- Historic Sites
History’s Inconstant Muse
An American Heritage veteran looks at our first year to see what four decades have done to our subject
December 1994 | Volume 45, Issue 8
There was a good representation of military history, with articles on battles of the French and Indian War, the Revolution, the War of 1812, the Mexican War, and, of course, the Civil War. None of them dealt with the home front, nor was there any questioning of the aims or justice of the particular war involved. There was a sprinkling of pieces that looked nostalgically on colorful (and conventional) artifacts and figures from bygone days: clipper ships, passenger steamboats, street vendors, folk medicines, and country general stores. For the reflective there were “think pieces” like D. W. Brogan’s still-provocative essay on the differences between American and British writers of history. A couple of what might be called group portraits enlivened the first volume: one of Salem’s merchant princes who filled their parlors with curios of the East Indies and another of the Rocky Mountain fur trappers and their wild freedom. But there were no efforts to see in these anything like “elites” or “classes” in the process of “formation” or to enroll them among “traditional” or “modernizing” forces—all the terms in quotation marks being analytic staples of present-day doctoral dissertations in United States history.
Glancing more closely at that very first issue is a lesson in the constantly changing context in which we all read the past. T. Harry Williams had an article on how the Union general Charles P. Stone, after losing a battle, was harassed and jailed in 1862 by the Congressional Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War, dominated by Radical Republicans trying to sniff out traitors. I suspect that Williams and the editors who ran his piece were aware of its “hook” to the Red-hunting senator Joseph McCarthy’s inquisitorial rampages of 1950 to 1954. In the same way, it was eminently reasonable to include Allan Nevins’s Henry Ford — A Complex Man . Nevins had just completed a major and generally admiring biography of Ford (or at least of his work), but more important, the interstate highway program was in its birth process with Eisenhower’s blessing, and the American-made automobile was the unchallenged king of our roads and our culture. I can’t help thinking that forty years later any article on automotive history would not have at least a phrase or two on the negative impact of automobilization on our lungs, nerves, and pocketbooks. Likewise dated are the personal reminiscences of Albert Lasker, described in an editorial note as the “father of modern advertising.” One of his proud boasts (among many), in the memoir from the Columbia University Oral History Collection, is of the work he did in marketing cigarettes for the American Tobacco Company, especially in hooking a generation of women smokers with the slogan “Reach for a Lucky instead of a sweet.” At a minimum that might now call for an editorial sidebar noting how dangerously innocent we then were about the weed.
Glancing closely at American Heritage ’s first issue is a lesson in the constantly changing context in which we all read the past.
I cannot repeat strongly enough that this roster of omissions is not a denunciation or in any way motivated by what is often (and often unfairly) called political correctness. I am only pointing out that the distinctive individuals and events celebrated—and I use that verb very deliberately—in the pages of American Heritage in 1954 and 1955 were generally taken for granted to be the basic stuff of history. Although most academic historians were then somewhat disdainful of a popular pictorial magazine, their own books and journal articles covered essentially the same topics in greater depth. The difference was and still is in the fact that American Heritage always gave priority to what Catton conversationally called “a good yarn,” whereas the professors assigned themselves the task of explaining and theorizing about the past mainly for their colleagues, students, and other insiders.
But these latest shifts in subject matter and perspective are not the simple result of some conspiracy of aging New Leftists in endowed chairs. They are not even especially novel. “Social history” dealing with the daily doings of ordinary people in the aggregate goes back to the nineteenth-century British, French, and German historians of “peoples and civilizations,” back to American chroniclers like John B. McMaster and the authors of a multivolumed, minutely detailed History of American Life series that was standard graduate school reading in 1954.
Nor is it unusual that 1990s historians should be drawn to look for historical light to throw on live current questions such as the appropriate places of men, women, races, bosses and workers, natives and newcomers in American life—or that some historians should be critical and controversial in their answers. The real problem has always been that histories of class, gender, ethnicity, and environment easily slip into deadening retrospective sociology with little power to stir us or even to bind us by shared national memories. On the other hand, old-fashioned hero tales that leave out the kind of collective, common experience sung by a Walt Whitman—well, a steady diet of these can cheat and falsify the past by incompleteness. The trick, as always, is balance. So I expand my fortieth birthday greeting and wish American Heritage , its present and future editors, contributors, and readers many more years of happy balancing.