Telling History vs. Making Art: Communicating “the incommunicable experience of war”

Part seven in a series

“We have shared the incommunicable experience of war,” Oliver Wendell Holmes says at the beginning of Ken Burns’ documentary The Civil War. Burns could not have picked a more appropriate quote to start his film with, not just because it set a particular tone for the entire eleven-hour documentary but because it would describe the viewing experience of the documentary itself. For a week, some forty million Americans tuned in to public televisions to watch Burns’ film—a shared media experience so profound that one book says, “For a generation of Americans, this documentary is the Civil War.”

Holmes’ words were appropriate, too, because the war remained largely incommunicable.“Ken Burns encountered thousands of ‘facts’ about the war in the form of pictures, letters, statistics, maps, and other kinds of evidence,” points out historian Robert Brent Toplin. “He could easily have turned his eleven-hour documentary into a 100-hour or 200-hour film, and still he would have to leave out much interesting material.”

Critics pounced on Burns for what he left out (information about social history, for instance) and for what he put in (too much traditional focus on battles and leaders). “In The Civil War, despite the abundance of images and resources at the command of the filmmakers, that social upheaval is never played out with the same depth, the same sensitivity, the same emotional and dramatic intensity as the military engagements,” contends historian Leon Litwack. He criticizes what he sees as Burns’ choice to focus on the Reunification tradition. “The nation had been reborn, and it is this rebirth that Ken Burns chooses to celebrate in The Civil War,” he says, calling it the “most appalling and revealing shortcoming” of the film.

Historian Eric Foner agrees. “In choosing to stress the preservation of the American nation state as the war’s most enduring consequence, Burns privileges a merely national concern over the great human drama of emancipation,” Foner says, vitriolic that Burns ignored the Emancipation tradition. Others accused him of embracing the Lost Cause tradition. Some “saw only capitulation to an ‘old’ narrative pro-southern version of history,” Burns lamented.

Part of it, Burns suggested, might relate back to expectations. “Had they forgotten the difference between literary scholarship and the demands of a popular medium?” he wondered.

The film’s principle writer, Geoffrey C. Ward, admitted that “it was only the special demands of documentary filmmaking that kept us from doing still more” in the film than they did. “Time imposes crippling restraints,” he said, outlining other issues, as well: “Before anything else, film demands something to look at…. And, just as sadly, there is precious little written evidence of the sort we would have needed to fill our script.” He also pointed out that “Television is better at narrative than analysis, better at evoking emotions than expounding complex ideas.”

The ability to evoke emotion easily stands out as The Civil War’s greatest strength: From its opening shot of a canon silhouetted against a fire-orange sky and the use of the Oliver Wendell Holmes quote and the haunting Appalachian violin of Jay Unger’s “Ashoken Farewell,” Burns strives first and foremost to set an emotional tone.

Even historian Leon Litwack, in all his criticism of the film as a piece of history, seemed taken with it as a piece of art:

Skillfully crafted, technically innovative, evocative and emotionally seductive, the television series made effective use of letters, diaries and journals, archival photographs, paintings, broadsides, newsreel footage, eyewitness accounts, and an often mesmerizing musical score.

The best example of his use of such primary-source material is the stirring narration of a letter by Major Sullivan Ballou of the 2nd Rhode Island Infantry, killed during the Battle of First Manassas. A week before the battle, he wrote home to his wife, and Burns quotes the letter over top historical photos and beautiful modern battlefield landscapes to close out the first episode. It is exquisite art. What most people don’t realize is that Burns trimmed the letter by almost fifty percent—from 868 words down to 451—in order to maximize its poignancy on screen. Burns edited the letter because, as an artist, he needed to control the pace and dramatic impact of his film. Such editing, though, doesn’t mean Burns’ art compromises his history. Historians, too, quote selectively from primary sources when constructing narratives and arguments; Burns is using the same technique to the same end.

Burns’ most common primary source materials are the hundreds of photographs he shows. Here, Toplin lauds Burns’s “extraordinary filmmaking achievement in dealing with unequal source materials.” Photos for the Union side of the story were much more abundant than for the Southern side of the story because, after the first year of the war, “photographic activity in the South dropped dramatically”—yet Burns crafted a balanced story from what he had to work with.

