I was a bit taken aback last Monday when the PBS American Experience show on Robert E. Lee came to an end. True, it was something of a challenge to watch the show while keeping track of how the New York Islanders were faring (they won in Calgary, 5-2), but I managed to do rather well. But as the show ended I turned my back to the screen just as they announcer was turning to next week’s show (airing today) … and I heard my own voice offering one of those observations that I don’t think are all that amazing but which sound so insightful to somebody. It was the American Experience show on Grant (a two-parter, unlike Lee, who only got one show). So tonight those people so disposed can view the show, review the show’s website, and so on.
[UPDATE: After actually watching the show (in part to shock my daughter Olivia, who’s seven), I can report that it was an edited version of the first episode.]
Some years ago I reflected on my experience as a talking head for the program on Mark Grimsley’s blog, Blog Them Out of the Stone Age. You can read the four parts gathered together here. As you can see, I came away from the experience ambivalent about the whole affair. The American Experience crew is probably equally ambivalent about my frankness about the experience, as I’ve never been asked to contribute again, although they liked featuring what I had said on film in promotional material for the program. Having read recent commentary on the Lee program, what I can add is simply that I thought it was too short, that it passed over some areas too quickly (or ignored them altogether), and that for all the talk about time constraints, those are imposed by the people who put together the program, so there is room to wonder why more time was not made available. There were some areas passed over in Grant’s life as well (despite the opening scene about Grant’s arrival at Chattanooga, that battle was otherwise ignored). What I want to emphasize, however, is that the vision you see on the screen is that of the writers, not the scholars. True, the writers take from the work of the scholars, but in the end the narrative and the emphases are those of the people who put the program together, not the scholars who participated in it as advisers or on-screen talent.