In Memoriam: Allan Nevins

February 2018

The longtime adviser to American Heritage wrote history not simply as a means of talking with other historians, but in order to talk to the general reader.

They say a tree is best measured when it is down. Allan Nevins is gone, at last, although he seemed imperishable, and we at AMERICAN HERITAGE feel a poignant sense of loss. We measure him now by the length of the shadow he cast, and by the abiding influence he had upon us and upon the magazine we serve. We also think of the friendship which he extended to everyone who knew him, and that is immeasurable.

A good many different men had a part in the founding of this magazine, but it seems safe to say that it would not exist in its present form but for the influence of Allan Nevins. Nevins was one of the great American historians, and perhaps he was greatest of all in this: he wrote history, not simply as a means of talking with other historians, but in order to talk to the general reader. He was in the grand tradition of Francis Parkman and William H. Prescott, which is to say that he was a skilled literary craftsman; and he was firmly convinced that history, written down and put between covers, has to be much more than a collection of Ph.D. theses. It has to give its reader a sense of the drama, the subtle excitement, and the immediacy of the events in his nation’s past. If it cannot give this, it fails; if it does give it, it enriches the life and broadens the horizon of the person who reads it.

How well or how inadequately this magazine may have embodied this ideal is perhaps a separate question. The point is that this was the vision Allan Nevins had, and this was the ideal that he kept insisting we should assimilate. He saw history as something exciting and moving as well as instructive; the people of the past were people of the present day, with both the faults and the virtues that we present-day folk see all about us; what they did shapes our own lives, and to follow them is to learn more than we can otherwise know about the values by which human life is lived and by which, at times, it has to be surrendered.

We used to have a way, on the staff of this magazine, of referring to Allan Nevins affectionately as our Faculty Adviser. This was all very well, in a sense, and at times there was something vaguely remindful of a staff of undergraduates engaged in a publishing venture, with a helpful professor standing by to ward off untimely errors. (This of course harks back to the long-gone day when students would allow a faculty adviser to come on the premises at all.) But the parallel is imperfect. My own experience in such matters, dating back (as it seems now) to the Neo-Pleistocene age, is that the faculty adviser was there chiefly to tell us what we could not do. As one of the guiding spirits of AMERICAN HERITAGE , Allan put the emphasis on what we ought to do. He had command of few negatives. He could see only the rich field of American history and the way in which its separate chapters could best be described. In the matter of calling these chapters to our attention and helping to find the persons best qualified to describe them, he was something of a genius.

That word genius is sometimes misapplied. It has been described, imperfectly, as a capacity for taking infinite pains, and that capacity Allan Nevins assuredly had. But anyone who worked with him was bound to broaden the definition a little. Genius, as Nevins displayed it, was at least partly a matter of having and using boundless energy.

He was one of the busiest of living men, but he was never too busy to give help to someone else. If you had a problem, you could lay it in front of him, certain that he would give it as much time as you needed, certain also that in the end he would strike a light to illumine the path you had to follow. To be sure, the moment he felt that he had done all he could do for you, he became very busy again. He had no time to spare; he would jump up, slip into his coat before you quite realized that the consultation was over, and go out of there, coattails adrift in the breeze. He was all yours as long as you needed him, but he had no time for small talk.

It would of course be an error to assume that this man’s impact on American historiography came simply because he insisted that history must be well written. He was equally concerned with the collection of it—with the hard spadework that has to precede the moment when the historian puts paper into typewriter and starts to produce manuscript. He knew where the papers were, he went and looked at them and made copious notes—and probably it should be mentioned that his knowledge and even his notes were at the service of any budding historian who was following in his steps. He not only knew where the papers were; he saw to it that papers which would not otherwise have existed came into being, and one of his great services was to establish the Oral History Project at Columbia University—an operation whereby men who had played a part in the making of history were persuaded to dictate into a tape recorder what they knew about great events, so that students in some future generation could have access to knowledge that would otherwise have vanished forever.

But simply to list the contributions Allan Nevins made does not seem like enough. Everyone who knew him knew that to touch him was to touch greatness: greatness not only of mind and professional achievements, but also of heart and soul. No one could work with him without being richer for it. If we who work on A MERICAN H ERITAGE feel a deep sense of loss in his passing, it is not solely because he did so much for this magazine. It is because he did so much for us as individual human beings.

—Bruce Catton