Ken Burns Wishes More People Would Call Willa Cather a Great American Novelist

From a New York Times By the Book interview headlined “Ken Burns Wishes More People Would Call Willa Cather a Great American Novelist”:

I am. Not as much as I want to be for leisure, because I am constantly reading during the day — my days are 12 and 15 hours long, and therefore by the time I can just sit down and read for pleasure, it’s sort of catch as catch can. But I love the reading I do for my work. People think that film is in some ways the enemy of the word. And it’s not, in our case. We don’t believe in that dialectic whatsoever. In the beginning is the word. And our films reflect that. They are written.

They’ve been enormous collaborations that I’ve had with Geoffrey C. Ward and Dayton Duncan over the years, and with my oldest daughter, Sarah Burns, and her husband, David McMahon, who have written the scripts for the films. They’re long ongoing processes. Unlike many cinematic circumstances, the first drafts for these do not come down from Mount Sinai written in stone. They are something that you never stop working on. And our most recent film, “The U.S. and the Holocaust,” written by Geoffrey C. Ward, is a case in point where even after we’d locked the film — which is the semi-technical term in filmmaking for promising your sound editors you won’t touch it anymore — we unlocked it a million times to remove an adjective or to add a qualifying “perhaps” or “some believe,” or whatever it might be, just to be more faithful to the intensely rigorous scholarship we try to attend to with every film.

I have a pretty big night stand. I have an old chest at the foot of my bed and then my actual night stand, and on it I have poems called “Acquainted With the Night: Insomnia Poems,” edited by Lisa Russ Spaar, a gift from a friend. I’m reading an old esoteric text called “In the Light of Truth,” by Abdruschin. And that follows a good deal of reading I do every single day from Tolstoy’s “A Calendar of Wisdom.” I also have on my bed stand “Anna Karenina,” one of my favorite novels of all time. I have W.E.B. Du Bois’s “Data Portraits,” which has the subtitle “Visualizing Black America.” It’s this incredibly graphic way of understanding American and particularly African American life at the turn of the 20th century. It’s just a wonderful, wonderful book.

I have “The Twelve Lives of Alfred Hitchcock,” by Edward White. I am rereading for the third time overall and second time in three years “A Farewell to Arms.” We had done a film that came out a year and a half ago on Ernest Hemingway. And I have “The Lincoln Highway,” by Amor Towles, which I just love. And also — I have now moved to the foot of my bed — his “A Gentleman in Moscow,” which I had read before. I also have Tom Hanks’s book “Uncommon Type,” and I am reading “The Immortal Irishman,” by Timothy Egan. And I’ve got “The Sympathizer,” which I’m trying to pick up and reread again, by Viet Thanh Nguyen. And then, I got about three-quarters of the way through it before something happened production-wise, but I was really into Bruce Springsteen’s “Born to Run.” Then the last book — oh, there’s “The Underground Railroad,” by Colson Whitehead, which I read again — and then I have Kim Stanley Robinson’s “New York 2140,” which is a really wonderful book, imagining a less dystopian future. It does have disasters and climate change, but it also has sort of human adaptability, and it’s really spectacular. And then I have, always, the film critic Andrew Sarris’s “The American Cinema,” which is his sort of rating of directors. He was a subscriber of the French journal Cahiers du Cinéma and their auteur theory. And so, you know, there’s just wonderful takes on, you know, Nicholas Ray and Chaplin and F.W. Murnau. It’s just a wonderful Bible, which I tell you, I have had in my possession since whenever it came out in the late ’60s. And in fact, as a high school student who was dedicated to becoming a filmmaker, I had sort of digested it all. But there was one comment that he made that I memorized about the director Nicholas Ray. He said that Ray — referring to a movie called “Johnny Guitar,” which was written by Philip Yordan — he said, “Yordan set out to attack McCarthyism, but Ray was too delirious to pay any heed as Freudian feminism prevailed over Marxist masochism, and Pirandello transcended polemics.”

Oh, I did it from memory. I’ve already moved out of my bedroom. I’m going to go and check it out.

