Fall 2006, Volume 23.1
Sharing the American Experience
Excerpted From the Keynote Address at the Ogden City School Foundation Annual Fall Author Event.
Ken Burns is a well-known documentary filmmaker for PBS. His most notable films are The Civil War (1990), Baseball (1994), and Jazz (2001). His films have repeatedly been nominated for Academy Awards and six of them have been nominated for Emmy Awards. The Civil War, Baseball, and Unforgivable Blackness were awarded an Emmy. Read a conversation with Ken Burns published in this issue of Weber Studies.
Listen. In 1909, a man named Charles Hercules Ebbets began secretly buying up adjacent parcels of land in the Flatbush section of Brooklyn, including the site of a garbage dump called Pigtown because of the pigs that once ate their fill there and the stench that still filled the air.
He hoped eventually to build a permanent home for the lackluster baseball team he had once worked for and now owned. The team was called the Trolley Dodgers, or just the Dodgers, after the way their devoted fans negotiated Brooklyn’s busy streets.
In 1912 construction began. By the time it was completed, Pigtown had been transformed into Ebbets Field, baseball’s newest shrine, where some of the game’s greatest drama would take place. In the years to come, Dodger fans would see more bad times than good but hardly care, listen to the Southern cadences of a pioneer broadcaster, and witness first-hand baseball’s finest moment, when a black man wearing the number 42 trotted out to first base.
In 1955, after more than four decades of frustration, Brooklyn would finally win a World Championship, only to know just two years later the ultimate heartbreak as their team moved to a new city 3,000 miles away leaving an empty shell in Flatbush and an even emptier spot in the soul of every Brooklyn fan.
As the story of the arc of Ebbets Field that opened our series on the National Pastime attests, the story of Baseball is the story of America. Behind the exquisite play, the thousands of anxious games won and lost, the myriad heroic and not-so-heroic careers rising and falling lies a startlingly revealing mirror of our country.
We shall celebrate the messages from our past—our common heritage—messages that continually direct our way. Let us listen. Too often as a culture we have ignored this joyful noise, becoming in the process blissfully ignorant of the power those past lives and stories and moments have over this moment, and indeed, our unknown future.
I am interested in that power of history, and I am interested in its many varied voices. Not just the voices of the old top to bottom version of our past, which would try to convince us that American history is only the story of Great Men. And not just those pessimistic voices that have recently entered our studies, voices which seem to say that our history is merely a catalogue of crimes. I am interested in listening to the voices of a true, honest, complicated past that is unafraid of controversy and tragedy, but equally drawn to those voices, those stories and moments, that suggest an abiding faith in the human spirit and particularly the unique role this remarkable Republic seems to have in the positive progress of humankind.
Listen. When I was working many years ago on a film about the Statue of Liberty, its history and powerful symbolism, I had the great good fortune to meet and interview a man named Vartan Gregorian, who was then the president and director of the New York Public Library. After an extremely interesting and passionate interview on the meaning behind the statue for an immigrant like him—from Tabriz, Iran—Vartan took me on a long and fascinating tour of the miles of stacks of the New York Public Library. Finally, after galloping down one claustrophobic corridor after another, he stopped and gestured wildly. "This," he said, surveying his library from its guts, "this is the DNA of our civilization." I think he was saying that that library and, indeed, all true libraries, archives, historical societies, and educational institutions—the grist, by the way, for our films—are the DNA of our civilization, storing what we value most in our country, leaving a memory of excellence and intention for generations to come. It occurs to me that this is exactly what interests me—examining and replicating the DNA of our civilization.
So it is with great pleasure that I share with you the American Experience, to share my thoughts about history and how it informs—whether we are aware of it or not—every aspect of our present lives. To share my thoughts about the trilogy of films that have occupied most of my waking life for the last seventeen years.
Listen. When I think about the great game of baseball, I first think about language and words, something close to the heart of each of us here, I believe. I also think of men, great men, heroic men and, well, unusual men.
One such unusual man was Lawrence Peter Berra, an immigrant bricklayer’s son from the Dago Hill section of St. Louis. He got his nickname Yogi from his friends who said he just walked like one. After flunking a high school test, Yogi was asked by his teachers, "Don’t you know anything?" He replied, "I don’t even suspect anything." He was clumsy when he joined the Yankees. He played like the bottom man on an unemployed acrobatic team—one critic said—and there were those who thought him too odd looking for New York’s elite team. One coach even called him "the ape."
