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Awards & Honors: 2016 Jefferson Lecturer

Ken Burns

Jefferson Lecturer Ken Burns, the acclaimed filmmaker, has conveyed more history to more Americans than perhaps anyone. Working with primary materials such as diaries, letters, official records, and historical sound and imagery, he has elevated a distinct style of filmmaking and culled a vast ensemble of authentic voices to fill out a broad and compelling narrative of the American experience.  David Zurawik of The Baltimore Sun said in March 2009, “Burns is not only the greatest documentarian of the day, but also the most influential filmmaker period.”

Burns’s documentaries have spanned the eighteenth, nineteenth, and twentieth centuries, starting with a one-hour film about the Brooklyn Bridge, which aired in 1982. His films have recounted the lives of Thomas Jefferson, Huey Long, Jack Johnson, Thomas Hart Benton, Frank Lloyd Wright, Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton. They have explored the familial triangle of two presidents and one first lady named Roosevelt. They have combed the wreckage of the Civil War and World War II, finding sacrifice, purpose, and redemption. Burns has explored the singular and the mainstream in American culture, making films about the Statue of Liberty, the Shakers, Prohibition, the Dust Bowl, early radio, jazz, national parks, the West, and baseball. In all, he has made 27 documentaries, 15 supported by the National Endowment for the Humanities. Currently finishing an 18-hour documentary about the Vietnam War, he and his co-producers and co-directors are also working on a film devoted to country music and a biography about Ernest Hemingway, and have recently completed a film on Jackie Robinson that aired in April on PBS.

In 1990, after more than thirty-nine million people watched the first broadcast of The Civil War, Burns received an NEH Charles Frankel Prize. On three occasions he has received the coveted Erik Barnouw award from the Organization of American Historians and has received 30 honorary degrees. Burns’s films have won 14 Emmys and three Peabody Awards. In 2008 Burns received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences.

Kenneth Lauren Burns was born on July 29, 1953, in Brooklyn, New York. His father, Robert, was a graduate student in anthropology at Columbia University with an interest in photography. His mother, Lyla, was a biologist by training. When Ken was still a baby, the family moved to the French Alps for ten months, where Ken’s father conducted research on a traditional culture in a remote mountain village. Afterwards, Robert published a gorgeous nineteen-page feature story about this family adventure, accompanied by his own photos, in National Geographic.

When the family returned to the United States, Ken’s younger brother by 18 months, Eric (known as Ric), was born and Burns’s father took a job teaching at the University of Delaware. During these years, their mother Lyla Burns grew ill, and, in 1963, the family moved to Ann Arbor, Michigan, as Professor Burns joined the faculty at the University of Michigan. Not long after, Lyla died. “Her cancer was the great forming force in my life,” Ken has said of his mother’s death when he was 11, “permanently influencing all that I would become.” A family member once remarked to Burns that his filmmaking was an attempt to “wake the dead.”

Through television, Burns was introduced to Hollywood films. He was especially fond of Howard Hawks’s Rio Bravo and John Ford’s Young Mr. Lincoln and My Darling Clementine.  Growing up in the sixties, he was equally influenced by the events of the time. “I remember I used to stay up and get terrific stomachaches worrying about dogs and firehoses in Selma, Alabama,” he said, referring to the civil rights movement. He received a super-8 camera from his father and began making movies.

Burns graduated from high school early in 1971 and worked at a record store in Ann Arbor to earn money to pay for his tuition at Hampshire College, an experimental liberal arts school in western Massachusetts that had opened its doors one year earlier.  At college, a job in a bookstore helped underwrite his tuition and expenses.

At Hampshire, Burns came under the influence of Jerome Liebling, a still photographer in the tradition of Depression-era photographer Walker Evans, and Elaine Mayes, a photographer known for her pictures of Haight Ashbury and rock ‘n’ roll legends.  They emphasized what a filmmaker looks for in an image and what is the artist’s responsibility to the image being appropriated.   At Hampshire, he made a film about a living-history museum, Old Sturbridge Village, called Working in Rural New England.

“I began to realize that I had a completely latent and untutored interest in American history,” Burns recalled. Watching When This You See, Remember Me, a film about Gertrude Stein by the public television veteran Perry Miller Adato, Burns noticed through the actors’ performances the power of quoted text to bring the past alive.

