Monday, September 21, 2015

The Sunset Tree is an old friend. Those opening lines unfold like a hug after a long absence.

In general I don't listen to pop and indie music as seriously as I did a few years back--I don't regard it as seriously, I suppose.

There are exceptions, though. Some day I'll try to put down in words all that album has done for me over the years. But not today.

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Ken Burns' 'The Civil War' & The Lost Cause

John Fea--whose blog is a must-read for anyone interested in American history--linked today to a fascinating post about Ken Burns' The Civil War. In the linked post, historian Kevin Levin writes about The Civil War's "split personality":
[Shelby] Foote spoke 7,653 words compared to the second highest speaker, who spoke 1,112 words... His primary responsibility  was to comment on military matters and he did this quite effectively from telling colorful stories about the experiences of the common soldier in battle to waxing poetic about Nathan Bedford Forrest. He pushed a narrative that remains incredibly popular for people who for whatever reason would rather hold on to a personal memory of the war that is void of the story of slavery and emancipation. What’s left is a popular narrative of brave soldiers fighting for their respective causes. 
Shelby Foote was the star of this documentary and rightly so, but Burns ought to be able to acknowledge all these years later that the amount of air time he was given likely allowed certain viewers to slip through without fully coming to terms with the tough questions of slavery and race. 
I see The Civil War as a wonderful example of the split personality of Civil War memory. On the one hand Burns embraced and even anticipated a robust narrative that deals directly with the tough questions related to slavery and race – one that we’ve seen blossom during the the Civil War 150. At the same time Burns’s film reminds us of the difficulty of fully reconciling this narrative with a lingering Lost Cause narrative.
Ken Burns' The Civil War is my favorite documentary, hands down. Like Fea, I've seen it multiple times, and I'll be showing extended clips of it over the next month as my students study the Civil War. Having said that, it's also a documentary with some significant problems.

Kevin Levin's analysis is spot on. The Civil War reflects a significant break between Burns's own view and that of Foote. As Levin suggests, Foote's prominence owes a lot to his magnetism on screen, which is clear and undeniable. Foote is a master of the fascinating anecdote. I could listen to him talk for hours on end.

But he clearly subscribes to a hefty amount of Lost Cause mythology. As Levin suggests, slavery is constantly pushed to the periphery based on the banal observation that the average Confederate soldier wasn't a slaveowner (as though the causes of wars ever have much of anything to do with the motivations of foot soldiers). Nathan Bedford Forrest gets called an "authentic genius" without any acknowledgement of his post-war role. Foote is allowed to portray Lee as, basically, a kind-hearted fella who hated slavery when all recent research suggests that this is, at best, an absurd oversimplification.*

Burns clearly does not subscribe to Lost Cause mythology. Given that, he should have done a better job of balancing out or contextualizing Foote.

*For the record, I don't think the demonization of Lee as a monster is much better--but I just spent a year as a thesis adviser to a student who was trying to insist that Lee was basically a Southern abolitionist, which...