy with emotions but what movie or TV show doesn’t? The only one that I can remember is the nuclear holocaust TV mini-series “The Day After” which offered no soundtrack.

This goes back to the debate in the blogosphere a few months ago on what exactly encompasses history? No one could agree but many needed some sort of “story” besides the dry numbers and troop movements. Story equals entertain me, which is exactly what Ken did for millions of people. Perhaps that is what they hate the most.

Posted by Tom at Friday, October 06, 2006 23:17:21

I, for one, think Ken Burns's documentary was stirring, and brilliantly done. Whatever problems it has in accuracy, or slant, the fact remains that he did a good job with a monumental project, and relied upon a host of respected experts (some of whom, like Geoffrey Ward in the book you mentioned, accept responsibility for various mistakes).


Posted by David Woodbury at Saturday, October 07, 2006 00:42:31

David, I totally agree with you that Burns' project was "stirring and brilliantly done." I've watched the series three times and each time I've sat there with a lump in my throat. When I watched his baseball series,I sat there with a smile on my face.

Posted by Donald at Saturday, October 07, 2006 12:22:58

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