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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: William James said, “History is a bath of blood.” But when you look at it, A Biography of America is not about the bloody stomp of Americans through the continent. That’s part of the story, but it’s also about what’s right about America. There’s a great generosity to the American people that I think is historically extraordinary.
Miller: Finley Peter Dunne’s famous bartender philosopher, Mr. Dooley, said something I’ve always agreed with: Historians write postmortems—tell you what a country died of. But I’d like to know what it lived of.
Don, you said from the beginning that one of our greatest challenges was to re-create a particular time and place.
Miller: I wanted to give viewers the sense that they were living the moment described, as if past were present. That makes history exciting, but I was after something else.
I wanted to try to craft narratives that explained what happened at a time when all the possibilities of the moment, all the live options, were in front of the people making the decisions. This allows you to see the roads not taken, and history acquires a measure of suspense, even though we know the outcome. It is history without the distortion of hindsight.
Don, the final program in the series was your idea. Here you discuss the relentless human urge to tell stories with a group of prominent novelists- Charles Johnson, Arthur Golden, and Esmeralda Santiago. Why do you end the series on this note?
Miller: Well, as I said earlier, I think novelists and narrative historians have a number of things in common. They tell stories, use character to power them, and deal with memory and the way memory shapes and haunts their characters.
But as professional storytellers, novelists have a better appreciation of the redemptive power of the imagination and the power of stories to reshape the world. Students of history can learn a lot from them.
Brinkley: It’s like the poet William Carlos Williams wrote in In the American Grain, “History must stay open, it is all humanity.” A good historian is an artist who embraces what William James called “wild facts without stall or pigeonhole.”
Miller: Human beings are big-brained creatures, and their enormous cerebral capacity makes them memory-haunted creatures as well. And because we remember the past, we’re influenced by it; whether we choose to admit it or not, it’s always there, working on us.
To me history is this: It is human beings and their culture shaping the environment and the environment shaping them. It is our memory of that culture that makes us human.
Brinkley: And the kind of history you’re talking about, Don, is often best written by nonhistorians—another reason to pay attention to novelists and poets. A hundred years from now, when people want to capture the feeling and the flavor of our time, they’re not going to go to the academic historians. They’re going to go back, time and again, to something like Tom Wolfe’s The Right Stuff, about the Mercury astronauts, and James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time, on civil rights.
Now that your part in it is finished, how does the completed series compare with your original vision for it?
Miller: I started out doubting our ability to pull this thing off, and I became even more pessimistic when we went to work on it. There was so much dissonance about what we ought to cover and how we ought to cover it.
And the technical part of the challenge was awful: trying to do World War II in 24 minutes—3,500 words.
Brinkley: Count yourself lucky, Don. I guess I speak more slowly than you: I only had 2,900 words to do FDR and the Depression!
The demands of the medium made concision a huge issue.
Miller: Our approach to our program on the 1920s is a good case in point. It’s a very crowded decade: the Lindbergh flight, the Scopes trial, the stock market crash, the Harlem Renaissance, and so on. I could have tried to compress the highlights into 25 minutes. Instead, I tried to identify two leading events of the decade that had a deep, long-term impact on the American character: the tremendous success of Henry Ford’s Model T and modern mass production, and the rise of the world’s first automobile city, Los Angeles. That’s it: two concise, interwoven stories.
Over and over, we found ourselves being brought back to these hard choices.
Miller: Well, there were a thousand reasons it all seemed impossible at one point. But as it turned out, it was just like cities. The messier they are, the more vital and interesting they are. Out of the dissonance started to come not, God forbid, consensus but a set of organizing ideas.
But things didn’t really begin to fall in shape until we stopped talking and arguing and went our separate ways, to write the texts of our own programs. When these started to come in, I could see we had that biography of America I was looking for.
At that point, all it needed was hundreds of hours of dedicated labor from you and Fred Barzyk and your team of production people.
So what are you waiting for? Get back to Boston and finish the thing!