The molasses-smooth authority of narrator David McCullough (who has himself taken flack for being too popular as a historian) shines throughout, punctuated by interview clips from a variety of experts, including historian Barbara Fields, who argued eloquently about the war’s higher purpose of emancipation, and the yarn-spinning Southern gentleman Shelby Foote (whom Burns subsequently called “an American treasure”).

Not that every swing Burns took was a home run. His choice to encumber Ed Bearrs with a suitcoat and tie and confine him to a chair is widely seen among my NPS colleagues as a huge disservice to Ed. As the NPS’s former chief historian, he’s widely regarded throughout the agency as one of the best battlefield interpreters in the business because of his forceful style and animated storytelling. He still leads frequent bus tours, which sell out. The Burns documentary did nothing to capture his charisma.

The film also contains a few factual errors. “The most spectacular must be the fact that we managed to get wrong both the date of Lincoln’s assassination and his age at the time of his death,” admits Ward. “Both errors are mine alone…. And, unbelievably, through repeated screenings for our distinguished advisers and for ourselves, no one involved seems ever to have noticed either error.” For such sins of commission, Ward says they deserved to be chastened.

But for sins of interpretation—especially after the five-year collaborative process the many drafts of the script went through with panels of historians—Burns deserves some slack. Because his film was so public and so successful, criticism creates an impression of controversy when, in fact, any historian could face questions about his/her interpretation.

“[B]ecause of our medium, with all its inherent strengths and weaknesses, because of the almost Aristotelian demands of structure and pacing, our film, not theirs, looked this way,” Burns finally said. The result is a sublime intersection of history and art that uses the strengths of both to tell a story so big it is, indeed, incommunicable. “[S]tory,” Burns has said, “is a central part of the word ‘history.’” His Civil War is a true story beautifully told.

Next: Fictions told until they are believed to be true

Telling History vs. Making Art: The Civil War’s great storyteller

Part six in a series.

No written work embodies the tension between art and history more fully than Shelby Foote’s mammoth three-volume The Civil War: A Narrative. Few people realize Foote was a novelist before he became the “warm and folksy raconteur” of anecdotal Civil War history; his novel Shiloh sits almost forgotten in the shadow of his magnum opus.

“Well, I am a novelist, and what is more I agree with D.H. Lawrence’s estimate of the novel as ‘the one bright book of life….’” Foote said in his author’s note at the end of the first volume, Fort Sumter to Perryville:

The point I would make is that the novelist and the historian are seeking the same thing: the truth—not a different truth: the same truth—only they reach it, or try to reach it, by different routes. Whether the event took place in a world now gone to dust, preserved by documents and evaluated by scholarship, or in the imagination, preserved by memory and distilled by the creative process, they both want to tell us how it was: to recreate it, by their separate methods, and make it live again in the world around them.

This has been my aim, as well, only I have combined the two. Accepting the historian’s standards without his paraphernalia, I have employed the novelist’s methods without his license. Instead of inventing characters and incidents, I searched them out—and having found them, I took them as they were.

Although Foote listed his primary and secondary sources at the end of each volume, he made the intentional choice to leave out footnotes along the way, “believing that they would detract from the book’s narrative quality by intermittently shattering the illusion that the observer is not so much reading a book as sharing an experience.”

Foote’s lack of footnotes, in particular, has drawn the scorn of historians, as has his anecdotal style (and, frankly, his success—illustrating again the gap between public and professional perspectives). People even harped on him for taking so long to complete the trilogy. “[I]n response to complaints that it took me five times longer to write the war than the participants took to fight it, I would point out that there were a good many more them than were was of me,” he wrote at the end.

More serious criticism was leveled at him for focusing too much on military matters and for downplaying the role of slavery. “Shelby Foote is an engaging battlefield guide, a master of the anecdote, and a gifted and charming storyteller, but he is not a good historian,” says historian Leon Litwack.

Trends and tensions within the field of history itself actually leave any historian open to that kind of criticism. I’ve heard historians dismiss each other as “too military” or “too Southern” or “too focused on a particular site and not enough on the big-picture,” and as a field, military history continues to take a back seat to social history. Despite that emphasis on social history among professional historians, though, military histories “remain the most popular works Civil War historians produce for a general audience.” What the public wants and what scholars choose to study remain two separate spheres. It’s no wonder the two groups come to a creative work as readers/viewers with vastly different expectations.

