So, got an email from Ken Burns’ publicist after this story detailing some criticisms of his Dust Bowl documentary ran. He was wondering why I never called him. (Answer: it was unobvious that Ken Burns needed to be reached through a publicist or that he was him.) This publicist put me in touch with Dayton Duncan, a longtime Burns collaborator who wrote the script and the accompanying book.
We chatted about the objections raised by some Dust Bowl historians w/r/t the film’s slant. His main point: It’s only natural that historians — including those who appeared in the film or served as advisers — would disagree about the emphasis placed on the role of farmers and government policy in driving the ecological devastation of the period. He said the filmmakers wanted to keep to a strong narrative that focused on the stories of the people who lived through it — “not just statistics and explication.”
“You’re always making decisions about what you’re going to include,” he said. “A film is not an encyclopedia. … Writing a newspaper story and a novel are different things. Making a historical documentary and a history textbook are different things.”
In other words, you can’t please everyone nor include everything. In any case, he said, the film is factually accurate.
I asked him why they didn’t reference the work of Geoff Cunfer, who wrote a book suggesting that some of the worst dusters occurred outside of tilled areas. Cunfer’s theory is that the dust storms were symptomatic not of grassland conversion but of the plains’ natural ecology; the dusters in the ’30s were just exacerbated by severe drought. He also holds that much of the government’s response to the Dust Bowl — from New Deal programs to buy out farmers in hard-hit areas to planting shelter belts across the plains to creating the Soil Conservation Service — were the means for FDR to increase the federal government’s role in managing natural resources.
“I read (Cunfer’s) book, took it into consideration,” Duncan said. “And ultimately, in deciding to what extent do we consider this a manmade ecological disaster vs. just a natural disaster, we obviously sided with the guy whose work on it was nominated for a Pulitzer prize (Donald Worster), and with the soil scientist who was there at the time (Hugh Bennett), and many of the people whom we interviewed. … We believe, based on our research and on the work of advisers of great standing, that the critical variable that made those 10 years not just a hard time but a catastrophe was the sort of unfortunate harmonic convergence of so much land turned over and exposed at precisely the wrong time, using practices that we would not now consider to be the best farming practices. … We weren’t going out on a limb to say that what made this a catastrophe was the sheer amount of land turned over.”
In the end, Duncan said, they fulfilled the task they set out to accomplish: “To tell a historical story as accurately as possible, and also to tell it in a way that emphasizes tho the extent possible the bottom up: the experience people had while history was taking place. And that’s a tough thing to do.”