Ken Burns’s American Canon

Ian Parker in The New Yorker:

KenLike Steven Tyler, of Aerosmith, Ken Burns has a summer house on Lake Sunapee, in New Hampshire. The property is furnished with Shaker quilts and a motorboat; every July 4th, a fifteen-foot-long American flag hangs over the back deck. He bought the house in the mid-nineties, with money earned from “The Civil War,” his nine-part PBS documentary series, and its spinoffs. When PBS first broadcast that series, in a weeklong binge in the fall of 1990, the network reached its largest-ever audience. The country agreed to gather as if at a table covered with old family photographs, in a room into which someone had invited an indefatigable fiddle player. Johnny Carson praised the series in successive “Tonight Show” monologues; stores in Washington, D.C., reportedly sold out of blank videocassettes. To the satisfaction of many viewers, and the dismay of some historians, Burns seemed to have shaped American history into the form of a modern popular memoir: a tale of wounding and healing, shame and redemption. (The Civil War was “the traumatic event in our childhood,” as Burns later put it.) History became a quasi-therapeutic exercise in national unburdening and consensus building. Burns recently recalled, “People started showing up at the door, wanting to share their photographs of ancestors.”

Burns is now sixty-four. He is friends with John Kerry and John McCain. He has been a character on “Clifford’s Puppy Days,” the animated children’s series—“What’s a documentary?” “Great question!”—and has been a guest at the Bohemian Grove, the off-the-record summer camp in Northern California for male members of the American establishment. Visitors to his office see a display of framed Burns-related cartoons, most of which assume familiarity with his filmmaking choices: an authoritative narrator offset by more emotionally committed interviewees, seen in half-lit, vaguely domestic surroundings; slow panning shots across photographs of men with mustaches; and a willingness, unusual in the genre, to attempt compendiousness, to keep going. Last year, a headline in the Onion read “Ken Burns Completes Documentary About Fucking Liars Who Claimed They Watched Entire ‘Jazz’ Series.”

More here.