In the end, the naysayers who criticized Foote’s lack of proper historiographical technique won out: the Pulitzer committee passed him over, as did the National Book Award committee. The omissions left Foote “bitter and angry,” a biographer later wrote.

Born on November 17, 1916, Foote grew up in Mississippi and later lived in Memphis. He published his first novel, Tournament, in 1949, followed by several others, including his first foray into Civil War-related literature, Shiloh, in 1952. He showed promise, Faulkner thought, “if he’ll just stop trying to write like Faulkner, and will write some Shelby Foote.” He was also admired by Eudora Welty and was close friends with Walker Percy.

Foote began work on his first volume of The Civil War: A Narrative—Vol. I Ft. Sumter to Perryville in 1951 and published in in 1958. Vol. II Fredericksburg to Meridian followed in 1863; Vol. III Red River to Appomattox followed in 1974.

Critics who look on the three volumes and focus on, say, Foote’s lack of footnotes miss the point: his power as a storyteller. They forget about the beauty of his language, the smooth skill of his pacing, and the adroit weave of his complex narrative structure. Look at the way these two sentences, 113 words in all, unwrap as they go:

A mile to the right of the point where the cluster of spires and gables showed above the ridge, and facing the road the led northward along it to Hagerstown, a squat, whitewashed building was set at the forward edge of a grove of trees wearing their full late-summer foliage; the autumnal equinox was still a week away. The sunlit brick structure, dazzling white against its leafy backdrop, was a church, but it was a Dunker church and therefore had no steeple; the Dunkers believed that steeples represented vanity, and they were as much opposed to vanity as they were to war, including the one that was about to move into their churchyard.

Foote uses labyrinthine phrasing and careful punctuation—a style strongly influenced by Faulkner—to build his image of the church, revealing detail after vivid detail. He cleverly links “opposition to vanity” to “opposition to war,” allowing him to work in additional information in a creative way. Then, his final phrase, “about to move into their churchyard,” lets him return from his momentary snapshot of description back to the forward movement of the narrative.

Foote structures Volume I of his narrative with a long section introducing Confederate President Jefferson Davis followed by a long section introducing Abraham Lincoln, whom he then uses as a springboard into a discussion of the large strategic picture leading into the war. He draws the volume to a close in reverse fashion, first using Davis’ viewpoint to sum up the Confederate perspective as 1862 draws to a close, then using Lincoln’s perspective to sum up the Union perspective. He starts the book with Davis resigning his seat in the U.S. Senate to open a new chapter in his public life; he ends the book by returning to Capitol Hill for Lincoln’s address to Congress: “Then came the end [literally as Foote ends the book], the turn of a page that opened a new chapter.” The parallels between beginning and end are subtle and masterful. When he finally wraps up his Volume III, Foote does so by returning to Davis again—this time as “the embodied history of the South” in his last days—thus using him to bookend the entire narrative in tidy fashion.

The Civil War: A Narrative—all three volumes and 1.3 million words of it—represents an amazing creative achievement. With its focus on military matters, it also represents a monument to the Reconciliation tradition’s emphasis on battlefield valor. Considering Foote’s identity as a Southern writer, the biggest surprise might be that the book does not stand as a testament to Lost Cause sympathies.

His interview with Tony Horwitz in Confederates in the Attic stands as an additional testament to his nuanced, mercurial attitude toward the South and toward the war. “Like so much else about Foote, there was irony here,” Horwitz wrote. “A private, almost reclusive man who wrote with a dip-pen and distrusted modernity, Foote had gained his greatest fame appearing before millions of television viewers in the guise of a warm and folksy raconteur.”

Horwitz was talking, of course, of Ken Burns’ The Civil War, in which Foote appears in some ninety segments. Viewers fell in love with him–and readers did, too. His three-part narrative had sold around 30,000 copies since the first volume came out in 1958; in the year after Foote appeared in The Civil War, he’d sold 400,000 sets. “Ken,” he told the director, “you’ve made me a millionaire.”

