Saturday, September 09, 2017

The Civil War (TV Series)

[Cross posted from Wonders in the Dark, part of their Television countdown.]

(I'm sorry this is going to look like a homework assignment - but this is a show that feels a bit like a homework assignment, a textbook at least. That isn't a bad thing, of course - it's meant to be informative as well as moving and entertaining, and it is, all of those things.)

What is it?

A historical documentary about the American Civil War, broadcast on PBS in 1990, and a huge success. (Largest ever audience for PBS, apparently.) It made Ken Burns a household name, and elevated Shelby Foote, in particular, to new levels of fame. There are 9 episodes, about 10 hours altogether, with around two hours devoted to each year of the war, with an hour for the build up and an hour of aftermath. It is straightforward history, using primary sources (period photographs and texts by contemporaries) to provide the base for narration and commentary. It digs into the primary sources - Burns' method of showing photographs, panning and zooming around the photo, to pick out details, became iconic, and has entered the language (thanks to photo and video editing software). Texts are read, with similar attention and care, by actors, many well known (Jason Robards Jr., Sam Waterston, Morgan Freeman, etc). The show was very effective as well as popular, and for a while, seemed to be the definitive historical documentary. That, I am sorry to say, isn't quite the case anymore - I will return to that a little later.

How is it as History?

It is quite good. It is essentially an introductory overview of the Civil War; it would make a good textbook in a basic history class. It is, to start, actual history - primary sources and commentary; everything is rooted in those sources, and in analysis by people who root their work in primary sources. It's clear about what is sourced and what is not, and what the sources are, as clear as a television show is going to be. It is a good introduction to the war - it tells what happened, it explains it well, it covers a wide range of experiences of the war. That is important. It is not strictly military or political history: it works in the home front, the day to day lives of solders, technology (of war, medicine, communication, and so on), it covers the role and place of women in the war, it attends to the experiences, attitudes and actions of blacks - slaves, ex-slaves, and free blacks. It is quite good at conveying the lived experience of all these people, on both sides of the war. It is an introduction - if you want details on the technology of killing, or the state of medicine, or the political machinations north and south and overseas, or details about campaigns and battles and strategy and tactics, you will have to go elsewhere - though often, you can go directly to the writers and books being discussed. You can do worse than go to the sources the show presents - read Frederick Douglass or Abraham Lincoln or Mary Chestnut or Grant's Memoirs. And there is certainly an abundant literature dealing with the Civil War.

Still - it is a good introduction. The historical analysis tend to be conventional, reflecting the historical consensus - which is fine, for a survey. But that is where things start to become complicated. It isn't that the show gets the history wrong so much as that arguments about the history of the Civil War are indissociable from the history of the Civil War. More on that later, for sure; for now - let me say that the show came out at a time when the historiography of the Civil War was, itself, changing. You can see this in the emphasis on the social aspects of the war, the emphasis on the lived experiences of the participants - that wasn't new in 1990, but it had not been the consensus on how to do history for very long. And the interpretation of the war had also changed. Burns doesn't wriggle around the question of slavery - that was the cause of the war, and he says so. That is the consensus historical view of the war today, and was in 1990 - but it has not always been. The show's narration gives us the consensus - but leaves out the historiography, leaves out the dissent, and the history of dissent. This is a point I will definitely come back to.

How is it as a film?

What is it as a film? Archival materials, photos and texts, mainly, with added narration and commentary; the photos used both as background and as explicit illustrations of the elements of the story, and "animated," particularly by the famed Ken Burns Effect. The primary texts are themselves animated by being read by expressive voice actors. Over the photos and between the texts are narration and commentary, sometimes as voiceover, often by experts, usually shot in fairly neutral situations - sitting in their office, or front porch, or such - there is not much movement anywhere in the show. There is very little filmed material besides the talking experts - the 1860s were too early, of course, for contemporary film; there is some fascinating footage of veterans gatherings and parades, from much later. Burns also uses a few a few inserts of empty fields, cannons, battlefields and the like, but strictly as background - there aren't even modern shots of the battlefield and locations, that I remember. Few if any. Finally, there are a few recordings of survivors and the children of survivors speaking - these are often quite marvelous.

