Back To The Future

PrintPrintEmailEmail

In 1848 more than fifty revolutionary outbreaks took place in Europe. The vast majority of them were put down easily. But the French actually managed to topple their Bourbon monarch, Louis Philippe—and with little bloodshed. His regime had been relatively prosperous and benign, but the urban workers, the middle class, and the students resented the widespread corruption and lack of broad representation. When the king banned public political meetings of more than twenty people, his opponents turned to what they called the “revolution of contempt”—a phrase that seems apropos in this year of a failed revolution in China. It’s an interesting idea: If enough people adopt such a tactic, can a government stand for long? We’ll see. Contempt can be a weapon of immense power; that’s why totalitarian societies demand not only obedience but strenuous cheering.

Using the knowledge of a historic event to help think about the course of present crises is, oddly enough, very much akin to science fiction. That literary genre (whose development is recounted in this issue) is a kind of game with history. It is a projection of how you hope or fear the future will unfold; but since we can’t know the future, it is always an imaginative extrapolation from the past. What makes the best science fiction succeed is the logic of its storytelling elements—all calculated to make you accept the unbelievable and the unknowable. And, like history itself, to give you a better sense of where you stand in the universe.

The origin of the Whitney Museum seventy-five years ago evokes the old saw that people simply don’t see what’s staring them in the face. Why, in 1914, was there no place in the United States devoted to its living artists—and why did the Metropolitan Museum, the grande dame of art museums in this country, treat so disdainfully the suggestion that it wasn’t doing right by American artists? Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney and her remarkable friend Juliana Force (whose story is told in this issue) acted on something that seemed obvious to them. Today one’s response to their passionate cause is incredulous: “You mean there weren’t always such collections?” In the end it came down to the determination of two idealistic women—whose personal agenda became part of history.

American Heritage, in this, its thirty-fifth anniversary year, once again has won the National Magazine Award for General Excellence. We’re also proud to be a winner of the Western Heritage Wrangler Award; it was given for “Blizzard,” an article by Ed Coons in our February 1988 issue. Such prizes are always nice for the editors of a magazine. It means our peers think we are doing something right—that we’re not just lost out here in the stars.

Byron Dobell