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Ken Burns's The Civil War: Historians Respond
 
 

Ken Burns's The Civil War: Historians Respond [Kindle Edition]

Robert Brent Toplin
4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (4 customer reviews)

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Product Description

Product Description

Ken Burns's documentary The Civil War made television history, breaking all viewing records for a PBS series. Indeed, forty million people saw it, more than the populations of the Union and the Confederacy combined. Newsweek praised it as "a stunning television documentary." For a generation of Americans, this documentary is the Civil War. Yet many professional historians criticized it sharply for ignoring the roles of minorities, pointing to a lack of women and of blacks throughout, a disregard for the aftermath of the war (particularly its legacy to race relations), a conventional emphasis on military history rather than social history, and uneven coverage of the military campaigns that gave short shrift to the bloody Western front.
Ken Burns's The Civil War brings together detractors, supporters, and Ken Burns himself in a volume that will inspire readers to look again at this stunning documentary, at the way television shows history, and at the Civil War itself. Some contributors are sharply critical. In "Noble Women as Well," Catherine Clinton describes the experiences of women during the war, disguised as soldiers, working as nurses in makeshift hospitals, or besieged in caves by enemy armies, saying that Burns ignores these stories completely. Eric Foner and Leon Litwack are even more scathing, saying that the series distorts the legacy of the war by focusing on the preservation of the union, ignoring the importance the institution of slavery had to those who fought the war, and neglecting the experiences of blacks both during and after the war: out of 28 people whose postwar careers are mentioned, only two blacks, both men, are included. "Faced with the choice between historical illumination or nostalgia, Burns consistently opts for nostalgia," Foner writes.
In response, C. Vann Woodward, who served as an advisor to the series, and Ken Burns himself describe their painstaking efforts to develop a sophisticated interpretation of history in The Civil War. In the process, they explore the question of whether art can, or should, substitute for history. Is the purpose of a documentary such as The Civil War to inform or to entertain? And what happens when the desire to entertain gets in the way of historical accuracy? The answer, according to Woodward, is that the unique power and responsibility of art is to bring the past to life, not to engage in historical polemics. Ken Burns's own response is a defense of his art that is as well-crafted as the series itself. He discusses the unique limitations of television: unlike written history, for example, television documentaries require specific, identifiable visual images, limiting the coverage of subjects with little pictorial documentation. Geoffrey C. Ward, the series writer, defends their choices of interpretation and coverage in the series, and pleads eloquently for greater cooperation between filmmakers and historians. And Burns praises the power of television to move, inform, and educate, pointing to its unique responsibility in an age where Americans receive more and more of their information through television and film.
The Civil War sparked emotions, curiosity, debate, and a desire to learn more about this bloody crossroads in American history. Ken Burns's The Civil War is for anyone who was intrigued and touched by that monumental series, and by the even more monumental war that it illuminated.

About the Author

About the Editor Robert Brent Toplin is Professor of History at the University of North Carolina, Wilmington, and the Film Review editor of The Journal of American History. He is also the principal developer of four historical dramas that have appeared nationally on PBS Television.

