Doing What We Do

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Every once in a while someone says to me, “If American Heritage didn’t exist, they’d have to invent it.” While these words are gratifying, I have always dismissed them as genial but irrelevant. After all, we do exist and we do what we do as a matter of course. But looking over the contents of this particular issue, I’m struck by the number of pieces that embody our franchise: to make American history important to the living generation, to show how the past shapes the present. For example: Reaching back over a century to the drama of the Civil War, we were lucky to be offered that rarest of historical treasures: new primary documents—original letters—from the hand of one of our nation’s greatest soldiers, William Tecumseh Sherman. The heart of these missives is Sherman’s deep anger at Northern newspapers for betraying his battle plans to the enemy. No general of any era can be indifferent to the dangers of secrets passed on—wittingly or not—to the forces determined to destroy him. The Sherman letters, we think you’ll agree, are history at its most personal, most significant, and most explosive.

Another historical treasure that came to us because we’re in the business of recognizing the importance of such things is the very last photograph of Franklin Roosevelt, taken a day before his death. It is probably untrue that one picture is worth a thousand words. But one picture with just a few accompanying words makes history in this case.

Elsewhere in the issue you’ll find a story about the Arts and Crafts movement at the turn of the century. It explains not only the phenomenon itself, but why handicraft in all fields is held in such high esteem in the country that, ironically, represents the triumph of the machine age. You can also read a story about how the penitentiary system was invented on our shores and spread from here to all the developed countries of the world. More important, the story helps explain the problems we now face in running our prisons.

There’s more: An unknown photographer captures the look and atmosphere of a Texas city during the Depression; the true story of an “Indiana Jones” of his time who claimed to have discovered one of the supremely moving archeological sites of the hemisphere—the ancient city of Machu Picchu in the Andes; a delightful memoir by a contemporary writer of how local history came alive for her as a child in Pittsburgh in the 1950s; and finally, a reconstruction of the battle of tiny Wake Island in the first days of the Pacific war—a kind of Alamo of World War II which demonstrated that after a devastating military reverse, bravery was still at home in the land.

Readers of this magazine expect stories like these. And, undoubtedly, some potential readers would like them too. Here’s a thought. If you have friends or acquaintances who might like to sample an issue free of charge, send me a letter or postcard giving their names and addresses. We’ll send them a copy and see what happens. Good idea?