Abstract

Historical documentaries have a wider audience and often a greater visceral impact than written histories. They frequently resonate deeply with viewers through the use of images, first-person narratives, and evocative filming. To wield such emotional power responsibly demands great attention to accuracy and nuance. In the fall of 2013 these four historians met at the Northern Great Plains History Conference to discuss Ken Burns's latest work on the Dust Bowl. Each of the panelists presents a different critique of the documentary. By looking at the piece's sources, its music, its narration, and, most importantly, its message, they concluded that the film presents a one-dimensional, often inaccurate, over dramatization of the hardships experienced on the Great Plains in the depths of the Great Depression. Moreover, Burns ignores much of the recent scholarship on the Dust Bowl in the documentary, actively choosing a simplified narrative over a more realistic, complex account.

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NOTES

1. Many thanks to Jon Lauck, who arranged the original panel at the Northern Great Plains History Conference and then worked closely with both authors and journal staff to facilitate publication.
The Dust Bowl
, prod. Ken Burns (
Florentine Films and WETA
,
2012
); Timothy Egan,
The Worst Hard Time: The Untold Story of Those Who Survived the Great American Dust Bowl
(
Boston
:
Houghton Mifflin
,
2006
); Pamela Riney-Kehrberg,
Rooted in Dust: Surviving Drought and Depression in Southwestern Kansas
(
Lawrence
:
University Press of Kansas
,
1994
).
2. This was not my first experience with this phenomenon. When I served as a historical consultant on Steward-Gazit Productions' Surviving the Dust Bowl, the differences between the rough cut of the documentary and the final product were shocking. The rough cut was a nuanced, complex historical piece. AfterWGBH worked on the piece, it became flat, with all of the complexity removed. WGBH wanted a crowd-pleaser, consisting of interviews with elderly Dust Bowl survivors. In order to market the piece, the production company complied.
Surviving the Dust Bowl
, prod. Steward-Gazit (
Burlington
:
WGBH Boston
,
2007
).
3. Riney-Kehrberg,
Rooted in Dust
,
32
.
4.
The Dust Bowl: A Film By Ken Burns: Biographies,”
PBS, http://www.pbs.org/kenburns/dustbowl/bios/ (accessed Aug. 30, 2013); Glen H. Elder Jr.,
Children of the Great Depression: Social Change in Life Experience
(
Chicago
:
University of Chicago Press
,
1974
),
39
,
138
,
273
. Thanks to the audience member who reminded me of Elder's pioneering work on childhood in the Depression.
5. In Rooted in Dust, I discuss my research subjects' reasons for staying in Kansas and the way in which they responded emotionally to the question of staying or going in several places. Their responses indicated a real ambivalence about the experience. It was hard, but they endured. Many, given their experiences in childhood and early adulthood, saw hardship as a way of life. Riney-Kehrberg,
Rooted in Dust
,
140
41
,
153
54
,
175
.
6. Caroline Henderson,
Letters from the Dust Bowl
, ed. Alvin O. Turner (
Norman
:
University of Oklahoma Press
,
2001
),
3
29
. All biographical information about Henderson is drawn from Turner's introduction.
7. Riney-Kehrberg,
Rooted in Dust
,
190
92
.
8. Mary Knackstedt Dyck,
Waiting on the Bounty: The Dust Bowl Diary of Mary Knackstedt Dyck
, ed. Pamela Riney-Kehrberg (
Iowa City
:
University of Iowa Press
,
1999
).
9. Dyck,
Waiting on the Bounty
,
74
.
10.
US Bureau of the Census
,
Sixteenth Census of the United States: 1940: Population
, vol.
2
,
Characteristics of the Population, pt. 3: Kansas-Michigan
(
Washington, DC
:
GPO
,
1943
),
17
,
45
46
.
11.
Dust Bowl.
12. Henderson,
Letters
.
13. Environmental historians weighed in on a previous Ken Burns and Dayton Duncan documentary about the National Parks. See, Mark Harvey,
The National Parks: America's Best Idea,”
Environmental History
15
(
Apr.
2010
):
325
28
; Karl Jacoby,
“Ken Burns Gone Wild: Naturalizing the Nation in The National Parks: America's Best Idea,”
Public Historian
33
(Spring
2011
):
19
23
; and a collection of essays in the
George Wright Forum
28
:
1
,
2
(
2011
).
14. Duncan and Burns,
The Dust Bowl: An Illustrated History
(
San Francisco
:
Chronicle
,
2012
); Jon Lauck,
“Dorothea Lange and the Limits of the Liberal Narrative: A Review Essay,”
Heritage of the Great Plains
45
(Summer
2012
):
4
37
; Geoff Cunfer,
“Creating the Dust Bowl: Making History, Making Art,”
CD-ROM supplement,