Product details

  • Format: Kindle Edition
  • File Size: 2025 KB
  • Print Length: 224 pages
  • Publisher: Oxford University Press, USA (28 Mar. 1996)
  • Sold by: Amazon Media EU S.à r.l.
  • Language: English
  • ASIN: B002K6EVE8
  • Text-to-Speech: Enabled
  • X-Ray:
  • Word Wise: Not Enabled
  • Average Customer Review: 4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (4 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: #663,238 Paid in Kindle Store (See Top 100 Paid in Kindle Store)
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Overall Good Compilation of Critiques 16 Jun. 1999
By A Customer
Format:Hardcover
This book is composed of historians' critiques on the PBS series, "The Civil War", the most widely watched PBS series. Most of the historians make good points in showing areas that Burns left out of the series but all of them need to recognize the fact that it wasn't possible for Burns to show everything they wanted. No series could do that. Moving on to individual historians, most are very fair with Burns but two were not in parts of their arguments. These two need to be taken to task. Firstly, Catherine Clinton attacked Burns for not showing enough females in his series. She then spends a large amount of space discussing women who disguised themselves as men in order to fight. I hate to rain on Clinton's parade (well, not really) but it is estimated that only a few hundred women both North and South did that. Compared to the males in the armies (something like 1.5 million), that is EXTREMELY tiny portion. Burns spent a lot of time with the males because the made up the VAST majority of soldiers, both USA and CSA. Period. Clinton is on firmer ground when she berates Burns for not giving more time to women on the home front who kept the war supplies moving. In reality, these women were really the precurser of Rosie the Riveter. Secondly, Leon Litwack attacks Burns for not concentrating on the legacy (at least, the legacy Litwack says) of the Civil War. Granted, the civil rights struggles could be mentioned. However, Burns should not be damned for going the "reunion" route with his documentary. Reunion is what happened between North and South and that should NOT be forgotten, especially since both sides were killing each other just a few years earlier. Read more ›
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
By A Customer
Format:Hardcover
Although Ken Burns' PBS series, "The Civil War," won wide acclaim from viewers and critics and was PBS best-watched show, many historians disagreed in differing degrees to Ken Burns' approach to portraying the Civil War. Thus Robert Brent Toplin solicited and gathered responses from several historians, some who agree with Burns' methodology and some who disagree. What emerges is a portrait not only of a war that divided our nation over slavery in the 1860's, but a war that continues to divide us as we seek to define and explain that war. Of interest was the editor's thesis that each age looks at the Civil War through it's experiences and times: WWI era saw the Civil War as a silly regional conflict, much as they viewed WWI; WWII era saw the Civil War as a battle between good and evil and the start of civil rights. Today, we view war as a waste in the aftermath of Vietnam and that is reflected in our contemporary views of the 1860's conflict. That viewpoint is seen in Burns' epic.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Okay Book of the PBS Series 21 Jun. 1999
By A Customer
Format:Hardcover
This book was fairly good in how it compiled complaints lodged by historians against the PBS series, "The Civil War". However, one critic (Leon Litwack) was extremely off base in his condemnation of Burns and Shelby Foote. Because they didn't think soldiers of the USCT were supermen, Litwack can't stand them. Litwack needs to plow through the accounts of battles in which the USCT participated. These soldiers could stand up to battle like white troops, but they weren't any better. Litwack is just in the thralls of PC-mania and refuses to acknowledge fact. Overall, though, the book is worth reading if one ignores the ignorance of certain critics.
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5.0 out of 5 stars Five Stars 31 Oct. 2014
Format:Paperback
A good read.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
Amazon.com: 4.0 out of 5 stars  6 reviews
44 of 47 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Historian's Complain is more accurrate 11 Dec. 2000
By T. Parry - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
The premise behind Toplin's book is a very interesting one. When Ken Burns' epic documentary on the Civil War received the highest ratings in public television's history, historian's immediately began to comment on it. Toplin brought together, in this one volume, many of today's most notable Civil War Era historians to turn their comments into essays about the film's pros and cons. Unfortunately, the historians only seem to care about the cons. With "The Civil War", Burns was attempting to educate the public at large, not the academic historian. This fact seems to be lost upon the authors of these essays. The primary focus of the criticisms in this book do not deal with the film itself, but rather with what the film forgot. Most complaints are geared towards the treatment of women and blacks. This is because the authors of these essays are primarily social historians, with the exception of Prof. Gallagher and Prof. Boritt. It is no surprise then that the majority of the essays scathe Burns for not telling the whole story of slavery, or of women, or of Reconstruction. By doing this, these authors have missed the point that the film series is about war, not social change. Therefore, this book only gets three stars because the content is not of good quality. While each author is correct in their statements about what Burns left out, they do not grasp what Burns was attempting to do. The most interesting part of the book in fact is when Burns and his writer Ward respond to the historians responses, and I believe put them in their place. I suggest reading this after viewing the films, but take what they say with a grain of salt, and do not judge the film series by what is written in this book.
