You can easily see that the subject matter in this issue differs strikingly from story to story. Less obvious perhaps is the variety of literary forms—the various shapes and patterns that deck our core of historical information and entertainment. We call all of them stories, of course, but of the major pieces, actually there are two essays, two “picture acts” (as the children of Luce call pictorial features), one interview, two narratives, and an ambitious but hard-to-label pudding of words that might best be called a “compendium.”
This last piece, “101 More Things Every College Graduate Should Know about American History,” is a sequel to one we published a year ago. Jack Garraty has now brought his total of not-so-trivial facts to a bulging 202, including a checklist of seven great financial panics we lived through before the October meltdown. Is this feature popular because we all feel Garraty may save us from the shame of knowing less than we might about our history, or because lists like these are just plain fascinating? Whatever the case, “101 More Things” could by itself fill all of our Christmas stocking this year if we let it—but we didn’t.
The essay by Wallace Stegner explores the identity crisis of the American Westerner; the one by Alfred Kazin takes off from Emerson’s mighty “American Scholar” address of 1837. In each, our authors sketch the importance and ramifications of their subjects. Then, as essayists do, they tell you what they think about it all, implicitly urging that whether you agree or not, you, too, should put your mind to it. Essays are the aristocracy of prose—sometimes haughty, sometimes playful, always unpredictable at their best, and these are of the best.
The picture stories are, as usual, our pride and joy. Both our annual Winter Art Show and our story on a master wood-carver convey our belief that history manifests itself in artifacts and art just as much as it does in the written word. And they tell what people cared enough about to take great pains with and to make perfect.
On a topic that never grows tired—the Civil War—we’ve chosen to transcribe an enlightening conversation between two men of divergent views, the columnist William Safire and the historian Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. Not to promise more than is performed, however, the two men are, for once, largely in agreement.
Finally come the narratives—the heart and soul of this magazine throughout its history. One is on a major theme: the leaking of our war plans just before Pearl Harbor. There was always a mystery at the center of the story; the author suggests an astonishing solution—the only one, he says, that makes sense.
The second narrative is more like the orange in the toe of the stocking. It recounts the beginning, middle, and no-end-in-sight of Chinese restaurants in the United States. This bit of social history may not have shaped matters of large import, but it certainly enlarged the horizons of millions when they first sampled exotic dishes very different from the meat, wheat, milk, and potatoes of the conventional American diet.
Christmas dinner this year in Chinatown? I’m ready.