Placing History: How Maps, Spatial Data, and GIS Are Changing Historical Scholarship
, ed. Anne Kelly Knowles (
Redlands
:
ESRI
,
2008
); Roy Stryker to Arthur Rothstein, July 31, 1936, quoted in Bill Ganzel,
Dust Bowl Descent
(
Lincoln
:
University of Nebraska Press
,
1984
),
7
. Many of Stryker's original shooting scripts are available in the Roy Stryker Collection, Photographic Archives, University of Louisville, Louisville, Ky. Dorothea Lange,
“Fence Corner and Outbuilding being Buried by Dust. Misuse of Lands is the Chief Cause of Results such as This. Mills, New Mexico,”
c.
May
1935
, Reproduction Number LC-USF34-002769-E, Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Division, http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/fsa1998018567/PP/ (accessed Feb. 14,
2014
);
The Plow that Broke the Plains
, dir. Pare Lorentz (
Resettlement Administration
,
1936
).
15. Ken Burns interview,
“Special Features: Behind the Scenes Uncovering the Dust Bowl,”
The Dust Bowl
, DVD ed. (
Public Broadcasting Corporation
,
2012
); Dust Bowl.
16. For prominent chroniclers of the Dust Bowl, see, Donald Worster,
Dust Bowl: The Southern Plains in the 1930s
(
New York
:
Oxford University Press
,
1979
); Egan,
Worst Hard Time
; R. Douglas Hurt,
The Dust Bowl: An Agricultural and Social History
(
Chicago
:
Nelson-Hall
,
1981
); Riney-Kehrberg,
Rooted in Dust
; James C. Malin,
“Dust Storms: Part One, 1850–1860,”
Kansas Historical Quarterly
14
(
May
1946
):
129
33
; Malin,
“Dust Storms: Part Two, 1861–1880,”
Kansas Historical Quarterly
14
(
Aug.
1946
):
265
96
; Malin,
“Dust Storms: Part Three, 1881–1900,”
Kansas Historical Quarterly
14
(
Nov.
1946
):
391
413
; Geoff Cunfer,
On the Great Plains: Agriculture and Environment
(
College Station
:
Texas A&M University Press
,
2005
); Cunfer,
“Scaling the Dust Bowl,”
in
Placing History
,
95
121
. Personal communication, Jon Lauck, Jan. 3, 2013.
17. Hurt,
The Dust Bowl
; Hurt,
The Great Plains during World War II
(
Lincoln
:
University of Nebraska Press
,
2008
); Hurt,
The Big Empty: The Great Plains in the Twentieth Century
(
Tucson
:
University of Arizona Press
,
2011
); Malin,
“Dust Storms: Part One, 1850–1860”
; Malin,
“Dust Storms: Part Two, 1861–1880”
; Malin,
“Dust Storms: Part Three, 1881–1900.”
18.
The Dust Bowl: Agricultural Problems and Solutions
,
Editorial Reference Series no. 7
(
Washington, DC
:
USDA, July 15
,
1940
),
10
28
.
19. H. L. Stewart,
Changes on Wheat Farms in Southwestern Kansas, 1931–37, With Special Reference to the Influence of AAA Programs
,
Farm Management Reports no. 7
(
Washington, DC
:
USDA
,
June
1940
),
4
6
.
20. Ibid.,
8
9
.
21. Ibid.,
12
,
14
,
21
22
.
22. Ibid.,
24
,
65
; George Wise and Daniel Polley,
“Land Use Survey of the Southern Great Plains: A Report. Amarillo, Tex., Apr. 1938,”
Table 14, General File, Drought,
1938
, Soil Conservation Service, RG 114,
National Archives and Records Administration II
,
College Park, Md.
(hereafter NARAII); Hurt,
“Prices, Payments, & Production: Kansas Wheat Farmers and the Agricultural Adjustment Administration, 1933–1939,”
Kansas History: A Journal of the Central Plains
23
(Spring/Summer
2000
):
72
87
.
23. Roy I. Kimmell,
“A Long View of the Wind Erosion Problem,”
Quarterly Report of the Kansas State Board of Agriculture
(
Mar.
1938
):
86
; Duncan and Burns,
Dust Bowl
,
4
.
24.
“Report of the Eleventh Conference of the Regional Diversity Committee on Land Use in the Southern Great Plains Area, Colorado Springs, Colo., Apr. 19–20, 1937,”
p.
2
;
“Report of the Fourteenth Conference of the Regional Advisory Committee on Land Use Practices in the Southern Great Plains Area, Amarillo, Tex., Dec. 13–14, 1937,”
p.
1
, Drought File, General Correspondence, 1937, Office of the Secretary of Agriculture, RG 16, NARAII.
25.
“Report of the Fourteenth Conference,”
1
;
Bureau of the Census
,
Sixteenth Census of the United States: 1940, Agriculture
, vol.
1
, pt. 2 (
Washington, DC
:
GPO
,
1942
),
706
.
26.
Harvesting the High Plains
, dir. Jay Kriss (
InSpirit Creative/Third Eye Pictures
,
2012
). I previously reviewed Harvesting, see, Thomas Prasch, ed.,
“From Projections of the Past to Fantasies of the Future: Kansas and the Great Plains in Recent Film,”
Kansas History: A Journal of the Central Plains
36
(Summer
2013
):
114
16
. Although this current article is a comparison/contrast and not a review, some of my observations originated in the earlier review. See, Craig Miner,
Harvesting the High Plains: John Kriss and the Business of Wheat Farming, 1920–1950
(
Lawrence
:
University Press of Kansas
,
1998
).
27.
Harvesting the High Plains.
28. Ibid.