But Casey Stengel, the improbable Yankee manager, saw the greatness that was in him and brought back the great Bill Dickey to teach him the finer points of playing behind the plate, and Berra quickly became one of the greatest catchers in baseball history. He played in an incredible seventy-five World Series games and was three times named the American League’s Most Valuable Player.
Like Stengel, though, Berra became as well known for what he said off the field as for what he did on it. And this is where the words come in that I mentioned before:
"Ninety percent of hitting is mental," he once said. "The other half is physical."
"You can observe a lot by watching."
"If fans don’t want to come out to the park, nobody is going to stop them."
Particularly helpful to me during the long promotional tour for the series: "Why buy good luggage?" Yogi said. "You only use it when you travel."
"I usually take a two hour nap," he declared one day, "between one and four in the afternoon."
"When you get to the fork in the road, take it."
My personal favorite: "If you don’t go to their funeral, they won’t go to yours."
When the wife of the Mayor of New York City said he looked very cool in his new summer suit, Yogi said, "Thanks, you don’t look so hot yourself."
When he was introduced to Robert Briscoe, the first Jewish mayor of Dublin, Ireland, Yogi sighed and said, "Ah, only in America."
He was once asked what he would do if he found a million dollars, and he said with a straight face, "If the guy was poor, I’d give it back to him."
You know, critics questioned whether he ever really said some of his most celebrated maxims, but of course Yogi had a ready answer for them, too. He said, "I didn’t say half the things I’ve said."
For many of us, we are brought to our history in just this fashion, with story, memory, anecdote, feeling. These emotional connections become a kind of glue which makes the most complex of past events stick in our minds and particularly in our hearts, permanently a part of who each of us is now.
But for most of the life of this republic, the way we have formerly told our history was from the top down. This has been called the history of the State, and it basically focuses only on presidents and wars and generals—our political narrative. It relies, like certain, current, utterly discredited economic theories, on an erroneous belief that this kind of history trickles down and touches experiences common to us all. It rarely does. It does exhibit, or has exhibited, an understandable arrogance, and we have had to rely on family memory and community recollection for the really good stuff. Or at least the stuff that made all that political history somehow meaningful.
But as we have grown older as a country, as we have moved around more, lost touch with place more, those personal histories have dried up for most people, and we as a people have begun to forget. History became a kind of castor oil of dry dates and facts and events with little meaning; something we knew was good for us, but hardly good tasting. History became just another subject, not the great pageant of everything that has come before this moment. Everything that has come before this moment.
About forty or fifty years ago, we woke up to this problem, at least partially, and began to insist on relevance in our teaching of history and on a new social history that would focus on real people doing real and recognizable things. This would be history from the bottom up not from the top down, and people would respond. They did not. Relevance became an excuse for not even teaching history, and the new social history became so bogged down in statistical demographics and micro perceptions that history began to sound like the reading of the telephone book. A new arrogance replaced the old—equally understandable, I suppose, but equally devastating to our national memory. Someone expressed this new tyranny quite well when he said that a history of Illinois could be written without ever once mentioning Abraham Lincoln. Something obviously had to change, and I’m pleased to report that in some ways it has.
We have, as an academic community, begun to speak of a synthesis of the old and the new histories, a way to combine the best of the top-down version—still inspiring, even with its great-men addiction (those great men did do great things)—with the bottom-up version; so inspiring, too, at times, with the million heroic acts of women, minorities, labor, ordinary people. And we’ve begun to use new media and new forms of expression to tell our histories, breaking the stranglehold the academy has had on historical exchange for the last hundred years.
Remember, until we adopted the Germanic academic model at the end of the nineteenth century, our greatest historians like Francis Parkman and Henry Adams were essentially amateurs—popular writers concerned with speaking to larger audiences not just a handful of colleagues and scholars—unconcerned with how one wrote, or more important, who was listening.
Listen. "Baseball," the poet Donald Hall told us in a filmed interview, "because of its continuity over the space of America and the time of America is a place where memory gathers." It was my intention to pursue the game and its memories and myths across the expanse of American history. We quickly developed an abiding conviction that the game of baseball offered a unique prism through which one could see refracted much more than a history of a simple sport.