“Shelby Foote” and “The Civil War” became synonymous for nearly every adult in America.

Next: Communicating the “incommunicable experience of war”

Telling History vs. Making Art: "a tension between Art and Science"

Part one in a series

As a battlefield guide at Fredericksburg & Spotsylvania National Military Park (FSNMP), I frequently speak with folks who’ve come to the battlefields because they’ve read The Killer Angels, which in turn inspired them to come see a Civil War battlefield. Michael Shaara’s novel is about the battle of Gettysburg and has nothing to do with any of the battlefields at FSNMP (Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, Wilderness, and Spotsylvania), but I am typically grateful that the novel—or perhaps its film version, Gettysburg—has stimulated someone’s interest enough to bring them through the front door.

Gods and Generals by Shaara’s son, Jeff, features Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville prominently. It also chronicles the death of Confederate General “Stonewall” Jackson. Visitors will come to the Jackson Shrine, the building where Jackson died, and say, “Hey, this isn’t what it looked like in the movie,” or “This isn’t the way I pictured it from the book,” and sometimes feel disappointed that sublime reality doesn’t live up to Hollywood slick.

For that reason, some colleagues roll their eyes at the mention of “Gods and Jacksons”—the book or the film. They grumble the word “novelist” as an epitaph, and they dismiss the cinematic splendor of, say, Gone with the Wind, because it’s too drenched in magnolias and moonlight—Oscars be damned. Likewise, The Killer Angels’ Pulitzer Prize has often carried little weight with them. “I am a historian,” wrote D. Scott Hartwig, widely acknowledged as the National Park Service’s authority on the battle of Gettysburg. “Consequently, I originally looked down upon Shaara’s work. After all, it was fiction.”

Even artists like Shelby Foote and Ken Burns—whose major Civil War works are ostensibly creative nonfiction—draw scorn for their research methods or their historical interpretation.

Yet creative works undeniably teach Americans about the Civil War, says academic historian Gary Gallagher—“to a lamentable degree in the minds of many academic historians.” History, some suggest, should be left to the historians.

Others, like two-time Pulitzer-winner David McCullough, disagree: “No harm’s done to history by making it something someone would want to read.”

On one hand, art excites the public imagination; on the other, it can implant misconceptions or factual inaccuracies even as it tries to articulate larger truths. In fact, it may be within that balance between fact and truth—and the expectations that historians, artists, and readers/viewers have toward them—that the tension originates. That the public often bases its expectations on collective memories complicates matters further because such memories are often romanticized constructs at odds with what historians know to be true. The artist, meanwhile, must be guided by the conventions of his/her craft, such as pacing, narrative arc, etc.

“The telling of history is a tension between Art and Science,” says Burns:

The Science of History would enumerate the myriad details equally, without discrimination; the telephone book at its worst. The Art of History has produced Gone with the Wind, and worse, The Birth of a Nation, and…mini-series dramas which try to convince us that it was not brother against brother, but heaving bosom against heaving bosom.

Good history has always struck a balance between these two polarities, never allowing formal considerations to overwhelm and capsize the truth of events, nor allowing dry recitation of fact to render its meaning unintelligible or worse—boring.

Burns warns against “a kind of castor oil of dry dates and facts and events of little meaning, something we knew was good for us, but hardly good tasting.”

“Whatever else it is, history ought to be a good yarn,” said journalist-turned-historian Bruce Catton, whose narratives on the Civil War have reached vast audiences since the war’s Centennial. Catton’s critics have retorted that what he should have said was, Whatever else it is, history ought to be accurate. “Catton’s knack for knowing a good story when he saw one did not always extend to recognizing a story too good to be true,” one has said. I’ve heard Shelby Foote criticized for the same thing.

Over the next few weeks, this series will briefly discuss the collective memories—as articulated by the work of historians Gary Gallagher and David Blight—that have shaped public expectations. I’ll then examine popular works of Civil War literature that embody those collective memories, sampling fiction and creative nonfiction, books and film. Finally, I’ll look at the ways writers and filmmakers have employed creative license to negotiate the balance between fact and truth within the context of those collective memories.


Next: The Lost Cause, The Union Cause, The Emancipation Cause, and the Reconciliation Cause

Cross-posted at Emerging Civil War.