Ken Burns, History Hero

An old friend of mine last night sent a message on Facebook saying she recently had heard the brilliant filmmaker Ken Burns speak in Brattleboro, Vermont, which got me thinking about my first encounter with Burns. My recollection is that I saw his documentary about the Statue of Liberty that was broadcast in 1985 on public television. His films about the Brooklyn Bridge and the Shakers were made earlier in the 1980s, but I didn’t see those until after I watched the Statue of Liberty movie. I recall being so impressed by the intelligence of the film. His decision to use as narrators people like Barbara Jordan, Arthur Miller, Derek Jacobi, and other notable persons seemed so fresh and smart. The tone was reverent but not piously patriotic. He honored both the idea of the Statue and the achievement of its design and construction. Of the speakers, I was especially impressed by his decision to invite the then-young poet Carolyn Forche to read a passage, the Emma Lazarus poem inscribed on the base. She was a favorite poet of mine, based on her first book “Gathering the Tribes,” which had won the Yale Award for Younger Poets (the same award won in 1972 by Lowell’s Michael Casey for his book of Vietnam War poems, “Obscenities”), and her 1981 book “The Country Between Us,” with poems about her time in El Salvador. I thought, This guy is very cool to have included her. From that point, I became a huge Burns fan, anticipating his next project, which he always had because of his extraordinary work ethic. He has been the history hero of our time, using film to bring the American story to us in creative and substantive form. My son and I heard him speak at the Middlesex Community College Celebrity Forum two years ago. Watching him on the Lowell Memorial Auditorium stage, I thought about all the hours I had spent watching his work on TV. I had seen him speak once before, in Manchester, N.H., when he was promoting his “Baseball” film. I like the idea that he is from our general neighborhood, too. There is something very New England about his high-mindedness.