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A Biography Of America

June 2024
12min read


DURING THE FALL OF 1997, our production team at WGBH-TV, Boston’s Public Broadcasting System station, began developing a television project that would capture the sweep of American history with, we hoped, real rigor and drama. We knew we wanted to merge the art of master teaching with television’s powerful visual and narrative techniques, but that was as far as our planning had gone—when I suddenly recalled the image of a man and a moment. • The man was a hard-edged history professor, unsmiling but not humorless, ferociously intimidating to us freshmen. He would unfailingly begin his classes with a ritual. Without a word, he’d approach the desk at the front of the room, unbutton his left shirtsleeve, unbuckle the worn alligator band of his watch, and prop the watch on the desk.

He would re-button his shirtsleeve, sit down, and fold his hands. His gray eyes would squint into the room, and he’d break the silence. You would be brought to attention by the precision and studied drama of these movements, knowing the power of the mind behind them.


I never missed his class, but I was sorely tempted one beautiful May day. Freshmen libidos were running hot, and the life of the mind was simply not all that compelling.

The topic of that day’s lecture was World War II. The professor entered the room and went through his ritual, but with one difference. He didn’t sit behind his desk. He sat on its front corner and leaned into the room. “Ladies and gentlemen, today we will think about war. We will think about one war. We will think about what it was like to oppose that war when there was every reason to support it.” He made a sharp intake of breath and squeezed the bridge of his nose. “I am a Quaker. And I was a pacifist during World War II. It was the most awful time of my life, and here is what it was like.” The May morning dropped away.

A man and a memory. The personal infused with the universal, by a master teacher. A moment of illumination for a group of college students.

Could this kind of experience be captured on video for college students as well as for a wider television audience? And could it be done not just for one program—one class—but for two full semesters? That was our challenge in developing and ultimately producing a series of 26 half-hour videos covering the full arc of the American story and supported by the World Wide Web and print.

WGBH-TV received funding for this series from the Washington-based Annenberg/CPB, a partnership between the Annenberg Foundation and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. We all shared a vision: to assemble a “dream team” made up of the Library of Congress, the National Archives, a major textbook publisher, and prominent historians from across the country.

We believed there was a real need. “It’s time to tell the whole American story in a new way, to bring traditional themes together with new scholarship,” Michèle Korf, the executive producer and director of educational programming at WGBH, insisted.

We knew too that there were intellectual land mines everywhere. The study of American history had been under siege for years. The pendulum had swung from the right to the left- from a narrative dominated by dead white males to multicultural, gendersensitive social histories—and we were somewhat heartened by the general sense that it was now hovering somewhere near the middle. But we weren’t looking for a homogenized consensus; what we envisioned involved risks.

The core production team came together at WGBH under their vice president Brigid Sullivan: As senior producer and project director, I would work with the producer-director Fred Barzyk, a legendary veteran in public television circles. We assembled a brigade of staffers, researchers, graphic artists, mapmakers, editors, and Website designers.

What we needed now was the master teacher, the person who would give the series intellectual direction and serve as its prominent on-camera persona. So Central Casting would have to meet Academe. Our lead scholar would have to be a compelling presence on-screen but also a historian of national rank, a team leader, and a breeze to work with.

We couldn’t have hoped for more than what Professor Donald Miller of Lafayette College brought to us. One of his colleagues put it this way: “Miller is an intellectual force, a gifted writer, a generous colleague, and a great storyteller. And you’ll love the way he looks in a black turtleneck.”

Don delivered on every point—and more. The first instinct of his sometimes fierce mind was that the series be a biography. A Biography of America, he called it, and that became the series name. Another was that memory, storytelling, and imagination are essential to the imparting of history, and thus to the series. He agreed with us that no one voice could begin to tell the whole tale. So we set out to create a supporting cast of historians: Central Casting Meets Academe, Part II.