Yeah, well, here’s what it was. At 17 years old or 16 years old, I had no idea what that meant. And so I really had it as my life’s mission to sort of parse it as if it was some literary holy grail, right? And I remember — I went to Hampshire College in the late summer of 1971 and presented the man who would be my mentor, Jerome Liebling, with this sentence. And he just looked at me like I was out of my mind, got out from behind his desk, lined with photography books and all sorts of things, and took me by the elbow, as he did for the rest of his life, and guided me out of his office and shut me out of his office. I found myself standing in the hallway contemplating suicide. Here I am being told that this sentence that for me was going to unlock the mysteries of this literary universe was, you know, beside the point. But I still love Andrew Sarris, and I still, with great affection, remember that sentence. But I also remember the very earthbound wisdom of just making films and not trying to spend a lot of time theorizing them. I could parse that sentence now, but you don’t want to hear it.

Yeah, I had read some Turgenev in college and I’ve gone back and I’ve been trying to make space to read more of the things that I hadn’t read. I really love Russian literature, it’s just fantastic. I love anything that’s good. My tastes are pretty eclectic, and there’s a big turnover of things. A few months ago I read this great tiny memoir by the poet and novelist Jay Parini, who I know and is also the author of “The Last Station,” a novel of Tolstoy’s last days. His memoir is called “Borges and Me.” He’s a graduate student in Scotland, and he’s been given the task of taking care of Borges, who comes there, and their adventures are, to say the least, as great as any Borges story. It is great. And I didn’t see it on my bookshelf, but it’s very rare that I don’t have Borges’s “Labyrinths,” because when I was in college that book opened my head and my heart like a can opener. I’m never really too far away from that. Another book I’m reading — because I just moved to the kitchen, where I was reading last night — is “The Other Side of Prospect,” which is a book by Nicholas Dawidoff. He sent me the galleys. It’s a fantastic account of his growing up that’s also about the racial divide and delineations of New Haven.

Oh, “Anna Karenina.” In my own personal feelings, Gabriel García Márquez has written two or three novels that have rearranged my molecules — “Love in the Time of Cholera,” “One Hundred Years of Solitude,” “No One Writes to the Colonel,” “Chronicle of a Death Foretold,” those are all in decade rotations — but I don’t know anything that floats my boat the way “Anna Karenina” does. As I said, I participate daily in reviewing Tolstoy’s calendar, in which each day has a set of comments that are spiritually oriented. They sometimes involve quoting other people or they are just him or a combination of that. And they’re like the opposite of Vespers for me, my morning prayer. I get up and literally within the first few minutes of my day I read this day’s thing by Tolstoy. And I find these perceptions about human beings and the foibles and traps and difficulties and possibilities so inspiring still. And he’s been gone, obviously, for well more than a century.

Can I invert that question? I was told at some point that I had to read “The Education of Little Tree” because it was this perfect, spiritually perfect book. And everybody was reading it. And I, just out of orneriness or obstinacy, just didn’t do it because all my friends were saying that I had to. And then finally I started reading it and it was, it was beautifully written. By the time I got to Chapter 3 or 4, it was revealed that the author of the book — his name is Asa Earl Carter — had been a speechwriter for George Wallace, and had coined the phrase “Segregation now, segregation forever.” I couldn’t read another word of it. And I realize I have inverted your question. But it’s the other side of that coin, the Leni Riefenstahl question, which we have to deal with in Film 101. I tried over and over again to kick-start that fourth chapter or whatever it was. And I never could. So I missed the complete luminosity of the book that all of my friends had recommended, yet had also found that knowing something about the author had made it, however luminous the prose might be, unpalatable to me.

