Tag Archives: ” Eric Burns

Mid-Strut: Eric Burns’ Novel Story

You may know Eric Burns from his television work, as an award-winning media analyst. You may know him as a noted author on topics like American journalism, the history of alcohol and tobacco, and the year 1920. You may know him as a longtime former neighbor (he now lives right over the border, in Norwalk).

Burns’ latest project is “Mid-Strut.” At 73, it’s his first novel. And the story has a back story. Eric tells “06880”:

I had written a dozen books, all non-fiction, all well-reviewed to one degree or another. But I wanted to do something different. Long ago, I had gotten the germ of an idea for a novel, my first work of fiction. But I hesitated. Could I do it? I was a historian. Could I also be a novelist?

I let some time pass to think things over. Actually, I let 50 years pass! No sense rushing into things. Then I wrote, and published, a tale set in 1965, Joe Namath’s first year as a professional quarterback.

The first appraisal of my book came from the prestigious publication Kirkus Reviews. It was a dagger to my heart, a switchblade to my ego. It was by far the worst review I had received in my 21 years of authorship.

At first I just skimmed it. But there were phrases that caught my eye.

My protagonist was a racist. No! No, he wasn’t. In fact, one of the two main plot lines of the book was Arnie “Stats” Castig’s refusal to be a bigot despite extreme provocation. It was obvious.

Arnie’s relationship with the majorette was degenerate. No! No, it wasn’t. That’s the other main plot line. “Statsy” didn’t really have a relationship with the majorette; she was simply — and complicatedly — a symbol of times gone by, when Arnie’s life was happier than it had been during the week when Mid-Strut took place. It was obvious.

But wait. There were more mistakes here, and of a different kind. The review said that Arnie is a steelworker. He isn’t; he’s a security guard. It said that he works in Arbridge, Ohio.  He doesn’t; he works in my hometown of Ambridge, Pennsylvania.

How could the critic have made 3 mistakes of so basic a nature, in 2 sentences?  In addition to the 2 major mistakes, and others. One paragraph, 7 errors. Not errors of judgment, errors of fact. How could that happen?

Eric Burns

My conclusion, which took me a while to arrive at and startled me when I got there, was that the person who reviewed my book hadn’t read it! I can’t prove this of course, but how else to account for so many gaffes?

Had the reviewer dipped into the book here and there? Probably. Had he or she looked at the notes on the inside flap of the dust jacket? Probably. But actually read the book …    sober? I was puzzled.

I wrote a letter to Kirkus, explaining my grievances, expecting to be ignored. But I wasn’t. Kirkus replied admirably. It was embarrassed, apologetic and sincere.  The review would be promptly pulled off the website, and a new one would take its place. Kirkus could not have been more nobly responsible.

Last week, its new, and official, review of “Mid-Strut” was emailed to me. “Burns’s . . . first foray into fiction,” this new assessment read,

tells the story of a man driven mad by the changing fortunes of his Pennsylvania steel town. . . .  Overall, it’s an idiosyncratic novel that follows an idiosyncratic protagonist, and Burns does not shy away from the parochial fixations of his and other characters; indeed, he leans into them.  Even so, he manages to capture not only their quirkiness, but their universal humanity.  Any readers who live in a place that feels overlooked—or who’ve seen the world of their youth slip away—will relate to the people who populate this tale.  An absorbing novel of aging and postindustrialization.

Apparently, I am a novelist after all.  At least once.

(Eric Burns will discuss “Mid-Strut” at the Saugatuck Congregational Church at 7 p.m., this Thursday, November 8.)

All Eric Burns, (Nearly) All The Time

It’s tough to counter-program against the Super Bowl pregame show.

Then again, C-SPAN2’s audience is a bit different than the CBS’.

Yesterday, the “BookTV” show aired a 3-hour interview with Eric Burns.

Eric Burns

Eric Burns

The longtime Westport author and media critic talked about his books, including his most recent: The Golden Lad: The Haunting Story of Quentin and Theodore Roosevelt. 

Burns and his host took viewers phone calls, and responded to tweets — for 3 hours. That’s a long time — though mere seconds compared to the pregame telecast.

This Thursday, Burns heads to the Savannah Book Festival. On February 25 he’ll be at the Westport Library, discussing his TR opus.

Meanwhile, if for some reason you were watching CBS instead of CSPAN2 yesterday — but you want 3 hours of Eric Burns — click here.

Eric Burns Remembers 1920

Like Sam Cooke more than 50 years ago, most Americans today don’t know much about history.

Eric Burns does.

