A Biography Of America
IT’S ALMOST IMPOSSIBLE TO TELL OUR NATIONAL STORY ON TELEVISION, EVEN IF YOU’VE GOT 13 HOURS AT YOUR DISPOSAL. THREE PEOPLE WHO DID IT EXPLAIN HOW—AND WHY.
October 2000 | Volume 51, Issue 6
After viewing hundreds of tapes, we made our draft picks. Pauline Maier, of MIT, was one of our first, and most reluctant, recruits. I admit to being initially cowed by the elegance of her mind and her bearing, but in the end it was her almost unhinged laugh that put us all at ease. Pauline became our early-American specialist. Lou Masur came to us from the City College of New York, and he is every bit the New Yorker. His passion for the New York Yankees rivals (almost) his passion for another Yankee, Ralph Waldo Emerson—and that he is at ease with the American narrative is suggested by the more popular title of his course “United States History": “From Mather to Rather.” Waldo Martin, from the University of California, Berkeley, is the quietly forceful presence who grounded us in the notion that ours is a story of struggle, with winners and losers equally illuminating the national character. Virginia Scharff of the University of New Mexico “pinchhits all over the place,” as Don has said. Virginia is our Western and women’s history scholar; she was also a closet novelist—until her cover blew and her mystery Brown Eyed Girl appeared this spring to terrific reviews.
Douglas Brinkley is our presidential and twentieth-century scholar. Doug brought to the project his intelligence, his passionate love for the American system, and his friends and colleagues—namely, the composer David Amram (The Manchurian Candidate, Splendor in the Grass, and more) and Stephen Ambrose, as guest historian.
I had the chance to talk with Don Miller and Doug Brinkley this past spring over breakfast at the Organization of American Historians convention in St. Louis. We talked in rooms overlooking the Mississippi River, at a point near where our Biography of America begins, the magnificent site of Cahokia, the capital of a great river civilization that flourished—and died—long before Columbus set foot in the Americas.
It seems an obvious question, Don, but in all the time we’ve worked on this project, I’ve never asked you why you think this kind of survey series is so important when there are many wonderful historical documentaries already.
Miller: I think we need to have a sense of the whole, of the entire living drama of American history, if only to get our bearings, to get a sense of how we got here, to the year 2000. And also to understand who we are. To a large extent, we are what we have been. We’re products of our history, and to know ourselves we need to know our history.
But we knew from the outset that you can’t tell the entire American story in 26 half-hours …
Miller: No, but you can deal in some depth with some of the great shaping forces, the ones that made us what we are, different from—not better than- any other people on earth. That’s what we set out to do.
And that meant we had to be ruthlessly selective. Just as history is a crippled discipline, in that it can’t ever get at the real truth, so television is a crippled medium, in that it has so many limitations, time constraints being just one of them. As I told the team, we’d just have to deal with these limitations and do our best, knowing that whatever we did we’d get creamed by some critics.
It was my biggest worry: how we would identify those shaping forces.
Miller: I don’t think any one of us is completely happy with all the decisions we made. But we did decide on several master themes. We would try to explain how America became a democratic nation; a capitalist nation; a technological nation—the world’s preeminent society of machine makers and builders; a multicultural nation; a nation of improvers and reformers; as well as a country known the world over for its frontier-style violence- and, most interesting to me, history’s most audacious experiment in sexual, racial, and ethnic relations.
Back in the eighteenth century, the French writer Crèvecoeur asked What is the American, this new man? And how did he, and she, come to be? Well, we try, and I emphasize try, to answer that question in A Biography of America .
I can’t imagine a question where there would be less consensus.
Miller: We argued all the time, right to the end. At my very first meeting with Lou Masur, I emphasized the importance of concision, and Lou agreed completely. Then I said, as an example, that we could do American history without dealing with the Great Awakening. Well, Lou almost jumped out of his chair. “I’m out of this thing,” he said, “if we exclude the Great Awakening. You can’t hope to understand nineteenth-century America without dealing with the Great Awakening.”
The process of creating A Biography of America had commenced.
And Lou didn’t quit…
Brinkley: He ended up convincing all of us that the Great Awakening deserved feature treatment.
Doug, what was it like for you to be part of this team?