13 of 15 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Other viewpoints given expression concerning the Civil War 4 Dec. 1997
By John L. Hoh Jr. - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
Although Ken Burns' PBS series, "The Civil War," won wide acclaim from viewers and critics and was PBS best-watched show, many historians disagreed in differing degrees to Ken Burns' approach to portraying the Civil War. Thus Robert Brent Toplin solicited and gathered responses from several historians, some who agree with Burns' methodology and some who disagree. What emerges is a portrait not only of a war that divided our nation over slavery in the 1860's, but a war that continues to divide us as we seek to define and explain that war. Of interest was the editor's thesis that each age looks at the Civil War through it's experiences and times: WWI era saw the Civil War as a silly regional conflict, much as they viewed WWI; WWII era saw the Civil War as a battle between good and evil and the start of civil rights. Today, we view war as a waste in the aftermath of Vietnam and that is reflected in our contemporary views of the 1860's conflict. That viewpoint is seen in Burns' epic.
45 of 61 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Lots o' laffs at the critics of Burns masterpiece 20 Dec. 2002
By Mike Duffy - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
This book is a riot. I have always thought Ken Burns' Civil War miniseries was a one of the best 12 hours of TV ever shown. The series recently aired again for the first time in a few years and it's just as good as I remembered, possibly even better. Granted, it's not perfect and one could probably nitpick it forever, but few TV shows have ever equaled it for sheer emotional impact. This book is not about nitpicking. It is about politically correct professors ripping it to shreads, and is it ever funny. In general, they whine about how the series devotes too much time talking about battles between dead white males, instead of the really important stuff, such as slavery, women's issues, class struggles, and the like. One (I think it was Eric Foner) has a bone up his kiester over the fact that the miniseries devotes almost nothing to Reconstruction (his speciality, by the way) and instead shows photos and movies of Confederate and Union veterans at a reunion picnic at Gettysburg. Another complains about the use of the term Rebel. Somebody whined about the fact that Shelby Foote, the white Southern popular writer got more airtime than Barbera Fields, the black female professor. And so on. If you want to know why liberal professors get so little attention outside their own circles and why, on the other hand, non-specialist Civil War history is so popular, you have to read this book. It's worth it for the laughs alone.
14 of 20 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Overall Good Compilation of Critiques 16 Jun. 1999
By A Customer - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
This book is composed of historians' critiques on the PBS series, "The Civil War", the most widely watched PBS series. Most of the historians make good points in showing areas that Burns left out of the series but all of them need to recognize the fact that it wasn't possible for Burns to show everything they wanted. No series could do that. Moving on to individual historians, most are very fair with Burns but two were not in parts of their arguments. These two need to be taken to task. Firstly, Catherine Clinton attacked Burns for not showing enough females in his series. She then spends a large amount of space discussing women who disguised themselves as men in order to fight. I hate to rain on Clinton's parade (well, not really) but it is estimated that only a few hundred women both North and South did that. Compared to the males in the armies (something like 1.5 million), that is EXTREMELY tiny portion. Burns spent a lot of time with the males because the made up the VAST majority of soldiers, both USA and CSA. Period. Clinton is on firmer ground when she berates Burns for not giving more time to women on the home front who kept the war supplies moving. In reality, these women were really the precurser of Rosie the Riveter. Secondly, Leon Litwack attacks Burns for not concentrating on the legacy (at least, the legacy Litwack says) of the Civil War. Granted, the civil rights struggles could be mentioned. However, Burns should not be damned for going the "reunion" route with his documentary. Reunion is what happened between North and South and that should NOT be forgotten, especially since both sides were killing each other just a few years earlier. On another topic (and one of the faults I found with "The Civil War") Litwack keeps maintaining that the war was fought over slavery. That is simply not the case. The Northern states WERE NOT threatening slavery where it existed. Abe Lincoln wasn't threatening slavery where it existed. The Republican party platform of 1860 didn't threaten slavery where it existed. Abolitionists in the North were threatening slavery but they were a VERY small group and were thought of as kooks by fellow Northerners. Any sampling of these materials and the letters of Northern soldiers will reveal that they were not fighting for emancipation. They were for emancipation only if it helped destroy the South. Thus, the South's "peculiar institution" wasn't threatened. If the argument is made that the South's leaders felt that slavery was threatened, why didn't the Southern states go back into the Union when the Congress made enticements of legal protection of slavery? Economic factors (tariffs especially) was a larger part of the South's secession than slavery. It is curious, though, that Litwack's litmus test of a just cause, the American colonies shouldn't have been granted independence because they had slavery. America shouldn't have come out as well as it did during the War of 1812 because the British were granting freedom to slaves who turned against the US.
4.0 out of 5 stars Four Stars 2 Dec. 2014
By J - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
I found the information relevant to my graduate class.
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