Ken Burns on history

BurnsKen05 Given the premiere last night of Ken Burns’s new documentary, The War, I thought it might be interesting to rummage about on the web for some interviews or thoughts by Mr. Burns. There are many interesting things to be found, but I must say I was taken most by a 1993 commencement address he delivered at the University of Delaware in Newark, Delaware. [One can see how much of this talk he reuses thirteen years later when you read the text of his Georgetown talk.]

What I am trying to say in all of this is that there is a profound connection between remembering and freedom and human attachment. And that’s what history is to me. And forgetting is the opposite of all that: a kind of slavery, the worst kind of human detachment. … Which is why we must remember, even when, precisely when, what memory has to tell us is so appalling. It has seemed to me that the meaning of our freedom as Americans is the freedom of memory, which is a kind of obligation, which you today now inherit.

I like almost anyone who has a sense of the vital, enduring value of a strong sense of history. Anyone who doubts history’s ability to speak to us has yet to listen to Sullivan Ballou’s letter as it was read in Burns’s 1991 documentary The Civil War. For his ability to transport us, my hat is off to Mr. Burns.


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