You know, that is a wonderful question. For work, the answer is no. Like, you just read it, right? I mean, I’ve had to take some of the worst, you know, racist or most recently antisemitic bile and put them into the mouths of actors who read this stuff, and I can do that for work. There’s a kind of discipline in which you’re accepting all of the stuff. When I’m reading for pleasure, it gets a little bit more complicated. A kind of emotional instrument in me is more the governing part of it. Does that make any sense? It’s just reactive, in an emotional sense. Not in a sentimental or nostalgic way, but just in something higher emotionally. But for work, that’s my job. I’m trying to digest a mountain of evidence that is about American history. And I’ve been interested in a true, honest, complicated process, unafraid of controversy and tragedy, but equally drawn to those stories and moments that suggest an abiding faith in the human spirit, and particularly the unique role this remarkable but also sometimes dysfunctional Republic came to play in the positive progress of mankind. So, you know, that’s my sort of catechism. Then I have to just digest all of that material that we read with the saying, this is how it is. You know, sometimes their “S’s” look like “F’s” and sometimes they use the N-word.

Always on paper. I’m sorry, I’m still killing trees. I think my most pleasurable times are the ones that sneak up on me suddenly — the afternoon that opens up because I’ve completed an editing pass a little bit sooner than expected and nobody has discovered this for the rest of the day. And all of a sudden I’m sitting in my living room with a book and just reading it. My 17-year-old daughter for my birthday gave me Donald Hall’s “A Carnival of Losses: Notes on Nearing 90,” which was, you know, he basically said, I can’t write poems anymore, but I can write these little prose poems. I knew Donald Hall fairly well. My brother knew him even better. One of his great poems is about a pig roast back in Ann Arbor that my brother had been involved in. And while he was living, he lived near me in New Hampshire. And I just said, Oh that’s so thoughtful, Olivia. And then something happened and I read the entire thing cover to cover in one sitting. And I just thought, Oh my God, what a great gift. And it was because some work I finished early and I was able to just, you know, pull aside and do it.

I cannot say enough about Isabel Wilkerson. I think “The Warmth of Other Suns” and, most recently, “Caste” are really, really important books that are also incredibly accessible. There is something so spectacular about how she writes and what she writes that whatever it is she turns her pen to, I’ll be there to read.

You know, that’s a really interesting thing. Reading the Andrew Sarris one, but accidentally. My mom was sick with cancer from the time I was 2 or 3. There was never a moment when I wasn’t aware that there was something either dreadful happening or I knew exactly what was going to happen, that she was going to die. And she did, just a few months before my 12th birthday. A few months after that, my dad, who let me stay up at night to watch old movies with him on TV, or he’d take me out to the cinema, I watched him cry at “Odd Man Out,” by Sir Carol Reed, about Irish stuff in the late teens or early 1920s. I had never seen my dad cry, not when my mom was sick or when she died or at the funeral. Friends have commented on it, and I just said, you know, that’s what film does. It gave him a safe haven. And so I decided, at about 12 or 12½, however old I was when this happened, that I wanted to be a filmmaker, which meant John Ford or Alfred Hitchcock or Howard Hawks. And that meant I had to be steeped in the history of American dramatic cinema — Hollywood, in essence. And that meant that I would be drawn to Andrew Sarris and that meant that I would be trying to parse everything, including that crazy, miraculous, wonderful sentence about Nicholas Ray and “Johnny Guitar.” And that would prompt my professor, who became a beloved mentor, a father figure to me till the end of his life, who passed away in 2011, Jerome Liebling, to insist that there is as much drama in what is and what was as anything the human imagination can dream of. And so all of a sudden, I found myself 18 years old and now interested in making documentary films. So in some ways, I was driven by the density and the complexity and maybe the opacity of that sentence in Andrew Sarris’s book.

Yes, in almost every project we do, I emotionally adopt writers and scholars who are in their field. It might be the late Alan Brinkley for our film on Huey Long. It might be Shelby Foote for “The Civil War.” It might be Roger Angell for “Baseball,” or Albert Murray and Stanley Crouch for “Jazz.” I could go on.