This is the story of labor and management, those whose great skills make the game so interesting, and those who own the ball and the ballpark. This is a story of immigration and assimilation, as each wave of immigrant groups sought the permanent status of citizenship conveyed not by a piece of paper from the state department, but by participating in the national pastime of their adopted land.
This is the story of popular culture and advertising; how myths are made; that is to say, how the country really is and how we would like to see ourselves. This is the story of heroes, and of course this is of necessity the story of villains and fools. Thomas Carlyle, the great English historian, once said that history is biography; that the most rewarding and dramatic study of our common past lay in the lives of great figures. I can think of no other arena, including politics, where there are so many complicated and interesting human beings—good and bad. And in our disposable culture, it is interesting and encouraging to note that we don’t dispose of our baseball heroes—Walter Johnson, Babe Ruth, or Jackie Robinson—as readily as we do in other arenas. And "that," Tom Boswell, the great sportswriter of The Washington Post has said, "is a wonderful thing to hand down to our children."
This is a story of a restless, expanding, competitive, sentimental nation; a story of the growth and decay and now re-birth of great cities; of the rise of popular media, and the exclusion, I’m sorry to say, of women.
And this, of course, is the story of race, central to our larger American narrative, crucial to baseball. When Jackie Robinson walked out on to that ball field in the spring of 1947, his glorious moment was the first real progress in civil rights since the Civil War, making our production in a way a sequel, a literal sequel, to our Civil War series. And that glorious moment occurred not at a lunch counter in North Carolina, not on a city bus in Montgomery, Alabama, not in a school in South Carolina or Topeka, not even in the barracks of our military, but on the diamonds of our so-called national pastime. At that moment, when that proud grandson of a slave made his way to first base at Ebbets Field, his miraculous and heroic example—turning his cheek for three years against the thousands of racial slights, threats and abuse that he would face—would be watched with awe and gratitude by a young junior at Morehouse College in Atlanta, Georgia, named Martin Luther King. In a sense, American social history made a profound turn that April afternoon.
But Jackie Robinson’s epic story is not the whole of it. For decades African Americans struggled to offset the prejudice in their country and in their national game by creating and managing and owning teams and leagues of separate but athletically equal talent. And when Jackie finally did arrive, when baseball became in truth what it had always claimed to be—the national pastime— the struggle did not stop, as it has not stopped in our country at large. Curt Flood and Henry Aaron were ironically forced to confront again and again the pernicious racism that persists in this favored land, as the famous poem "Casey At The Bat" put it, founded as it was more than 200 years ago on the most noble principle yet advanced in humankind, that all men were created equal.
I have to admit that I have, in many ways, made the same film over and over again. Each production asks one deceptively simple question: who are we? That is to say, who are we Americans as a people? What does an investigation of the past tell us about who we were and what we have become? Each film offers an opportunity to pursue this question, and while never answering it fully, nevertheless deepens the question with each succeeding project.
Deepens the question. Who are we? American history is a loud, raucous, moving, exquisite collection of noises, that in the aggregate often combine to make the sweetest kind of music I know. And we have tried to listen to this "music" as much as we can in putting together the films we have made. It is a kind of emotional archeology that we are attempting, listening to the ghosts and echoes of an almost inexpressibly wise past.
Listen. In January of 1838, shortly before his 29th birthday, a tall thin lawyer prone to bouts of debilitating depression, addressed the Young Men’s Lyceum in Springfield, Illinois. "At what point shall we expect the approach of danger?" he asked his audience. "Shall we expect some transatlantic military giant to step the Earth and crush us at a blow?" Then he answered his own question: "Never. All the armies of Europe, Asia, and Africa… could not by force take a drink from the Ohio [River] or make a track on the Blue Ridge in a trial of a thousand years… If destruction be our lot, we must ourselves be its author and finisher. As a nation of freemen, we must live through all time, or die by suicide."
That young man, Abraham Lincoln, would go on to preside over the closest this country has ever come to near national suicide, our Civil War, and yet embedded in his extraordinary, disturbing and prescient words is a fundamental optimism that implicitly acknowledges the geographical force-field two mighty oceans have provided for us since the British burned the White House in the War of 1812.
