The little boy tugged at his mother’s sleeve. “Did you see that!” he said. “One of them’s alive!”
On many occasions, I have used this story as a stepping stone on a promising line of thought. To the boy, the distant solemnity of the Justices made their vitality a matter of doubt. Thus the story suggests a parallel recognition: though the people of the past are distant from us in time, they were as fully alive in their moment as we are in ours. Like us, they lived the edge of the moment, as surprised as we are by the twists and turns of the unfolding future.
Why does this matter?
Moving an audience in the direction of this recognition offers an effective recovery program from fatalism and resignation. When we recognize the full vitality of the people who preceded us on the planet, we are reminded of our own powers of choice, and we are encouraged to exercise those powers with vigor and hope.
And which individual has done the most to give this treatment program a chance to redeem us?
Here’s my own answer: documentary-filmmaker Ken Burns.
Beginning with the film “Brooklyn Bridge” in 1981, accelerating into national prominence with “The Civil War” in 1990, and continuing through a breathtaking cascade of subjects, from “Baseball” to “Jazz,” from “The National Parks” to “The Vietnam War,” Ken Burns’ historical documentaries have reached an unimaginably vast sector of the American public.
This achievement has not always received admiration and acclaim from university-based historians. As the University of Pennsylvania professor Jonathan Zimmermann has pointed out, professional historians have adopted a dismissive “party line”: Ken Burns “is a simplifier; we complicate. He makes myths; we bust them. And he celebrates the nation, while we critique it.” In Zimmermann’s judgment, this critique rests on resentment over the fact that “Burns has managed to engage a huge public audience.”
In this perilous era of American life, the need to pay attention to history is several stages past “urgent.” It is surely time for a moratorium on the rivalry between the history professors and the so-called popularizers.
For every enthusiast for history, “all hands on deck” is the necessary call to action. Moreover, there is a great deal for all citizens to learn from Burns: how to speak as a whole-hearted patriot while offering a forthright critique of the nation’s failures to deliver on its ideals; how to clear away the fog of nostalgia and sentiment that often veils the people of the past; and, most important, how to use the contingency and improbability of the past to defeat fatalism in our time.
“When it comes to persuading Americans to pay attention to history,” I have said to many audiences, “no one has done more than Ken Burns.”
In a ceremony concluding with my presentation of the Center of the American West’s Stegner Award to Ken Burns, I will finally have the chance to make that statement in Burns’ presence.
And I’ll have the chance to thank him for arranging for us to venture into the company of the people of the past, permitting us to come to know the full vitality of those who lived before us.
P.S. Tickets to the Burns event — October 2, 2018, 7 p.m., Macky Auditorium on the CU Boulder campus — can be purchased at www.colorado.edu/Macky/ for $12. Since Ken Burns has often declared that perseverance is the key to success, I invite all the members of the History Colorado Board to attend this event as my guests and to take up an affiliation with an auditorium full of advocates for history.
To send a letter to the editor about this article, submit online or check out our guidelines for how to submit by email or mail.