Eric Burns

Eric Burns

The longtime Westporter — an award-winning media analyst and former NBC News correspondent– has just written a new book: 1920: The Year That Made the Decade Roar.

The few folks still alive then probably don’t remember much about that year. The rest of us probably wouldn’t peg it as any different from, say, 1919 or 1921.

But Burns does. In a recent interview with Salon, he explained:

 1920 was the year of the first terrorist attack on U.S. soil. It was the only year in which there have been 2 amendments to the Constitution (Prohibition and the women’s vote). For the entire year, we had a female president— not elected, obviously; she was the de facto president, not the president de jure— because of Woodrow Wilson’s stroke. Isn’t it ironic that for the entire year of 1920, the year women got the vote, there was a woman running the country?

1920 was also the year of Charles Ponzi (cue the Bernie Madoff comparisons); debates over “homeland security” (following the alleged terrorism by anarchists Sacco and Vanzetti), and immense changes in art and literature.

In fact, according to the Salon writer who interviewed Burns:

The America of the 1920s, especially during the very first year of the decade, really was eerily similar to America today! The country was recovering from a war of choice that not only led to results far less inspiring than originally promised, but caused a toxic level of division and rancor within the body politic; the economy was turbulent, with new technologies and social norms wrenching an agricultural society ever-more toward the cities; immigration was changing the very face of the average citizen, often in a way American nativists could not stand; and terrorism was forcing a political culture built on dual loyalties to liberty and safety to engage in a precarious rebalancing.

There’s much more — and Burns will talk about it all at the Westport Library this Thursday (May 21, 7:30 p.m.).

Attendance is free for anyone 95 years or older. And everyone else, too.

1920 book - Eric Burns

Eric Burns: A Very Moving Story

Alert “06880” reader Eric Burns — prolific author, Fox News Watch media analyst for the network and Entertainment Tonight commentator and former Westporter — writes:

I moved to Ridgefield after my divorce because I wanted to get away from everything and everybody.

Bad idea.

I felt isolated. I drove into Westport 2 or 3 times a week, to Trader Joe’s, Christie’s Service Station, Five Guys, Acqua, Baker Graphics, Barnes and Noble, the Library — all of them places with which I am familiar, all of them places that I missed.

I spent a lot of money on gas, a lot of time on the road. Finally, I decided I had to move back.

Eric Burns...

Eric Burns…

But because I have about 2,300 books, I found no place in Westport that could accommodate them in a single room. So, next best thing. I moved to Norwalk, where my daughter and her fiance live — and, I hope, close to where my son will live when he finishes grad school.

I started preparing for the move a month before the van was due, filling 10 small boxes a day. I numbered them carefully, and carried them from my upstairs library into the garage. I am certain that, single-handedly, and not especially well-muscled, I moved at least a ton of product.

I lined up the boxes perfectly, in numerical order. I told the movers that when they unloaded the books into my new library, they needed to do just 2 things.  First, put the boxes on the floor in chronological order in front of the shelves.  Second, set down the boxes so I could see the numbers on them.

Because of the way I had prepared the boxes for loading on the van, it should have been an easy task for 4 men.

The ending of the story should be obvious.  My new library — a furnished basement on Linden Street — now contains 287 boxes of books in no particular order. Most are without the number showing. Some are upside down, others broken apart with books scattered into other boxes.

...surrounded by boxes...

…surrounded by random boxes…

Yesterday I found box #1. Now I have to go through 286 boxes to find number 2.  It could take an hour — to find one box. One box scattered senselessly in a pile of 286 boxes, which might just as well have been thrown on the floor from the top of the steps.

It took the 4 men from the moving company an hour and a half to wreak their havoc. Because of a bad back, and the fact that I am but one person, it will take me a week or more to find the right boxes, and fill the bookcases in their proper order. Even spreading the work out over that much time, I still expect sharp, stabbing pains in my back.

I am not young. Nor am I a professional mover.

I emailed the company to complain. They offered to clean up the mess. All I had to do was kick in an additional $119. I declined the offer. I had, I said, already paid my bill.

...and empty shelves.

…and empty shelves.

I love the feel of a book, the look of it, the scent of it — even, on occasion, the heft of it.  Now, for the first time, I find myself thinking longingly of a Kindle.

Do you remember the old TV show “All My Sons”? Not very funny, but pleasant enough, and successful in its time. Do you know the moving company All My Sons? Forget it.

Yet even with the shoddy work of some of All My Sons’ sons, I’m happy to be back near Westport. On May 21 I will speak at the Westport Library about my next book, 1920: The Year That Made the Decade Roar.