In many respects, September 11th ended all of that, rupturing the sense of invincibility and safety we had gradually acquired as the Cold War receded into the past. Still, as we struggle to redefine ourselves in the wake of that rupture, it is interesting that we come back again and again to the Civil War and Lincoln for the kind of sustaining vision of why we Americans still agree to cohere, why unlike any other country on earth, we are still stitched together by words and, most important, ideas. It is altogether fitting and proper that some of those powerful words and ideas of Lincoln’s should have echoed at ground zero on the first anniversary of September 11th and amplified our own feeble, and yet terribly moving, attempts at memorial. We have counted on Lincoln for nearly a century and a half to get it right when the undertow in the tide of human events has threatened to overwhelm us. We return to him for a sense of unity, conscience, and national purpose. And still, he and the Civil War have much to teach us.
In September of 1990, PBS first broadcast our film on the Civil War. For years, those of us who were engaged in producing the film, struggled to understand the four horrible years in our national life where, paradoxically, in order to become one, we tore ourselves in two. We were all constantly moved by Lincoln’s ability to reconcile the contradictions that have attended, and at times, bedeviled us since our inception. He never lost sight of what was worth fighting for and what the cost would be; he seemed to instinctively comprehend and then tried to bridge the innate tension between our psychological and civic lives. He gave our fragile experiment a conscious shock that enabled it to outgrow the monumental hypocrisy of slavery inherited at our founding and permitted us all, slave owner as well as slave, to have literally "a new birth of freedom." And I think, by some strange historical osmosis, he made us better filmmakers.
When the film first aired, our nation was in the serious grip of war fever—it was a palpable excitement—as we massed our forces in the Gulf to attack Iraq. After the broadcast, however, pollsters and commentators noted that America’s popular enthusiasm and appetite for battle diminished by nearly a quarter as our film, they said—in frame after frame of painful imagery of Americans killing other Americans—revealed the real cost of a war fought more than a century earlier. We considered that perhaps minor hesitation our best review.
Recently, PBS dusted the series off and showed it again. Again, we are at war in Iraq, perhaps substituting a more tangible foe for the shadowy forces that shattered our peace and tranquility. And again the war—and Lincoln—have much to say to us. "No general yet found," Lincoln said with chilling and brutal honesty in 1863, "can face the arithmetic, but the end of the war will be at hand when he shall be discovered." The arithmetic, of course, was the number of dead soldiers that general would inevitably have to send home. He found that general—U. S. Grant—and the bodies piled up in numbers unimaginable just a few months before.
As I watched the film again and relived its dark internal scenes, I pray we are prepared for the cost, and I shutter when the full force of Lincoln’s youthful warning comes back to my consciousness —that the real threat always and still comes from within this favored land, that the greatest enemy is, as our religious teachings remind us, always ourselves. And it seems abundantly clear that when we Americans heed the advice that echoes back from our inexpressibly wise past, we insure that we will, indeed, "live through all time."
Listen. At 4:30 a.m. on the 12th of April, 1861, General Pierre Gustave Toutant Beauregard directed his Confederate gunners to open fire on Fort Sumter, at that hour only a dark shape out in Charleston harbor. Thirty-four hours later a white flag over the fort ended the bombardment. The only casualty was a Confederate horse. It was a bloodless opening to the bloodiest war in American history.
No one could have predicted the magnitude of the explosion that rocked America following that opening shot. Until then America had been, as Bruce Catton wrote, "small enough to carry in the mind and in the heart, and a young man’s fatherland was what he could see from his bedroom window." Yet most of what America was before the Civil War went into sparking that explosion, and most of what it became resulted from it. Entirely unimaginable before it began, the war was the most defining and shaping event in American history—so much so that it is now impossible to imagine what we would have been like without it.
Shortly after Appomattox, Walt Whitman, a Brooklyn journalist and sometime poet who worked as a nurse in the appalling Union hospitals, warned posterity of what he had seen. "Future years," he wrote, "will never know the seething hell and the black infernal background, the countless minor scenes and interiors of the secession war; and it is best they should not. The real war," Whitman insisted, "will never get in the books."
The writers and historians of future years have not been scared off by Whitman’s admonition. In the hundred and thirty-nine years since the War’s conclusion, more than fifty thousand books have been published on the Civil War. I am told by friends at the Library of Congress that only the life of Jesus Christ commands more shelf space. Each year dozens of new titles appear, again offering to revisit the war, to reinterpret or rearrange those strange days and hard events—faint traces and distant signals now—looking still for the coherent, the conclusive explanation.
