A conversation with America’s historian, Ken Burns

Historians in the News
tags: Ken Burns



Ken Burns, America’s historian, loves telling the stories of our country. That love, however, hasn’t kept the documentary filmmaker from shining a bright light on the country’s darker moments in the four decades of his career. With films ranging from the Civil War to the Roosevelts and now Vietnam, he’s given us a front-row seat to America’s most challenging times and helped us better understand the country we live in.

Losing his mother at an early age—“11 and three quarters,” he said—gave him a focus that has lasted through his life. Burns, Vanderbilt University’s 2017 Nichols-Chancellor’s Medalist and Senior Day speaker, took a break last month from editing his upcoming film, Country Music, to talk with MyVU and share his insights on filmmaking, where America stands today, and some contemplative thoughts for seniors on the cusp of Commencement. 

Ken Burns’ career as a storyteller had a visual start. He remembers standing next to his father—an amateur still photographer—in the basement darkroom of their tract house in Delaware, watching pictures come to life.

“He was a cultural anthropologist,” Burns said of his scholar father, who studied how people organized and shaped the world around them and who in turn were shaped by their world. “He loved movies, and he took us to movies all the time during those years when my mom was dying from cancer.”

She would die just before Burns’ 12th birthday, and by then he had the idea that he wanted to be a filmmaker and tell stories. Like any boy his age, he thought he would end up in Hollywood making the kinds of films he had watched with his father. “I wanted to be glamorous, a poet. But I realized that there was as much drama in what is, and what was, as there is in anything we could make up,” he said.

His father joined the faculty of the University of Michigan, and Burns spent his formative years steeped in the counterculture atmosphere of Ann Arbor in the 1960s and ’70s. He enrolled at Hampshire College, then a brand-new alternative college in Amherst, Massachusetts, in 1971 and took classes under legendary documentarian Jerome Liebling.

“I just fell under his spell,” Burns said. “It was almost like a medieval master/student kind of thing, and I realized the documentary was the way I needed to go.” He also realized he had a “completely untutored but abiding love” of American history.

In 1974 he produced for his senior thesis a film for Old Sturbridge Village—“think Colonial Williamsburg of New England,” Burns said. In 1981 came his first film, Brooklyn Bridge, which was nominated for an Academy Award.

Since then there’s been a steady stream of Ken Burns-branded stories of American history, and he has projects planned out through the 2030s.

Burns said that if someone had told him back in 1974 that today, at 63, he would still only be making films about history, he would not have believed them. “But I did begin to suspect even then that my interests had merged—being a filmmaker, making documentaries and focusing on American history. It wasn’t until my third or fourth film that I realized—this is it, this is what I do,” he said. ...




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