After viewing hundreds of tapes, we made our draft picks. Pauline Maier, of MIT, was one of our first, and most reluctant, recruits. I admit to being initially cowed by the elegance of her mind and her bearing, but in the end it was her almost unhinged laugh that put us all at ease. Pauline became our early-American specialist. Lou Masur came to us from the City College of New York, and he is every bit the New Yorker. His passion for the New York Yankees rivals (almost) his passion for another Yankee, Ralph Waldo Emerson—and that he is at ease with the American narrative is suggested by the more popular title of his course “United States History": “From Mather to Rather.” Waldo Martin, from the University of California, Berkeley, is the quietly forceful presence who grounded us in the notion that ours is a story of struggle, with winners and losers equally illuminating the national character. Virginia Scharff of the University of New Mexico “pinchhits all over the place,” as Don has said. Virginia is our Western and women’s history scholar; she was also a closet novelist—until her cover blew and her mystery Brown Eyed Girl appeared this spring to terrific reviews.

Douglas Brinkley is our presidential and twentieth-century scholar. Doug brought to the project his intelligence, his passionate love for the American system, and his friends and colleagues—namely, the composer David Amram (The Manchurian Candidate, Splendor in the Grass, and more) and Stephen Ambrose, as guest historian.

I had the chance to talk with Don Miller and Doug Brinkley this past spring over breakfast at the Organization of American Historians convention in St. Louis. We talked in rooms overlooking the Mississippi River, at a point near where our Biography of America begins, the magnificent site of Cahokia, the capital of a great river civilization that flourished—and died—long before Columbus set foot in the Americas.

It seems an obvious question, Don, but in all the time we’ve worked on this project, I’ve never asked you why you think this kind of survey series is so important when there are many wonderful historical documentaries already.

Miller: I think we need to have a sense of the whole, of the entire living drama of American history, if only to get our bearings, to get a sense of how we got here, to the year 2000. And also to understand who we are. To a large extent, we are what we have been. We’re products of our history, and to know ourselves we need to know our history.

But we knew from the outset that you can’t tell the entire American story in 26 half-hours …

Miller: No, but you can deal in some depth with some of the great shaping forces, the ones that made us what we are, different from—not better than- any other people on earth. That’s what we set out to do.

And that meant we had to be ruthlessly selective. Just as history is a crippled discipline, in that it can’t ever get at the real truth, so television is a crippled medium, in that it has so many limitations, time constraints being just one of them. As I told the team, we’d just have to deal with these limitations and do our best, knowing that whatever we did we’d get creamed by some critics.

It was my biggest worry: how we would identify those shaping forces.

Miller: I don’t think any one of us is completely happy with all the decisions we made. But we did decide on several master themes. We would try to explain how America became a democratic nation; a capitalist nation; a technological nation—the world’s preeminent society of machine makers and builders; a multicultural nation; a nation of improvers and reformers; as well as a country known the world over for its frontier-style violence- and, most interesting to me, history’s most audacious experiment in sexual, racial, and ethnic relations.

Back in the eighteenth century, the French writer Crèvecoeur asked What is the American, this new man? And how did he, and she, come to be? Well, we try, and I emphasize try, to answer that question in A Biography of America .

I can’t imagine a question where there would be less consensus.

Miller: We argued all the time, right to the end. At my very first meeting with Lou Masur, I emphasized the importance of concision, and Lou agreed completely. Then I said, as an example, that we could do American history without dealing with the Great Awakening. Well, Lou almost jumped out of his chair. “I’m out of this thing,” he said, “if we exclude the Great Awakening. You can’t hope to understand nineteenth-century America without dealing with the Great Awakening.”


The process of creating A Biography of America had commenced.

And Lou didn’t quit…

Brinkley: He ended up convincing all of us that the Great Awakening deserved feature treatment.

Doug, what was it like for you to be part of this team?