And yet Whitman’s words retain their force. The "real war" stays there, outside all the books, beckoning to us. Why did Americans kill each other and how did it happen? Who were these people who fought and killed, marched and sang, wrote home, skedaddled, deserted, died, nursed and lamented, persevered and were defeated? What was it like to be in that war? What did it do to America and Americans? What happened to the movement that freed blacks from slavery? Why have succeeding generations obscured the war with bloodless, gallant myth, blurring its causes and its great ennobling outcome—the freeing of four million black people and, most important, their descendants from bondage? What did it mean that the Union won? What does it mean to be a Union? Why are we still so drawn to this tale of suffering, catastrophe, heroism and death?
These were the questions we asked as we began our series.
Shortly before we finished the series, a friend of mine at the National Archives sent me a bunch of old papers about some skirmishes in Western Virginia during the Civil War. There wasn’t time to include it in our film, indeed, the old top-down version of history would not have even glanced at these old papers of campaigns long forgotten, statistical records best left unsifted. I bring them up because they have personal meaning to real people, sometimes they speak louder than the larger aerial views of the war do.
These reports included mentions of the actions of a Union General Averall in the newly created State of West Virginia at Moorefield in August of 1863. It seems that Averall was able to capture a group of Confederate cavalrymen in a small skirmish. The Southerners were mostly from Captain McClanahan’s Co. of Virginia Horse Artillery. They were, in the fascinating details of these records, completely out-gunned. Three men were killed, five wounded, and thirteen were made prisoners and sent to Camp Chase in Ohio to be eventually paroled in March 1865. The records at Camp Chase are sketchier, but they do record receiving, processing, and releasing (paroling) the prisoners.
They are a fairly non-descript bunch. Most seem to have come from Bathe County, Virginia. None were slave holders, or looked to have much interest in the Constitutional issues. One fellow was described as being 5 feet, 4 inches tall, with a dark complexion, grey eyes, and dark hair. He said he was a blacksmith in life and stated to the copyist, a Mr. R. W. Pearson, that he had been forced to join the Confederate Army. Another copyist, a Mr. Jameison, places the group of "rebels" at Cox’s Wharves on the James River near City Point on March 11 or 12, 1865, where all records of the men disappear.
I was struck by the impersonal nature of the papers and yet a sense that real Americans had lived through this war. Had been touched by it. Fought. Were captured. Held prisoner. Released. Shod horses. Maybe in the top-down version of things they didn’t matter much, but in someone’s history they do and that makes for a different kind of history.
Listen. In a filmed interview for our documentary history on the national pastime, the great writer and essayist Gerald Early told us that "when they study our American civilization two thousand years from now, Americans will be known for only three things: the Constitution, baseball and jazz music. They’re the three most beautiful things Americans have ever created." Professor Early’s words tend to put a smile on the face of the listener, as if he meant it only as a joke, a passing comment of little import. But I’m convinced he was deadly serious—and absolutely correct. And I realized that I have worked almost unceasingly for the past seventeen years to honor that statement. Having grappled with crucial Constitutional issues in our Civil War series (the Constitution’s greatest test) and many other films, and having explored our national pastime and its exquisite lessons in our series on Baseball, we have over the last several years struggled to understand the utterly American art form of jazz in a ten part documentary history for PBS that was broadcast in January of 2001.
What each of the three subjects daily reminded us was that the genius of America is improvisation, our unique experiment a profound intersection of freedom and creativity, in nearly every gesture and breath.
The Constitution is the greatest improvisational document ever created, four pieces of parchment written at the end of the 18th century, able to adjudicate the thorniest problems we have in this new twenty-first century. The Constitution set us on our improvisatory course, emphasizing in fits and starts over more than two hundred years, that we are a nation in the process of becoming, always striving to create a more perfect union, always, as the Declaration of Independence mysteriously put it, in pursuit of happiness. More than anything it has helped to ensure our future by making us Americans unusually curious, unsatisfied, experimenting.
In baseball, we have a simple, children’s stick and ball game—nearly every culture has some variation of it—that offers, in our version, infinite chess-like combinations, and in the totality of its experience a unique sense of time, memory, family, and home that has meant something for nearly every generation of this Republic; a three hundred hitter means the same thing to my daughters as it does to me, as it did to my father and my grandfather and my great grandfather. There’s almost nothing in American life that you can say that about.