It was divided into different realms. One was “The Guarded Gate,” by Daniel Okrent. It was an important thing to figure out the early reaction to immigration, how the open doors of 1870 and 1920 led to the pernicious Johnson Reed Immigration Act of 1924 that was so racist and antisemitic, a kind of eugenics applied to American legislation. But then as you delve into the Holocaust itself, there are a number of seminal texts, like “Hitler’s Willing Executioners.” That’s not a place that we were going, per se. But we availed ourselves of the scholarship of Deborah Lipstadt and Rebecca Erbelding and Peter Hayes and Timothy Snyder and Daniel Greene, who, you know, really brought the stories to life. So yeah, every film has that set of scholars that we don’t just read, but we engage. And who, in the case of Daniel Greene and Rebecca Erbelding and other scholars at the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C., we probably consulted, if not every day, then every other day on the last year of the project, just to make sure that we reflected the most recent scholarship, that we didn’t exaggerate or get into hyperbole, as is often the case on film and to just, you know, get it right, call balls and strikes, as difficult as that might be.

There’s an OK book that was made into “The Godfather,” which is arguably one of the greatest American movies ever made. Certainly in the top five. And I would argue that maybe the best Shakespeare on film is Akira Kurosawa’s “Throne of Blood,” which has zero lines from William Shakespeare in it but somehow catches the spirit of “Macbeth” in a way that most adaptations, with the limitations of the screen attempting what should be the stage, haven’t quite done. Nothing comes close to “Throne of Blood.” It’s hard to say the equivalent of a certain line of iambic pentameter is the way the mist or the breath of the horses comes out of their nostrils, but I’ll feebly make that argument: that there was a kind of equivalency that took place in Kurosawa’s transition. And he’s also made, to my mind, the best film ever made, his “Seven Samurai.” There’s nothing better than those three hours and 12 minutes or whatever it is.

Well, I don’t know what the plans are for “The Lincoln Highway,” Amor Towles’s recent book. But I would like to see that and “A Gentleman in Moscow” adapted. They’re wonderful books with dense, rich plot and carefully drawn characters that might offer filmmakers some possibilities to explore.

That Americans knew what was happening during the Holocaust and didn’t do enough. We took in about 225,000 refugees, more than any other sovereign nation. But even if we hadn’t filled out the relatively measly pernicious quotas in the Johnson-Reed Act we could have let in five times as many.

That’s from an amalgam of books, I would be hard pressed to say which ones. That’s the difference in some ways from the personal, pleasurable reading, which has its own singularity. Work reading is a kind of collective scholarship that has to be absorbed in so many different ways: from primary sources, from the scholars’ interpretation of primary sources, from recent scholarship, from interviews we do, from interaction with other scholars. So the work stuff has more of a collective impact than a singularity of authorship. And that, I think, is OK.

One of the things I haven’t mentioned is my love for the historical and biographical works of the David McCulloughs, who was a mentor and just passed, and of the Doris Kearns Goodwins and Jon Meachams and Walter Isaacsons — all people I know, whose books I look forward to. And I’ve left out dozens. But they’re a huge part of my reading, not necessarily for work, though I just finished a film earlier this year on Benjamin Franklin that drew on Walter’s book along with the work of many other scholars. So, you know, we’ve never made a film based on any one book, including my first film, “Brooklyn Bridge,” which was inspired by David McCullough’s book. But his book was about the construction and ours was half about the construction and half about its durability, its strength and vitality and promise. We’re not the type of people to say, “We’re going to do this book.” It’s, “We’re going to do this subject.” And then that permits us to read Shelby Foote but also Barbara J. Fields and Ira Berlin, you know, and hire them as advisers.

I don’t like horror. I had a big science fiction thing in high school and college and I haven’t read science fiction in ages and ages. I used to read religiously Roger Zelazny and now I can’t even find his books on a bookshelf at a reputable bookstore. But everything else is kind of open. I like good writing. One writer I love is Willa Cather. People say, Was it Melville or Hemingway or Twain who wrote the great American novel, meaning “Moby-Dick” or “A Farewell to Arms” or obviously “Huckleberry Finn,” where, as Hemingway rightly said, American literature begins. But what about “O Pioneers!” or “My Ántonia”? For that matter, what about Gabriel García Márquez? We do not have a copyright on the word “American.”