By that time my library will be intact. I will not say a word about the moving company that made the author roar, nor the amount of time it took me to find my copy of the book, a needle in the haystack of 2,300 such items.

Eric Burns’ Mind Snatchers

Westport’s Eric Burns spent years on TV.  He hosted Fox News Watch, served as a media analyst for the network, and was an Entertainment Tonight commentator.

So his latest book — Invasion of the Mind Snatchers:  Television’s Conquest of America in the Fifties — is a natural outgrowth of his boob tube career, right?


Eric Burns

Burns’ book — which Library Journal likened to “having a delightful, intelligent conversation with a cultural expert” — is an outgrowth of his written works.  He’s covered the Founding Fathers and journalism, and social histories of tobacco and alcohol, among other topics.

He next wanted to tackle a more current history.  He calls the 1950s “the most fascinating and formative decade” of his life.

Yet McCarthyism, the Cold War, the space race — all had been done before.  Burns’ brainstorm was to write a history of the ’50s as TV portrayed it.  As with the author himself, that decade was the most formative period in television’s life.

His research included reading conventional histories, and dredging up his and his peers’ memories.

He also pored over contemporary newspaper and magazine stories, concentrating on analyses of critics and researchers of the then-new medium.

He spoke with Paul Newman — who starred in live television dramas — before the actor died.

Burns also includes a quote from Westporter Bill Harbach, who once produced The Steve Allen Show. The anecdote involves Allen’s televised reaction to a racist letter criticizing him for having kissed Lena Horne on camera.

However, Burns does not want to predict the future of TV based on its past.

“I’m a historian, not a futurist,” he parries.  “I write about the past in part because I don’t like living in the present.  Immersing myself in days gone by enables me to insulate myself.  The future is even more of an unpleasant prospect for me.”

Invasion of the Mind Snatchers is generating plenty of pre-publication buzz.  Stay tuned for more.


Some playwrights struggle for years to get 1 play read.

Eric Burns is 2 for 2.

And — struggling writers, don’t be jealous — he’s come late in life to his craft.

Eric Burns

Eric spent the bulk of his career as an Emmy-winning media critic, and a non-fiction writer on subjects like the social history of alcohol, the 1st years of American journalism and — coming in September — “Invasion of the Mind Snatchers: Television’s Conquest of America in the Fifties.”

Now Eric’s turned his attention to plays.  His 2nd effort — “Places to Sit” — will be read in New York next month.  Cynthia Harris — Helen Hunt’s mother in “Mad About You” — has the lead.

Even bigger news involves his 1st play.  “Mid-Strut” was read in New York last fall.  Richard Thomas — John-Boy in “The Waltons” — was the lead.

“Mid-Strut” is also 1 of three works chosen — from hundreds of submissions — to be read at the prestigious Eudora Welty New Play Series.  The producers are flying Eric down to Jackson, Mississippi this weekend, to see it.

The plot involves a charming, prosperous man in his mid-50s who is given less than a year to live.  He wants to reconnect with a majorette he lusted after more than 3 decades earlier — though he’s not sure “lust” is still the operative word.

We won’t tell you any more, because “Mid-Strut” is in the hands of producers who are considering it for New York.  If it reaches on- or off-Broadway, you’ll for yourself how the play ends.

Responding To Nazis

Jarret Liotta’s support of legislation banning public displays of the Nazi flag — spurred by an incident in Fairfield last December, and reported 2 days ago on “06880” — has drawn this passionate response from Westporter Eric Burns.

In 1978, as an NBC News correspondent based in Chicago, I was assigned to cover a march of neo-Nazis through Skokie, Illinois.  The Nazis had chosen Skokie because it had an extraordinarily high number of Holocaust survivors.  The American Civil Liberties Union supported the Nazis, and helped persuade local authorities to permit the march.

I watched the whole thing.  I wrote about it.  I reported on it that night for “NBC Nightly News with John Chancellor.”  Viewers saw the so-called Nazis:  young, tattooed, their faces twisted into sneers.  They saw the Holocaust survivors — old, wrinkled, their faces contorted in pain and bewilderment.  Viewers could hear, in edited fashion, the vile obscenities that the Nazis spewed at the Holocaust survivors; they heard the whimpers and occasional tormented shouts of their victims.

I interviewed some of the former, holding my breath, looking away.  I interviewed some of the latter.  They wondered whether their suffering would ever end.

I lost all respect for the ACLU that day, and have not changed my mind since.  Faced with a choice of supporting the civil liberties of villains or victims, it chose the latter.  The group’s definition of civil liberties, not only then but in many instances since, is an obscenity as grotesque as anything uttered by the Skokie Nazis.