And then there is jazz—"our art," the trumpeter Wynton Marsalis calls it—the only art form created by Americans, an enduring and indelible expression of our genius and promise; "a painless way," Marsalis tells us, "of understanding ourselves." In the Civil War film, the writer Shelby Foote said that the war defined us. We searched for a sense of what we had become after that war and found in baseball a complex and revealing mirror of who we were that went way beyond the box score. In Jazz, we completed our trilogy of American life, finding in the music’s lines and phrases and riffs not only a meditation on American creativity, but a joyous and sublime celebration of the redemptive future possibilities of this remarkable Republic—at both a collective and an intensely personal and psychological level.
For those of us engaged in trying to understand it, the history of jazz turned out to be much more than a study of this extraordinary American music. Jazz has offered a window through which so much of American history can be seen—it is a curious and unusually objective witness to the 20th century. And so our series necessarily became a story about race and race relations and prejudice, about slavery and minstrelsy and Jim Crow, about lynchings and civil rights, about progress forward and progress backwards. Instead of suggesting that African-American history is a minor, inconsequential, politically correct addendum to our national narrative, relegated in our studies to February, the coldest and shortest month, Jazz insists, and offers the perhaps explosive hypothesis, that those who have had the peculiar experience of being unfree in a free land might actually be at the center of our history. African-Americans in general, and black jazz musicians in particular, carry a complicated message to the rest of us, a genetic memory of our great promise and our great failing, and the music they created and then generously shared with the rest of the world negotiates and reconciles the contradictions many of us would rather ignore. Embedded in the music, in its riveting biographies and soaring artistic achievement, can be found our oft-neglected conscience, a message of hope and transcendence for all people, of affirmation in the face of adversity, unequaled in the unfolding drama of American history. Jazz seemed to us, like baseball, a template of change in an always changing world and yet a repository of carefully conserved verities as old as that American promise of freedom. In clubs and on the concert stage, Jazz has helped keep the American message alive.
But Jazz is much more. It is the story of two world wars and a devastating Depression—the soundtrack that helped Americans get through the worst of times. Jazz is about sex, the way men and women talk to each other with music, with art, and negotiate the complicated rituals of courtship; it is a sophisticated and elegant mating call that has all but disappeared from popular music in recent times. It is, I’m sorry to say, about drugs and the terrible cost of addiction and the high price of creativity. It is about the growth and explosion of radio and the soul of great American cities—New Orleans (where the music was born), Chicago, Kansas City and New York (where it grew up). It is about immigration and assimilation again, and feeling dispossessed—and the music that came to the rescue. It is about movement and dance and entertainment—the frequently dismissed but sacred communion between artist and audience. It’s about solitude and loneliness and the nearly unbearable burden of consciousness. It’s about suffering and celebration—it’s hugely about celebration—and, as Louis Armstrong would say, "patting your feet."
And jazz is the story of dozens of extraordinary human beings that we who have worked on the film have come to know like family members; human beings—black and white, male and female, addicts and orphans, prostitutes and pimps, sons of privilege and despair— protean geniuses all who, much like the political figures charged with inventing this country, took enormous risks, shouldered unimaginable responsibility, and are able to do what the rest of us can only dream of: create art on the spot.
Listen. Thirteen years ago, the world lost a towering historical and literary figure, the novelist Isaac B. Singer. For decades he wrote, almost sang, about God and myth and punishment, fate and sexuality and family, and history.
He wrote in Yiddish, a marvelous, expressive language, sad and happy all at the same time, sometimes maddeningly all-knowing and yet resigned to God’s seemingly capricious will. It is also a language without a country, a dying language in a world more often interested in the extermination or isolation of its troubled, long suffering speakers. Singer, first writing in this country in the pages of the Jewish Daily Forward, almost single-handedly helped to keep Yiddish alive. Now our own wonderfully mongrel American language is punctuated with dozens of Yiddish words and phrases, parables and wisdom. And so many of these words are perfect onomatopoeias of disgust, hubris and humor. (If you’ve ever met a schmuck, you know what I’m talking about.)
Toward the end of his long and prolific life, Singer expressed wonder at why so many of his books, written in this obscure and, some said, useless language, would be so widely translated. Something like 56 countries all around the world. Why, for example, he wondered, with a characteristic twinkle in his eye, why would a Japanese man care about his simple stories of life in the stetles of eastern Europe a thousand years ago? "Unless," Singer paused, twinkle still in place, "unless these stories spoke of the kinship of the soul." I loved that, too. I think he was talking about that which connects all of us here together. That which we all share as part of life on this planet.
