That Cover

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A letter dated June 15, 1995, came to me clipped to an attachment: our July/August cover, scissored from the issue. It showed a somber O. J. Simpson in three-quarter profile behind a cover line— THE JURY ON TRIAL —heralding Hiller B. Zobel’s essay on the history and significance of this institution. Smaller type explained: “Is the jury a relic so flawed it should be abolished? An experienced trial judge examines the historical evidence in the case.”

The accompanying letter began, “I am returning this cover to you—you know what you can do with it.” When the writer saw it he had been “amazed, stunned, shocked, angered, provoked. …” He would have canceled his subscription had it not been a gift. However, “I have advised the giver not to renew the subscription on my behalf. I do not want to receive a magazine whose editorial board is so dumb as to produce this cover. Don’t you realize what a colossal insult it is? No! You are too stupid.” He concluded with a wish: “I hope you all get fired, you idiots.”

The only pleasure I could extract from this note was the fact that its author had apportioned throughout the staff blame that properly belonged to me alone. I couldn’t answer him because, evidently at the last moment, he had obliterated his name (I’ve referred to the writer as “him” merely for the sake of editorial economy). But I did try to answer everyone else who wrote us, and this was something of a task because there were scores of letters, far more than other American Heritage covers—and, indeed, all but a very few articles—have ever generated.

None of them were complimentary (although I’m indulging myself by running the most generous-spirited example in this month’s “Correspondence” section). Most of the writers were disgusted because they viewed our putting Simpson’s face on the cover as an attempt to exploit a grisly sensation in exactly the way what used to be called the gutter press was doing. They felt we were thus cheapening our franchise, and I hope I don’t sound treacly when I say I’m grateful for even the most scalding of these messages; there’s an implicit compliment in the fact that readers thought it mattered. So I’d like to explain why Simpson went on the cover, because it wasn’t merely the desire to move copies off the newsstands—which, in any event, account for a grand total of just 3 percent of our sales.

I remember a fairly prominent media person declaring, with a nice combination of derision and self-satisfaction, “I’m interested in the future , not the past!” This man probably wouldn’t have said, “I don’t know how to read—I’m interested in video , not books,” in quite the same tone, but I think the parallel is pretty close. It doesn’t seem that way to everyone, though—the still all-too-current phrase “That’s history’ does not, after all, mean, “That’s deeply connected to my present concerns”—and an important part of this magazine’s job is to make clear in various ways that a knowledge of the past helps us negotiate the present.

Occasionally it can be difficult to bring immediacy to that bromide, and the July/August cover was one of those times. It went through many permutations. We started out with David Gilmour Blythe’s mid-nineteenth-century painting of a particularly oafish and discreditable jury; it made a fine opener for the article, but when cropped to fit a cover format, all that scathing energy evaporated and the result not only looked antiquarian, it was actually incomprehensible. The stills from the movie Twelve Angry Men , also perfectly solid accompaniments to the story, became, when subjected to the cover’s alchemy, merely arch. A beautiful turn-of-the-century photograph of a jury, vibrating with that radiant exactitude glass negatives sometimes impart, turned drab the moment we put our logo on it.

Besides looking stale and fusty enough to send a signal exactly opposite to the one we sought—that there is no useful connection between past and present—these trial covers also seemed strangely evasive. It is, after all, O. J. Simpson’s interminable, overproduced, bleakly hypnotic trial that has made the jury a matter of current urgency, and in the end only the picture of O. J. Simpson’s grave, closed, handsome face made sense on the cover. Even peering back through the storm of obloquy that followed its publication, I can’t see choosing another.

What I do see now is that those readers who accused us of making a cover only to “sell” were right. But what we were selling was not so much a magazine as an idea: that even the most stridently current concerns are—history.

Richard F. Snow