Free speech?  Is that the right the ACLU supported?  Why did it not take the side of the Holocaust survivors and support their right not to be singled out for vilification by thugs?

In truth, the march in Skokie was not an issue of free speech at all.  The Nazis could have spoken freely in literally thousands of different forums.

No, the issue in Skokie was one of pain, pure pain, nothing more.

The Nazis petitioned for the right to cause it.

The ACLU supported them.

A judge supported the ACLU.

That is what happened in a suburb of Chicago more than 30 years ago, and it is the story I recall most vividly in my entire career in journalism.

Library Love

The Westport Library’s winter book sale starts this Saturday (March 13) and runs through Tuesday.  Westport author and media critic Eric Burns is — like many Westporters — a huge Westport Library fan.  Unlike the rest of us, he’s put his thoughts down in (appropriately) words.  He writes:

As an author, I make unusual requests of the Westport Public Library.  I do not ask for the latest James Patterson; I ask for the oldest John Adams.  I do not ask for that volume of short stories John Grisham just wrote; I ask for that volume of even-shorter letteres Theodore Roosevelt wrote to his children a century ago. 

I do not want to rent time on the computers; I want to borrow a 200-year old pamphlet from a branch library in Nova Scotia through the Inter-Library Loan program, or ILL, an acronym that does double duty, for it also describes how Susan Madeo, who heads the ILL program, surely reacts when she sees me coming through the door with another of my arcane requests.

Then again, I do double duty myself, for I also use the library as a normal patron — finding books that are already on the shelves, annoying no one with requests for esoterica.

In both capacities, I find that it is the people, not the building, not even the books, that are most satisfying to me.  Never in my life have I met a collection of men and women who so cordially attend to the needs of young and old, pushy and modest, erudite and bumbling, pleasant and grumpy.

The Westport Public Library's architectural has always been controversial. The intelligence, creativity, helpfulness and warmth of its staff is never in doubt.

I am pleased to be well acquainted with the 2 people who run the library.  Maxine Bleiweis and George Wagner have assembled an extraordinary staff of intelligent, competent, charming and eagerly helpful people, so extraordinary that I want to take advantage of their services even when I could figure out something for myself.  I want to enjoy their conversation, their company.  I want to take up their time.

It is said that the Westport Public Library is not a warm, inviting structure.  It isn’t.  The people who work there, however, make it the coziest, most inviting place in town.

Maybe there’s something else I could order from that branch library in Nova Scotia.

(Eric Burns’s forthcoming book, “Invasion of the Mind Snatchers: Television’s Conquest of America in the Fifties,” will be published in September.  The acknowledgments page will be full of names from the Westport Public Library, where he appears to discuss the book, also in the fall.)

‘All The News Unfit To Print’

For a decade, as host of “Fox News Watch,” Eric Burns analyzed modern media.

Now the Westporter is doing the same for media heroes like Ben Franklin, Sam Adams and Mark Twain.  Just like today, he says, they screw up.

Eric BurnsHis new book, All the News Unfit to Print:  How Things Were…and How They Were Reported proves that journalists often get history wrong.

Over time those errors are magnified.   Our understanding of the past becomes distorted.

If you’re in Tribeca this Monday evening at 7, you can hear Eric talk about Unfit at the Barnes & Noble (97 Warren Street).  An added attraction:  C-SPAN is taping the presentation for “Book World.”

If — more likely — you spend nights in Westport, Eric will be at the Library the following Monday, May 18 (7:30 p.m.).

After hearing about so much news “unfit to print,” maybe it’s good that print journalism is dying.  After all, bloggers never make misteaks mistakes.

Toby Burns In The Times

Anyone who watched Toby  Burns perform at Staples knew he had a great future.

Just a few years later, Toby — now “Tobias” — has earned his first review in the New York Times.

Today’s review of “Artifacts of Consequence” cites “Mr. Burns’s debonair charm and old-Hollywood voice.”  He is part of a “pale, beaten-down troupe of performers…who sing, dance and act with the polished technique and cool personality of robots trained at a dystopian Juilliard” (as they’re supposed to — that’s part of the show!).

Tobias BurnsAfter Harvard — where Toby sang with the famed Krokodiloes a cappella group — he had the lead in several off-off-Broadway productions.  Now, in the East Village, he’s one “off” closer to Broadway.

His father — noted author and media critic Eric Burns, the former host of “Fox News Watch” — has his 6th book coming out soon.  He’s hoping for a review as good as his son’s.

(“Artifacts of Consequence” continues through May 2 at the Wild Project, 195 E. 3rd St., New York; 212-352-3101; www.electricpear.org)