History’s Inconstant Muse

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Happy Birthday, American Heritage ! I say it with a certain avuncular pride, for though I am not among the magazine’s first contributors, I come close. My earliest appearance in these pages was in the fifth number of the first hardcover volume, dated August 1955. For the moment I am simply establishing my old-timer credentials. I am the only first-year contributor now writing a regular column. Moreover, of my fellow twenty present Contributing Editors, only two others (Oliver Jensen and John A. Garraty) had signed pieces in the first year’s issues and two more—Joseph Thorndike, Jr., and Joan Paterson Kerr (then Mills)—were, like Jensen, on the editorial staff in December 1954.

Hence, readers, I claim the right of seniority to detain you, like the Ancient Mariner, with my tale—but mine will be shorter than his. The most appropriate celebration I can think of is to take a backward glance at those early issues, especially the very first, and hazard a guess as to how differently their contents might read these forty years afterward. And differences there would certainly be. As John Lukacs says in the September 1994 issue, “History is revisionism. . . . the ceaseless . . . reviewing and revising and rethinking of the past.” I concur, of course. No account of a historical event is final and beyond reinterpretation, a now-commonplace sentiment that itself revises a major premise of “scientific” history as it was taught very early in this century. On the other hand, not all new versions of history are created equal. As Lukacs goes on to illustrate, some, in either ignorance or malice or both, simply shrug off contrary evidence. But my aim here is neither to praise nor to denounce the historical fashions of 1954 and 1994. All I want to do is to show the revisionary process at work.

Bruce Catton launched things with a moving opening page essay, saying that “our heritage is best understood by a study of the things that the ordinary folk of America have done and thought and dreamed.” Nonetheless, it was the usual out-of-the-ordinary figures who predominated in the first six tables of contents. Of the ninety pieces listed, including book excerpts and reprinted documents, a very rough survey shows about a third of them to be biographical in nature. The subjects or authors were either universally familiar—John Brown, Abraham Lincoln, Alexander Hamilton, Eli Whitney, Henry Ford, Theodore Roosevelt, Robert E. Lee—or at least recognizable to those likely to have done some reading in history after their school days: figures such as the journalistic tycoon James Gordon Bennett, the society architect Richard Morris Hunt, the evangelists Dwight L. Moody and Ira Sankey (my contribution), and the drillmaster of Washington’s army, Baron von Steuben.

Yes, indeed, they were predominantly successful white men. The only black man to be the subject of an article was a murderer named “Crazy Bill.” Only three women made the table of contents: Emily Dickinson, Mary Todd Lincoln, and Lola Montez, and even then somewhat peripherally. The Dickinson article was actually about a man with whom she was possibly in love, while that on Mary Lincoln told of how her son had her temporarily placed in an insane asylum. The Montez piece —she was the mistress of the King of Bavaria—was about her reception in New York during an 1851 visit. There were no other women named in titles, nor were there any articles then on subjects that play a large part in the historical writings of the most recent decade. None on the groups that populated the world of the city, such as immigrant communities and their churches and synagogues, working families and their living conditions, or “disreputables” like prostitutes and criminals. None on black life, and certainly none on homosexuals or any aspect whatever of sexual behavior. None on childbirth and child rearing or on social mobility, the economic organization of neighborhoods, the control of the public schools, and the various unofficial networks of communication (on the job, in the streets and marketplaces, in the clubs and cafes and saloons, or in the newspaper pages) that taught men and women their proper “roles” in American life.

Getting beyond city limits, there was only one piece on Indians—but that one, about the Iroquois, thoroughly admiring—and none on what pioneer communities did to the environment. There were some reflections on the American landscape, like Wallace Stegner’s memoir of the prairie skies of Montana and Saskatchewan, and an excerpt from Paul Morgan’s superb history of the Rio Grande.