Burns and his Hampshire College friends Roger Sherman and Buddy Squires formed an independent production company, Florentine Films, named after the village of Florence in Northampton, Massachusetts, where Elaine Mayes lived. As he considered a topic for his first film, in 1977, Burns read David McCullough’s book on the making of the Brooklyn Bridge and the subject inspired him to make his first major venture as a filmmaker.

A few obstacles stood in his way: He was an unknown filmmaker, who looked even younger than his twenty-four years. According to scholar Gary Edgerton’s book, Ken Burns’s America, he approached hundreds of people for financial backing and got turned down. David McCullough had some early doubts, saying, “If somebody was going to make a film based on my book, I wanted it to be someone with more standing and experience.”

But McCullough was won over and funding came initially from the New York Humanities Council, awarding Burns a matching grant of $50,000, the largest grant made by the council that year. The urban historian Lewis Mumford, whom Burns interviewed for the film, suggested approaching the National Endowment for the Humanities, an independent federal agency a little over ten years old at the time. NEH awarded Burns a $25,000 grant, the first of many grants funding 15 films and the start of what would become a long partnership between Burns and NEH.

In Brooklyn Bridge, so much of what might be called the Ken Burns style was already in place: a preference for iconic subjects; a serious commitment to research; the dramatic presentation of historic documents and photos; voiceover narration; the use of actors off camera to speak the actual words of historical figures; interviews with  humanities scholars, and interested parties with a strong perspective; the prominence of biography; and a deep interest in the great drama of American culture and history. Brooklyn Bridge received outstanding reviews and was nominated for an Academy Award.

What followed in quick succession were several films that were striking in their breadth. The Shakers (1984), which Burns codirected with Amy Stechler, distilled the history of this vanishing but influential religious sect, casting an admiring eye on its legacy of inspired simplicity in architecture and design. Huey Long (1985), meanwhile, was a masterful biographical documentary of one of the most colorful and polarizing characters to cross the stage of American politics.

Before Statue of Liberty or Huey Long (1985) were even finished, Burns read the great Civil War novel The Killer Angels by Michael Shaara, reaching the end on Christmas Day, 1984, while on a visit to his father’s house in Michigan. As described by Peter Tonguette in Humanities magazine, Burns mentioned to his dad that he’d just decided his next film would be about the Civil War. His father asked which aspect he had in mind. Ken replied, “All of it.”

If the early films of Ken Burns displayed quick mastery of a certain aesthetic, The Civil War (1990) signaled a coming of age for Burns.  At a preview celebrating the 25th anniversary of NEH and the release of this important NEH-supported 11.5-hour series, NEH Chairman Lynne Cheney said, “What the Iliad was for the Greeks, the Civil War is for Americans.” When it aired in the fall of 1990, almost forty million saw some or all of it in the first week. George F. Will applied the ancient Greek comparison directly to Burns: “Our Iliad has found its Homer.” And the New York Times noted that Ken Burns “takes his place as the most accomplished documentary filmmaker of his generation.”

The series drew more viewers than any other in PBS history. It garnered more than 40 awards. Shelby Foote, the silver-haired novelist and author of a spectacular narrative history of the Civil War, became a recognized celebrity after his on-screen appearances in The Civil War. The “Ashokan Farewell,” composed by Jay Ungar in 1982, became a favorite melody for weddings, funerals, and memorials. Burns’s influential method of reshooting old photographs became an instantly recognizable stylistic device, today known as the Ken Burns effect. The series boldly enlarged the market for history programming on television.

The Civil War remains a critical moment for Burns, all the more so as Americans reexamine racial equality. In a commencement address in 2015 at Washington University in St. Louis, Burns evoked Abraham Lincoln and Mark Twain as he noted that “the same stultifying sentiments that brought on our civil war are still on display.”  Not surprising, race is a theme that runs through nearly all of Burns’s films, and it is the subject of his 2016 Jefferson Lecture.

In a conversation with NEH chairman William D. Adams for Humanities magazine, Burns discussed his desire to go on making films and telling more stories for as long as possible. He told Adams, that at the age of 62, he has no plans to stop.