It is, then, a relatively sober and conservative style of documentary - though one well suited to the material. The Civil War was one of the first large events to be heavily photographed - it is right to use those photographs as the basis for the work. The war left a rich visual record - photographs, drawings, engravings, paintings - Burns uses them to all good effect. It was also fought by a very literate nation - so the collection of texts is also very rich. All kinds or texts, from all levels of society, are here: letters, diaries, memoirs, speeches, political and legal documents, newspaper accounts and editorials, everything, from all levels of society, all types of writers. Private soldiers and their families, officers, politicians, slaves, ex-slaves, free blacks, ministers and essayists, newspapermen, foreign observers, and writers from the barely literate to Walt Whitman and Abraham Lincoln. The scope and variety of texts is wonderful indeed. Finally, all of it is set against music - mostly contemporary with the war, but with some pieces written in the 19th century style  ("Ashokan Farewell", notably). The music, too, is sometimes illustrative (all those ballads about the longing for home), but usually used to set the mood. Maybe sometimes too much for mood and not illustrative enough: you'd think they'd have managed to find some kind of recording of people singing "John Brown's Body" - hard to get more primary a source than that. All of this adds up, sometimes, to a style where the mood overpowers the content - sober, a bit folksy (sometimes more than a “bit” folksy), mournful, though with a celebratory undertone - look what we survived, look what we did, but look what it cost us. Sad but uplifting.

For a while, this style felt like the very model for the Serious Historical Documentary - though even in those days, it was sometimes more of a whipping boy than a model for other filmmakers. (Back in the 90s, I seem to recall a fair amount of this, from both sides.) It's seriousness, folksiness, nostalgia, could all be attacked by political or personal documentarians; and its sobriety, documentary purity, its lack of spectacle, could be attacked by filmmakers looking to liven up the genre. It has not had many imitators. Today, even serious educational documentaries - the kinds of things aired on American Experience, say - lean heavily on reenactments. This isn't an improvement, I fear. Reenactments are incredibly stupid for 20th century documentaries - how can a reenactment match the power of actual footage from WWI or WWII or Vietnam or Chicago 1968? But even 19th century history gains little from the newer styles. How is a show like PBS' The Abolitionists better for having actors pantomiming Garrison and Douglass than it would be if it just read their words and Ken Burnsed over their photographs? I admit that Burns' nostalgia can run a bit thick sometimes, but that is a fault of the tone and sometimes the content, not the devices - change the music (why not use Charles Ives, or the Band? vary it up, but also pull the story forward - show how current the Civil War has remained through the century and a half since it ended), change the narration, and you would have a very different work - but you would still have history. Drop the photos for guys in funny hats play-shooting guns, and you have - what? why not just make a feature film? 

It's hard to think what reenactments add in any case. What stays with you from The Civil War are the photos and the letters, the power of the words written in middle of the war. The primary materials are extremely powerful - resenting them respectfully, with the full emotional power a fine actor can bring, is enough.

And what about its politics?

Politics: well - there's no avoiding politics. There is a line at the very end of the show, when the experts are considering the legacy of the war, who won, what it meant and all. Barbara Fields (who might be the real star of the show, in the end), cites William Faulkner, to the effect that "history is not 'was', it's 'is'" - and adds that the results of the Civil War are still up for grabs. The war has never been resolved. She was right then - she is right today. The Civil War is still in the news, and not just incidentally, but very close to the center of contemporary American politics. We are, as a country, still arguing about what the war meant, what it did - what it was, even - and how to talk about it. It has always been so - the shooting stopped, and the debates began (though the shooting didn't stop for long, and in some ways still hasn't), and they are still going on. (Sometimes, alas, so is the shooting.) The issues coming out of the Civil War are still up for grabs - are we a democracy? are we going to treat everyone in America as Americans? Who will run this country, and for whom?

The history of the war has always been tangled up with politics; political debates have always been tied to historical interpretations of the war. I said earlier that the show appeared at a time when the historiography of the Civil War was changing - at least, at a time when the historiographical changes were filtering into the mainstream. There was a time, as late as the 70s, maybe the 80s, when you could get through high school, maybe even college, and still think the war was fought over state's rights and tariffs, that slavery was a side issue, exaggerated after the fact by northerners looking to make themselves look better, that the whole affair was a terrible, inexplicable tragedy - an act of god, imposed on the country by some impersonal external force, like a terrible storm. That was an interpretation of the war that came from the south, after the war, especially after Reconstruction. It is partly a way to shift blame away from the former confederates - but also part of the political struggles after the war, to undo the results of the war. There is no way to separate Lost Cause history from the reinstatement of legal white supremacy in the south - it is all tied to the that.

