Building a Better Middlebrow: the Case of Ken Burns’s “The Roosevelts,” Pt. 1

By Seth Studer

Ken Burns

Preface: No spoilers, please…

I am not yet finished watching Ken Burns’s fourteen-hour long saga The Roosevelts: An Intimate History. Nevertheless, I can already reflect on what Burns’s latest contribution tells us about the much-touted “Golden Age of Television.” An historical documentary on PBS spanning fourteen hours, most of it comprised of black-and-white archival footage and Baby Boomer talking heads (e.g., George Will, Doris Kearns Goodwin, and one or two real historians), is being sold to the American public as “intimate.” And the series is intimate; Burns’s focus almost never turns from Roosevelts Teddy, Franklin, or Eleanor. The Roosevelts is easily his most intimate portrayal of a Great American (or, in this case, a Great American Family), and it reflects his growth as a filmmaker over the last half-decade, beginning with The National Parks: America’s Best Idea (a hot mess, to be sure, but a beautiful hot mess) and Prohibition (a tight little policy pic – his best film). In many ways, The Roosevelts is a return to the Burns I knew and hated in The Civil War and Jazz. But he’s returned wiser, sharper. His obnoxious Great Man, Big Battles gloss on the byzantine complexities of American social and political history has never, ever looked so good and contained so much substance. We can learn a lot from Burns’s most recent hybrid success-failure. Specifically, how to build a better middlebrow within American mass culture: a middlebrow it deserves and, I think, a middlebrow it wants.

The Roosevelts’ final episode aired last Saturday, but I’m not worried about catching up. Since the middle of last week, PBS has posted the following message to my Facebook feed at least twelve times: “Remember: you can binge watch the ENTIRE series – until Sept 28th – on your local PBS station’s website or Roku.” Today, the most consistent and interesting purveyor of American middlebrow culture is AMC. Mad Men, Breaking Bad, The Walking Dead: the pretensions of HBO with half of the budget and twice the accessibility. And AMC uses the exact same language to sell me Mad Men that PBS is using to sell me The Roosevelts.

"Binge all over me," says Betty Draper.
“Binge all over me,” says Betty Draper.

Much like Netflix, which has built a business model premised on its customer’s desire to “binge” on original content (we all finish House of Cards and Orange is the New Black knowing full well it will be an entire year before we get new episodes), AMC is encouraging its audiences to consume its products in the manner of a frat boy seeking to increase his blood alcoholic content as quickly as possible, or in the manner of a psychologically distressed person for whom food is a dangerous psycho-physiological outlet. Given the well-established link between consumption, consumerism, and sex (“INDULGE” is the word they coupled with Christina Hendrick’s Joan Harris), no one is really surprised by AMC’s ad campaign. But when the same tactics are applied to a 14-hour documentary about Eleanor Roosevelt, the time has come to ask some interesting questions.

Part One: Ken Burns – not a Historian, but he plays one on TV!

Throughout the 1980s, Ken Burns directed small documentaries on topics ranging from the Shakers to Huey Long and the Statue of Liberty. In 1990, he earned national fame for his seventh documentary, The Civil War, a nearly twelve-hour documentary about the Conflagration Between the States that, amazingly, managed to say very little about the causes – social, political, and cultural – of the war itself. A viewer could watch all 690 minutes of Ken Burns’s Civil War and learn nothing about the Civil War. Besides the battles, of course. Burns spends as much time on the Battle of Chattanooga (the third most important battle fought in Tennessee, the second or third least important state in the Confederacy) as he spends on the policy battles that raged between Lincoln, his advisors, and the Congress; or the internal divisions and resentments within the Confederacy itself, which did as much to weaken their cause as the Union juggernaut. Slavery is discussed, obviously, but as a fact and not a consequence of U.S. policy; the impact of its demise on U.S. politics is minimized. Every single black character is voiced by Morgan Freeman, who gravely intones the words of Frederick Douglass and then hams it up, step ‘n’ fetch it-style, when reading the words of perfectly literate enslaved (or merely working class) black men.

If Burns’s later films would suffer from an overemphasis on personalities, his Civil War underplays them in favor of events. Lincoln’s political acumen; Grant and Sherman’s brutal tactical genius; the stubborn dignity of black leaders who, receiving emancipation, refused to prostrate themselves before Northern whites; the grace with which many Confederate leaders, Lee among them, accepted defeat; all of these Great Persons are overshadowed by Great Battles, so that viewers in every media market from Picacho Pass to Pennsylvania could look out across their amber waves of telephone wire and pavement and intone, “It happened here.”

