- Historic Sites
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
Brinkley: I felt we were like the Apollo astronauts picked for Mission PBS. The first time we got together was at a kind of retreat at Longfellow’s historic Wayside Inn. We got to know each other, experience each !other’s senses of humor, and learn about our ideological differences and similarities. Don was our foreman. He made the work collaborative, and quickly an extraordinary harmony developed among us. We’ve all become personal friends. That’s one of the great outcomes of all of this.
How did your own experiences writing biography translate into Grafting a biography of the country?
Brinkley: I think it’s intriguing to call this series A Biography of America. Don wrote a biography of Lewis Mumford, but really his City of the Century, about Chicago, was also a biography. It’s an interesting way to approach history.
At its best, biography uses a main character to go off on tangents that allow the writer and the reader to explore the larger society in which that character’s life was played out. For example, in my biography of Rosa Parks I examine the history of lynching and the Ku Klux Klan that terrified her as a young girl. In A Biography of America, we’re exploring history in much the same way.
Miller: That’s right. Our story centers on people, because focusing on compelling personalities allowed us to bring to life the major opposing forces of the American story: antebellum Southern culture versus Northern industrial culture; the counterculture of the 1960s versus the conservative backlash of the 1970s and 1980s; and so on.
But this series is biographical in a more fundamental way. Good biography is highly selective. It deals with the principal shaping forces of a subject’s life. In a way, it’s a concentrated metaphor for that life, not a birth-todeath chronicle. I wanted A Biography of America to be the same thing, with the country itself as the character.
But you both were equally drawn to history as storytelling.
Miller: It’s built in the bones, this human proclivity for the story. It started in the caves. Historians are story-tellers, just like novelists. The questions we ask are the same: Who am I? Who are we? We’re also both in the business of hunting explanations.
A little while ago, I came across a published piece by one of my former students in which he says that I tricked the class into learning by telling stories. They’d listen to the story, he said, and all of sudden it would occur to them that they were learning something important.
Brinkley: I think what’s radical about this series is that all the historians involved in the project believe in storytelling. In the academic world, historians are trained to focus on analysis so heavily that in some scholarly circles the way to really put down a historian is to sniff, “Oh, God, he’s a storyteller.”
Yes, there’s the concern about losing interpretation when you do narrative history.
Miller: Narrative history, storytelling, doesn’t have to lose conceptual rigor or analytical depth—but that’s damn hard to do. By the way, I think that’s a distinctive thing about this series. The tales our historians tell carry you along, but they have a critical edge, a point of view. They get your mind moving.
Brinkley: Right. Storytelling may not be fashionable in the academy, but I still agree with something I remember reading as a boy in Perrysburg, Ohio, next to the town of Clyde, which was Sherwood Anderson’s fictional Winesburg. In his autobiography, Storyteller’s Life, Anderson wrote that to become a good storyteller is to practice the highest of all literary art forms.
It’s one thing to write a story, but you historians were trying to write a collaborative story. When we put together this team, we were interested in historians who didn’t agree on everything, but this could have been a disaster.
Miller: Yes, and I was a little surprised the whole project didn’t blow up in our faces. But from our earliest discussions, I saw that our team, every one of us a prickly character, seemed to relish argument and confrontation. Sometimes things got hot.
For instance, my view of the early formation of the American character is vastly different from Pauline Maier’s. She sees the colonists—even as they prepared for revolution—as essentially British in ideas and outlook. But I see a distinctly American character emerging as early as the 172Os. We fought and fought over this issue and never resolved it.
It’s a credit, Christine, to you television people that you didn’t try to homogenize things in the interest of creating a counterfeit consensus. You saw that all this contention would make the series better. Remember, this isn’t The Biography of America . It’s A Biography of America .
When your lecture texts were all in and we production people started to search for images to dramatize them, we found we were looking at images of de Soto’s war dogs chewing the faces off Native Americans, of slaves on the whipping post, and Northern and Southern soldiers slaughtering each other. It’s a pretty violent drama.