Civil War-Dust Bowl Director Ken Burns Receives 2013 John Steinbeck Award

Image of Ken Burns, recipient of the 2013 John Steinbeck AwardKen Burns, America’s greatest living documentary filmmaker, discussed his Civil War and Dust Bowl classics and previewed his new film, The Roosevelts, during San Jose State University’s December 6 event honoring him with the 2013 John Steinbeck Award. Burns joins a pantheon of progressive American artists—Bruce Springsteen, Arthur Miller, Sean Penn, Studs Terkel, John Sayles, Joan Baez, Michael Moore, Garrison Keillor, Rachel Maddow, John Mellancamp—previously honored by SJSU’s Martha Heasley Cox Steinbeck Studies Center for inspiring hope “in the souls of the people” through their creative work. Steinbeck’s timeless phrase—also the name of the award—appears in Chapter 25 of The Grapes of Wrath.

From the Civil War to the Dust Bowl and the Roosevelts

During an onstage conversation with public TV-radio host Michael Krasny of San Francisco’s KQED, co-sponsor of the John Steinbeck Award event, Ken Burns described his four-decade directorial career as a voyage of self-discovery among subjects  selected after months of planning from a diversity of tempting topics. Rather than teaching viewers didactically, he noted, “We say, ‘Watch what we just discovered.’” He admitted that he interviewed Arthur Miller for his first film, on the Brooklyn Bridge, without reading Miller’s play A View from the Bridge before driving to the reclusive author’s Connecticut getaway, where the 6-foot, 6-inch Miller refused to let him inside the house. The small, slim filmmaker, in his 20s  and lugging a heavy camera in the dying rural light, recovered fast, using Miller’s entire interview to conclude the documentary. It was the first and last time he included a complete interview with anyone in a film on any subject.

Ken Burns described his four-decade directorial career as a voyage of self-discovery among subjects selected after months of planning from a diversity of tempting topics.

Ken Burns’ Civil War and Dust Bowl documentaries have become classics—along with films on Lewis & Clark, World War II, Vietnam, country music, jazz, and baseball—running frequently on PBS and used regularly in classrooms across America. He noted that several series, including the Civil War and Dust Bowl, have been viewed by schools more than 2,000 times. He said he collected 25,000 still images for his new series on the Roosevelts and used only 2,300 in the final film, describing the intimacy of “hearing the photograph” when holding it in your hand. Comparing John Steinbeck and Mark Twain, he added that the stage-setting “White Town Drowsing” section of his film on Twain, inspired by Twain’s lyrical sketch about his Missouri home town, ended up on the cutting room floor, a casualty of too much footage and too little time. Asked to name America’s greatest president, he replied, “I’m a Lincoln man.”

Ken Burns on the Roosevelts—TR, FDR, and Eleanor

Why the new series on the Roosevelts, scheduled for broadcast on PBS in 2014 with the voice of Meryl Streep as Eleanor? Noting John Steinbeck’s deep connection with FDR, Ken Burns replied that both Roosevelt presidents died early looking much older than their age: TR at 60, FDR at 63. He characterized the Roosevelts as “incandescent light bulbs that burned very brightly”—a phrase some future biographer is certain to appropriate to describe John Steinbeck, who also died in his 60s. Defining his art as “emotional archeology,” Burns added that professional historians aren’t always the best faces or voices for his films. “Experts can get in the way,” particularly in films about war. In his Vietnam documentary, for example, he used only men and women who had fought, resisted, or were directly effected—including Vietnamese soldiers and civilians who survived Vietnam’s civil war.

He characterized the Roosevelts as ‘incandescent light bulbs that burned very brightly’—a phrase some future biographer is certain to appropriate to describe John Steinbeck . . . .

The riveting segment from “The Roosevelts” screened for Ken Burns’ audience showed rare footage of FDR speaking off-the-record from his automobile at the unveiling of Thomas Jefferson’s face on Mount Rushmore in 1936. Cigarette holder in hand, FDR voices his vibrant optimism for America “10,000 years from now,” displaying the survivor’s spirit that, according to Ken Burns, made him our second greatest president. “Lincoln got us through our greatest crisis, the Civil War. Roosevelt saw us through the Great Depression and World War II, the worst crises, after the Civil War, in our history.” Noting that books on both the Roosevelts who became president, fifth cousins from different parties, continue to be produced today, Burns added that First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt—TR’s favorite niece and FDR’s sixth cousin—never received the attention she deserved as the essential link in the Roosevelts’ enchanted family chain. “She was the linchpin” in the Roosevelts’ dynastic life, Burns concluded. “Her story carries the film for the final 45 minutes.”

John Steinbeck and Eleanor Roosevelt: Allies and Friends

For Paul Douglass, professor of English and interim director of the Martha Heasley Cox Center for Steinbeck Studies, the Ken Burns event was a personal moment. Visibly moved while giving the John Steinbeck Award, Douglass attended Amherst College as an undergraduate; Ken Burns—a friend of the popular John Steinbeck biographer, Middlebury College writer-professor Jay Parini—was at nearby Hampshire College at the same time. Under Douglass and his predecessors, the Steinbeck Studies Center collection has acquired numerous items related to Eleanor Roosevelt, who defended John Steinbeck during the bitter controversy surrounding The Grapes of Wrath. She praised The Forgotten Village in her My Day newspaper column in 1941 and interviewed the author for her radio program in 1950. A video clip recorded Mrs. Roosevelt chatting with John Steinbeck and his wife Elaine in a New York restaurant circa 1952. All three supported Adlai Stevenson for president that year. Each would applaud Ken Burns—the Adlai Stevenson of socially progressive filmmaking—today. Like Stevenson in his letters to John Steinbeck, Burns was gracious in crediting “we,” not “I” in accepting the John Steinbeck Award, a tribute to the behind-the-scenes team he says he depends on, and to the unpresidential modesty that he obviously shares with John Steinbeck.

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