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K. Douglass

English 1A Honors

think that in the aggregate the American experience is a wonderful beacon.”

“Narrative history is not a neutral approach, of course, and the selection of the Homeric model privileges some values, ideas, and attitudes, while at the same time suppressing others. In each of his […] documentaries, Burns foregrounds first-person stories and anecdotes, the stuff of personal heroism and tragedy from inside the framework of larger historical currents and events. He champions the long-standing formula of the ‘American original,’ […]” Ken Burns’s chronicles are populated with seemingly ordinary men and women who rise up from the ranks of the citizenry to become paragons of national (and occasionally transcendent) achievement; always persisting against great odds. Even today, an ardent and romantic allegiance to the cult of individualism remains a popular if illusory aspect of America’s cultural memory.”

“The key to perceiving a linkage between the premises of romanticism and the contours of our cultural memory is to underscore Burns’s description of himself as a ‘historian of emotions.’ […] The Civil War, for example, is peppered throughout with entertaining anecdotes by the writer, historian, and master raconteur Shelby Foote. His seemingly intimate asides about the human interest aspects of this conflict appear to transcend politics, at least on the surface. […] In fact, each one of Shelby Foote’s eighty-nine appearances in the series, or ‘three times the sum total of everyone else,’ has the effect of continually shifting the thematic examinations of American society, culture, and politics into a realm where emotions are high and consensus prevails. In one of the most-often quoted anecdotes of the series, Shelby Foote appears within the first few minutes of the final episode entitled “The Better Angels of Our Nature,” emphasizing the issue of nationhood:

Before the war it was said that the United Sates are; grammatically it was spoken that way and thought of as a collection of independent states. And after the war it was always the United States is [his emphasis] as we say today without being self-conscious at all – that sums up what the war accomplished: it made us an is [he smiles]

This remark is then immediately followed by the bittersweet and tragic lament that serves as the series’s anthem, “Ashokan Farewell,” thus reinforcing the overall heroic dimensions of the narrative. Heroism, honor, and nobility are related Homeric impulses that permeate this series, shaping our reactions to the ‘great men’ of the war such as Abraham Lincoln, Frederick Douglass, Robert E. Lee, and Ulysses S. Grant, along with the many foot soldiers whose bravery often exceeded the ability of their officers to lead them, resulting in the appalling carnage recounted in episode after episode. In this way, a crest of emotion pours forth from this and every anecdote, rendering The Civil War less a story of socio-political conflict than a poignant and mythopoeic lesson in national commitment, self-sacrifice, valor, and fulfillment.”

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