Military glory, wrote Abraham Lincoln, is “the attractive rainbow that rises in showers of blood.” In his masterful 11-hour PBS documentary, The Civil War, producer-director Ken Burns revealed both the blood and the rainbow to 39 million Americans who sat entranced by their screens for five nights in September. Employing poignant letters from soldiers, haunting tintypes and the evocative voices of such actors as Jason Robards and Julie Harris, the intense, boyish Burns, 37, labored for more than five years on his vision of the war. For his effort, he has been hailed as the most accomplished documentarian of his generation. Wrote columnist George F. Will: “Our Iliad has found its Homer.” Viewers agreed; the show became the highest-rated PBS offering ever. “We’ve been told that we’re out of shape, inarticulate, passive and willing to watch MTV,” says Burns. “But we are a people starved for self-definition. Something like The Civil War comes along, and there’s a momentary coming together. It has touched what Lincoln called ‘the mystic chords of memory.’ ”
It has also brought Burns his own share of the celebrity spotlight. He has visited the White House, jawed with Jay Leno and had offers from Hollywood to direct dramatic films. At home in Walpole, N.H., with wife Amy, 35, and daughters Sarah, 8, and Lilly, 4, Burns receives about 60 missives per day—letters filled with gratitude, heartfelt reminiscences of long-dead forebears and, usually from the South, a few arguments concerning his interpretation of history. One North Carolina viewer wrote to Burns that he “paraded across thousands of TV screens a very prejudiced account of a very touchy period.” Burns remains wary of fame. “Celebrity is like chocolate cake,” he says. “It’s good tasting, but if you eat too much, you get sick.” His next major venture? A look at the great American pastime, baseball. No one will be surprised if he hits another home run.