Variations on a Theme: American Originals, Symbols, and Institutions

  • Gary R. Edgerton


The Shakers: Hands to Work, Hearts to God was very much a family affair from start to finish. Having focused all of his attention for more than four years on completing his first large-scale historical documentary, Ken Burns was now uncertain where to next direct his professional energies during the spring of 1981. In his final status report on Brooklyn Bridge to the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) in May 1981, he wrote: “There are no immediate plans to follow this project up but its phenomenal success has created an interest in pursuing a series of films on American monumental architecture.”2 Burns was apparently in a period of intense self-examination through the ensuing spring and summer months as evidenced by the tone and substance of his work journal entries at the time. In one example he reflected, “how do I nourish the witness? There is so little observation, so little seeing. There is a moment of awakening … [then] despair, sleep … The moment of possibility is so quick. The need to go deeper and not rest.”3


American History American Heritage Documentary Film Film Festival Public Television 
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  1. 5.
    See Amy Stechler Burns and Ken Burns, The Shakers—Hands to Work, Hearts to God: The History and Visions of the United Society of Believers in Christ’s Second Appearing from 1774 to the Present with photographs by Ken Burns, Langdon Clay, Jerome Liebling, and from Shaker archives, and foreword by Elderess Bertha Lindsay (New York: Aperture, 1987).Google Scholar
  2. 10.
    Ken Burns, interviewed by David Thelen, “The Movie Maker as Historian: Conversations with Ken Burns,” Journal of American History 81.3 (1994), 1032.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. 40.
    See Bruce Catton, The Centennial History of the Civil War, 3 vols.: The Coming Fury, Terrible Swift Sword, and Never Call Retreat (Garden City, N.J.: Doubleday, 1961–1965).Google Scholar
  4. 43.
    Jack McLaughlin, Jefferson and Monticello: The Biography of a Builder (New York: Henry Holt, 1988), 12.Google Scholar
  5. 47.
    Joel Sternberg, “David L. Wolper, U.S. Producer,” in Museum of Broadcast Communications Encyclopedia of Television, vol. 3, ed. Horace Newcomb (Chicago: Fitzroy Dearborn, 1997).Google Scholar
  6. 51.
    Ken Burns, interviewed by Thomas Cripps, “Historical Truth: An Interview with Ken Burns,” American Historical Review 100.3 (1995), 749.Google Scholar
  7. 52.
    Robert Penn Warren, All the King’s Men (New York: Harvest, 1996).Google Scholar
  8. 62.
    Susan Sontag, On Photography (New York: Doubleday, 1978), 71.Google Scholar
  9. 77.
    Valerie Lester, “Happy Birthday, Tom Benton!” Humanities 10.6 (1989), 32.Google Scholar

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© Gary. R. Edgerton 2001

Authors and Affiliations

  • Gary R. Edgerton

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