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New World Encounters
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Program 1: New World Encounters/The Beginnings of America

Donald L. Miller with Stephen Ambrose, Virginia Scharff, Waldo E. Martin, Jr., Pauline Maier, Louis P. Masur, and Douglas Brinkley


[Photo: Donald Miller]

Miller: People sometimes ask me, as an historian, "What is history for? What is its function?" Particularly, since it's what I call a crippled discipline, a discipline that can't get at the truth. We'll never have a complete and clear record of the human past, and we can't get into the minds of our historical characters. We can't resurrect them from the grave and put them on the Freudian couch and psychoanalyze them. Even if they leave a memoir, those memoirs are liable to be slanted and faulted. And their story itself is a brainwasher, in a sense. And he or she has his or her own point of view and perspective.
Yet, given all these limitations, I would argue that history is utterly essential, essential to making us human. It separates us from the animals. How is that?
Human beings interact with their environment. And out of that interaction comes a culture. And what history is, is our memory, our collective memory of that culture. It puts us in touch with our past. By putting us in touch with our past, our past ceaselessly influences us and even haunts us.

Miller: A Biography of America is a series of 26 programs that tell the American story through narrative lecture, discussion and debate.

Ambrose: It didn't happen because it is inconceivable.

Miller: A team of historians came together to think through and shape the series.


[Photo: Donald Miller]

Miller: I'd like to start out talking a little bit about what's distinctive about what we're trying to do as a biography of America. What does that mean?

Scharff: There won't be a grab bag of everything; it can't be--

Miller: In fashioning this series, we went out and tried to get the best historians we could.

Martin: For telling details, both particular--

Miller: We picked people who are great storytellers, scholars--

Maier: To understand what's distinctive about the past is implicitly to know what's distinctive about the present.

[Photo: Pauline Maier]

Miller: Pauline Maier, for example, is our revolutionary historian. And she's absolutely at the top of her game. She's a brilliant historian, and she brings to life the whole period of the American Revolution and the constitutional period.

Maier: But, it's the distinction of the past, I think, that makes this story interesting.

Masur: This biography of America is not pretending that biography is any more neutral and objective and detached than anything else. I mean, we're making choices, we're making selections.

[Photo: Lou Masur]

Miller: We have Lou Masur who's an intellectual historian, but also does social history. And Lou has a wonderful feel for the 19th century, and he's done some brilliant lectures, I think, for us, on the Reform Period during the Jacksonian era.

Masur: As Emerson said, "History rightly understood is biography." And so it really comes down also to our definition of history.

Martin: My students are always enraptured with the notion of success. But, failures are often far more interesting and far more revealing.

[Photo: Waldo Martin]

Miller: Waldo Martin explains, I think, cogently, clearly, the motivating causes for the Civil War. We bring Waldo back again, and he traces what happened to the south after the Civil War, and takes a look at it from a long-range perspective. We have Douglas Brinkley.

[Photo: Douglas Brinkley]

Brinkley: It seems to me to say we're looking at the story of America in a narrative fashion that I kind of like about it because it goes chronologically, but also as best biographies do, talk about the life and times of America and kind of--

Miller: He has a special love for Theodore Roosevelt, and has done a real nice lecture for us on the Progressive Period, on Teddy Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson, people he's both, you know, acutely familiar with. Doug's also done the Great Depression.

Brinkley: As Thomas Wolfe said, "there are a billion forms of America." And just when you think you're coming to some new realization, you realize, What do we really know about the Shoshones' relationship to the Sioux.

Scharff: I really like stupid questions. And I had three stupid questions that I came to this project with. Where is America? Who counts as American? And what counts as American?

[Photo: Virginia Scharff]

Miller: Our western historian is Virginia Scharff. She's been great. She pinch hits all over the place, and has helped us so much. She asks the big questions. She fills in the spaces for us. She's done a terrific lecture on the American West.

Scharff: The first thing we have to know about history is that the people we're talking about weren't always dead. They weren't always dead; they were alive. You know, a lot of them--

Miller: At any one point in time, we're thinking of the past, the present and the future. You're sitting here; you're thinking about what you're going to do next, what you're doing now, and what you just did. And you're always thinking like that. That's historical thinking. It's the best kind of thinking, where the present is informed by the past, and shaped by the past. A long time ago my grandfather told me, he was a Slovak immigrant, who had no education. He said, "Always remember, you are what you have been. Never forget that." And it's a lesson I've never forgotten. That's what history means to me.

Miller: Today, on A Biography of America, "New World Encounters."

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