Brinkley: I felt we were like the Apollo astronauts picked for Mission PBS. The first time we got together was at a kind of retreat at Longfellow’s historic Wayside Inn. We got to know each other, experience each !other’s senses of humor, and learn about our ideological differences and similarities. Don was our foreman. He made the work collaborative, and quickly an extraordinary harmony developed among us. We’ve all become personal friends. That’s one of the great outcomes of all of this.

How did your own experiences writing biography translate into Grafting a biography of the country?

Brinkley: I think it’s intriguing to call this series A Biography of America. Don wrote a biography of Lewis Mumford, but really his City of the Century, about Chicago, was also a biography. It’s an interesting way to approach history.

At its best, biography uses a main character to go off on tangents that allow the writer and the reader to explore the larger society in which that character’s life was played out. For example, in my biography of Rosa Parks I examine the history of lynching and the Ku Klux Klan that terrified her as a young girl. In A Biography of America, we’re exploring history in much the same way.

Miller: That’s right. Our story centers on people, because focusing on compelling personalities allowed us to bring to life the major opposing forces of the American story: antebellum Southern culture versus Northern industrial culture; the counterculture of the 1960s versus the conservative backlash of the 1970s and 1980s; and so on.

But this series is biographical in a more fundamental way. Good biography is highly selective. It deals with the principal shaping forces of a subject’s life. In a way, it’s a concentrated metaphor for that life, not a birth-todeath chronicle. I wanted A Biography of America to be the same thing, with the country itself as the character.

But you both were equally drawn to history as storytelling.

Miller: It’s built in the bones, this human proclivity for the story. It started in the caves. Historians are story-tellers, just like novelists. The questions we ask are the same: Who am I? Who are we? We’re also both in the business of hunting explanations.

A little while ago, I came across a published piece by one of my former students in which he says that I tricked the class into learning by telling stories. They’d listen to the story, he said, and all of sudden it would occur to them that they were learning something important.

Brinkley: I think what’s radical about this series is that all the historians involved in the project believe in storytelling. In the academic world, historians are trained to focus on analysis so heavily that in some scholarly circles the way to really put down a historian is to sniff, “Oh, God, he’s a storyteller.”

Yes, there’s the concern about losing interpretation when you do narrative history.

Miller: Narrative history, storytelling, doesn’t have to lose conceptual rigor or analytical depth—but that’s damn hard to do. By the way, I think that’s a distinctive thing about this series. The tales our historians tell carry you along, but they have a critical edge, a point of view. They get your mind moving.

Brinkley: Right. Storytelling may not be fashionable in the academy, but I still agree with something I remember reading as a boy in Perrysburg, Ohio, next to the town of Clyde, which was Sherwood Anderson’s fictional Winesburg. In his autobiography, Storyteller’s Life, Anderson wrote that to become a good storyteller is to practice the highest of all literary art forms.

It’s one thing to write a story, but you historians were trying to write a collaborative story. When we put together this team, we were interested in historians who didn’t agree on everything, but this could have been a disaster.

Miller: Yes, and I was a little surprised the whole project didn’t blow up in our faces. But from our earliest discussions, I saw that our team, every one of us a prickly character, seemed to relish argument and confrontation. Sometimes things got hot.

For instance, my view of the early formation of the American character is vastly different from Pauline Maier’s. She sees the colonists—even as they prepared for revolution—as essentially British in ideas and outlook. But I see a distinctly American character emerging as early as the 172Os. We fought and fought over this issue and never resolved it.

It’s a credit, Christine, to you television people that you didn’t try to homogenize things in the interest of creating a counterfeit consensus. You saw that all this contention would make the series better. Remember, this isn’t The Biography of America . It’s A Biography of America .

When your lecture texts were all in and we production people started to search for images to dramatize them, we found we were looking at images of de Soto’s war dogs chewing the faces off Native Americans, of slaves on the whipping post, and Northern and Southern soldiers slaughtering each other. It’s a pretty violent drama.

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!


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