I have had my own wonderful brush with the "kinship of the soul" the last few years as I attempt to digest the reaction and impact of our films, both serious and frivolous, on the country. You know, we’ve been, as a real barometer of your effect on the culture, the subject of dozens and dozens of editorial cartoons. When the Civil War film came out, we were the subject of perhaps a half dozen of these cartoons. But after the baseball series aired, we were the subject of dozens of editorial cartoons, which puffed up my ego pretty big. One day, I rather proudly showed off one of these cartoons to my daughters as they got back from school. It showed two young children, obviously ogling the signature on a baseball freshly autographed by a man with a Beatles haircut, and the balloon over the kids says, "Ooooh, Ken Burns!" At that moment, my oldest daughter said, " Yeah, but look at this new cartoon someone just faxed to us." It showed a bleary-eyed couple sitting on a couch as the television was going, and a huge balloon over the television says, "Coming soon to PBS: ‘O. J.’—A 2,575 hour documentary…." And the man on the couch turns to his wife and says, "Ken Burns has got to be stopped."
But nowhere is the profundity of response more pronounced than in the wonderful, touching expressive letters I have received. To my surprise and delight, the eloquence of common men and women that we had worked so hard to put in our film came through in thousands of new letters from Americans who were supposed to be completely numbed by television and a postmodern age that had lulled them to blissful, ignorant sleep. Let me read you just one example, received not too long ago:
Again, I am watching The Civil War—enthralled, inspired, heartbroken. So much to think about, so much to feel:
The eloquence of ordinary people resounds. It humbles me.
Such dignity in the archival faces of my people, who were enslaved but who never surrendered their souls to slavery.
I hear the Southerners who not only kept my ancestors in bondage, but fought to the death to do so. And I hate them for that.
Then the choir sings: "Do you… do you… want your freedom?" A good question, for we are not yet truly free, none of us.
To achieve that, white America must abandon its racial conceits—and I must abandon my hate. They must change, and I must forgive, for us both to be free.
Lincoln was right. "Malice toward none, charity for all."
So at the end, I wonder. Does my white counterpart, hearing that choir, realize that that final question is meant for both of us?
"Do you… do you… want your freedom?"
I know what my answer is. I will wait for his."
Most of us whether we know it or not, are in the business of words, and we hope, with some reasonable expectation, that those words will last. But alas, especially today, those words often evaporate, their precision blunted by neglect; their insight diminished by the sheer volume of their ever-increasing brethren; their force diluted by ancient animosities that seem to set each group against the other.
The historian, Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. said that we suffer today from "too much pluribus and not enough unum." Few things survive in these cynical days to remind us of the union from which so many of our personal as well as collective blessings flow. And it is hard not to wonder in an age when the present moment consumes and overshadows all else—our bright past and our dim, unknown future—what finally does endure? What encodes and stores the genetic material of our civilization, passing down to the next generation—the best of us—what we hope will mutate into betterness for our children and our posterity?
History holds one answer. Nothing in our daily life offers more of the comfort of continuity, the generational connection of belonging to a vast and complicated American family, the powerful sense of home, the freedom from time’s constraints, and the great gift of accumulated memory than does an active and heartfelt engagement with our shared past.
If you see the history of your country in the same sympathetic and personal way you see the life of a human being, then it is clear, for example, that the Civil War was the great traumatic event in the childhood of this nation. Disguise it as we may, ignore it as we usually do, distort it as we have so often done, we cannot ultimately not be continually influenced by this terrible terrible memory of the four years during which we came close to ending our national life.
My own mother died when I was eleven, permanently changing me and permanently influencing all that I would become. The Civil War defines us in just that way, at both an intensely intimate level and in a broad national sense.
Finally, Lincoln, of course, said it best. Early in 1861, at his first inauguration on a cold, blustery March day, when he still hoped to keep his country together, he implored the mostly Southerners in his audience not to go to war. "We must not be enemies," he said. "We must be friends. Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection." But then he went on: "The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battle-field and patriot grave, to every living heart and hearthstone, all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be by the better angels of our nature." Isn’t that it?
The Kinship of the Soul.
The Better Angels of Our Nature.
The Mystic Chords of Memory.
And speaking of memory. Remember that Confederate blacksmith captured at Moorefield, West Virginia, and imprisoned at Camp Chase in Ohio? His name was Abraham Burns—my great, great grandfather.