One of Shelby Foote's most famous remarks is that the war changed the grammar of how the United States was referred to. Before the war, people said, the United States ARE; after the war, they said, the United States IS. It is an excellent point - but it leaves out a lot. It obscures the fact that one side of the war was fighting explicitly against that IS. But it also hides a more sinister meaning (which I don't think Foote intended) - the meaning Dixon and Griffith made explicit in The Clansman/Birth of a Nation. It is that the story of the post-war years was the story of forging a nation of whites against blacks. Civil war history after the war, especially southern history, was directed toward reconciling north and south, but at the expense of reestablishing and strengthening the difference between Black and White. The Lost Cause version of history downplays the role of slavery, erasing the confederates' own acknowledgment that slavery was the cause they were fighting for; downplays the role of freeing the slaves in the north. (How could it be? the north fought to preserve the union, emancipation wasn't part of the plan until 1863, and it was always controversial.) Making slavery secondary to the war also makes the post-war amendments (#13, 14, 15) secondary - they become technical changes to the constitution, not the radical reimagining of democracy they might be taken for. It stresses the heroism of the south, and the soldiers on all sides; stresses the shared suffering of the war; stresses the processes of reconciliation after the war. But it is always a reconciliation of north and south, blue and gray - Joseph Wheeler serving in the Spanish American war. And it's all too often, reconciliation of north and south at the expense of black and white.

This interpretation of the Civil War was something like orthodoxy for most of the 20th century. That began to change in the 1950s and 60s, though mainly among academics - it took a while for the new historical consensus to reach the mainstream. The Civil War reflects the new consensus - Burns and company leave no doubt that slavery was the cause of the war, and that the accomplishment of the war was abolishing slavery, making possible, at least, a new birth of freedom. If the show has a problem, it's in leaving out the historiography of the Civil War. Maybe that is beyond the scope of a TV series about the war - but it is important. It is easier to understand why it is important to acknowledge that slavery started the war when you know the history of why slavery isn't considered the cause. The confederates knew it was the cause - they said so - and Burns is sure to cite their articles of secession, the speeches by men like Alexander Stephens, that stated as clearly as you like that they were fighting to defend slavery. Leaving out an account of how that changed leaves room for misinterpretation of the show. The show has a melancholy, but celebratory tone, that contains many of the elements of the old Lost Cause history. The sense of war as an act of god - the celebration of the country's ability to come back together - many of the personalizing anecdotes Shelby Foote tells in the show. These things are good - the show does include southern voices and perspectives, apolitical voices, north and south - it should. And it's a reminder that there is plenty in the Lost Cause version of history that is not wrong - but it's also why I think it is crucial to explain the history of the debates. Without the historiography, you can't separate the lies of the Lost Cause (denying the role of slavery in the war, denying the role African Americans played in the war - denying, ultimately, the radical and - let's not mince words - completely admirable importance of the 13th, 14th and 15th amendments) from what is true. (The human experience of the war in the south; the importance of reconciliation after the war and so on.)

In the end?

How does it end? I don't know how I should end. The war hasn't really ended - how can a show about it end, or an essay about the show about the war? "The past isn't dead. It isn't even past." Ken Burns ended - twice, right? With Barbara Fields invoking Faulkner's "history is is" - then with Foote talking about making the war the most important war ever, and reading an old soldier waxing nostalgic for the war, over footage of a 1938 reunion at Gettysburg. The juxtaposition is odd when you think about it - Fields expresses the view that the war was about what the country would be and that the fight is still going on; Foote, himself, and quoting Barry Bentson, confederate soldier, puts is squarely in the past, romanticizes it, dreams of reconciliation under the two flags. Foote's ending feels satisfying - sad, but celebratory, a story of a country breaking itself apart and bringing itself back together again, through terrible cataclysm - but it also feels false. Or - a reconciliation explicitly at the expense of the people the war was in fact, fought over (slaves, blacks), and at the expense of the result of the war, those post-war amendments. The show as a whole sometimes is still seen as being too devoted to Foote's version - tragedy and reconciliation, not revolution and (thwarted, but still powerful) liberation - though as history, it hews closer to Fields' views. Maybe this would have worked better if they had been willing to let her have the last word: reverse those last two clips - because old soldiers dreaming of reconciliation is something to value; but understanding that the war was the central event in American history, and still is, is more important. The past is not dead; it's not even past.

Here is Foote's ending:

And here is Fields':

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