Among the talking heads, the thickly accented Shelby Foote utterly consumes Burns’s Civil War. He appears at least ten times more frequently than any other historian or author. Foote is a documentarian’s dream: folksy, charismatic, intellectual, and a born storyteller. But Foote is also kind of an idiot. When he volunteers to name “two authentic geniuses” produced by a war that gave America seven presidents, he identifies Abraham Lincoln (one of the great statesmen of the nineteenth century, along with Benjamin Disraeli and Otto von Bismarck) and Nathan Bedford Forrest (a lieutenant general in the Confederate army and founder of the terroristic Ku Klux Klan’s first iteration). This declaration had, apparently, once placed Foote in hot water once with a Southern relative, who grimly intoned, We never thought much of Mr. Lincoln down here. Foote chuckles in response to his anecdote. Southerners have strange feelings about that war, he observes.

Ya think?

Foote is not a Confederate partisan. He is simply a Civil War buff. But a buff is the most dangerous kind of historian. I am a Nixon/Watergate buff, which is why I am reluctant to make major claims about the man or the event. Foote has made a career buffing up the Civil War, giving it sheen but no shine, clearing away dirt but revealing nothing. Burns is in awe of Foote, whose volumes on the Civil War constitute the kind of history most popular with “buffs”: battles, more battles, personalities on the field, more battles, blood, guts, glory. We remember the names of colonels and privates but none of the congressmen. We learn more about Forrest than we learn about William Seward, Charles Sumner, Thaddeus Stevens, Alexander Stephens, or Judah P. Benjamin.

Here’s a tip: any middlebrow history of the American Civil War that does not begin – begin – with transatlantic trade, not merely of slaves but of all goods, is lying to you. Period.

Between The Civil War and The Roosevelts, Ken Burns’s style underwent significant improvement. He produced two “event” histories of Baseball and Jazz, widely praised except by hardcore fans of baseball and jazz, alongside shorter treatments of subjects we portray on banknotes and passports: Lewis and Clark, Thomas Jefferson, Mark Twain, and westward expansion. In 2007, he attempted to catch the White Whale of all American historical narratives, World War II, but took such a circumspect route – no straightforward, consensus-minded historical narrative; firsthand accounts from veterans; a “bottom-up” approach to major events – that he confused most of his viewers, who came expecting “the Burns treatment” (letters from Eisenhower, Tom Hanks as Patton, David McCullough’s eyebrows, etc.). The War was a failure.

By the end of The War, Burns seemed finally to grasp his own unique strengths and limitations. On the one hand, he could spew middlebrow schlock about the United States of America better than anyone. On the other hand, he had a tendency to attach himself to Great White Dudes (Shelby Foote, Thomas Jefferson) and no capacity to represent the subtle movements upon which history progresses. Why not, then, spew schlock and attach himself to lesser-known, more interesting Great White Dudes? And why not cast these Dudes in a story less obvious than, say, THE CIVIL WAR or THE WEST?

What followed were the best documentaries Ken Burns has yet made.

In my next post: The National Parks, Prohibition, The Rooseveltsand Burns in TV’s “Golden Age”

One thought on “Building a Better Middlebrow: the Case of Ken Burns’s “The Roosevelts,” Pt. 1”

  1. Your description of Shelby Foote’s three volumes on the Civil War is basically accurate, but it kind of misses the point. Foote was a novelist writing a narrative of the Civil War (the subtitle literally is “A Narrative”). You call him a “born storyteller,” and that’s exactly what he was. He wasn’t a professional historian, and didn’t pretend to be. His models were Thucydides, Tacitus, and Gibbon, and he even referred to the work as his “iliad.” His aims were literary. Does that make it incomplete, even at 1.5 million words? Yes. If one could only have one book on the Civil War, it would be unwise to choose Foote’s trilogy (James McPherson’s Battle Cry of Freedom would be a good choice instead). But Foote’s narrative is fantastic at putting the reader into the lives of the colonels and privates, and that’s not nothing. It’s a beautiful work. It feels like you’re criticizing it for not being something that it isn’t trying to be. I think a work should be treated on its own terms.

    As for Burns’s use of Foote, I think you’re exactly right. He over-relies on Foote to the detriment of the viewer’s understanding, if not entertainment. He is folksy, so I can see why Burns fell into the trap. But considering his platform on PBS, Burns does owe his audience more explanation about the causes of the war.


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