Haphazardly. I do tend to categorize in some places by subject, like a wall of Civil War stuff that I’ve collected. But I realize I’ve got Civil War books in three or four different places. There’s large books in one room and novels in another, not alphabetized. One problem is that there’s a lot of folks in the household.

I don’t know. I don’t think there is anything surprising. My interests are wide. I’m reading a lot about lynching right now, “At the Hands of Persons Unknown” or “Without Sanctuary.” I can’t say that’s for pleasure, but it’s certainly important to mention. Of the 40-odd films I think I’ve made — I’ve never really counted them — the ones that don’t deal with race you can count on the fingers of one hand, and still have at least a digit left over to make a gesture. I’m interested in the “original sin of the United States,” as the historians call it, and how that influences us. If you take any kind of dive into American history, it is a rare thing where you don’t bump into that question.

Not just because of the quality of the writing, but because I’d be interested in the conversation, I would invite Twain, who experienced more tragedy than anybody I can imagine but was without doubt the funniest person of the 19th century. He said it’s not that the world had too many fools, it’s just that lightning isn’t distributed right. That will still be funny in a thousand years if we haven’t destroyed ourselves. I would also invite Tolstoy, because I have a daily relationship to him and I would love to know ever more about him. And then I would have to say Willa Cather.

I don’t know. I saw him the other day. Talked to him. He’s a reader. He knows history. And that’s important. You know, I think for the previous person, I would have recommended any book. But I’m not sure I could be as presumptuous as to say, You need to know this. Maybe “Caste” or “The Warmth of Other Suns” would be a good beginning if you weren’t sensitive to the racial dynamics of the United States and wanted a political sense of how you might begin to act. But there are so many books that are going to aid us. I think right now understanding Russian history is a really important thing, I guess I would say. And there’s a standard textbook, by Nicholas V. Riasanovsky, that I think is not soulful. For understanding the Russian psyche, you can glean a lot more about who the Russians were from Gorky and Turgenev and, you know, obviously Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy.

I’m always surprised. I wouldn’t name names because it’s so hard to write a book. But there have been lots of times when I have been disappointed that a well-known author — this would be mainly in nonfiction or almost exclusively in nonfiction — that you feel that it hasn’t been carefully edited. It hasn’t been carefully read. And I find more often than I would like to admit where, for instance, a number that’s given on Page 78, on Page 143 is now a different number and there is no explanation. And I just think, that’s the simple task of editing your own work. I’m not blaming it on publishers. I’m blaming it on the author.

I have four daughters, and the third one gave me the Donald Hall book I mentioned. The gifts from them mean the most. The most prized gift I ever received wasn’t a book at all — my oldest daughter, Sarah, when she was 12 or thereabouts, on one Christmas morning, I was a single dad and very anxious that I hadn’t gotten it all together for that day. And there was an awkward silence between her and her sister. And I thought, Oh, no, I really screwed up. And she said, I have one more present for you. And stood up in her nightgown in that light that is always there on Christmas morning, and recited from memory, flawlessly, Abraham Lincoln’s “Gettysburg Address.” That was her present to me. I just burst into tears when it was over. I’m about to cry now, just remembering the moment. I can’t think of anything I’ve received that has been more meaningful than that.

We’re working on a big series on the American Revolution, and I’ve already got a lot of books piled up in my editing space that are, you know, the usual subjects about it. But also, we’re arranging for a way this is no longer, you know, 55 white guys in powdered wigs in Philadelphia and those Minutemen in Middlesex County. They’re also, you know, the motley crew that is the Continental Army in the end, which is filled with free Blacks and enslaved people. And there are enslaved people fighting for the British. So there are loyalists you need to consider, and Germans you need to consider, and French and pro-American Brits and royalists in the United States and a whole variety of people, and most important, the Native peoples on whose land all of it is taking place. And so much of that is related to the desire to acquire that property and to dispossess those original inhabitants of their land.

Yeah, but it isn’t homework if you love what you do.

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