Monuments

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WAITING FOR THE MORNING TRAIN is Bruce Catton’s memoir of his boyhood in a small Michigan town named Benzonia—an etymologically suspect word that is supposed to mean “good air. The town was founded in the 1860s solely to support a tiny Congregational college on the edge of the forest, and its population never rose above three hundred and fifty. Benzonia dedicated itself to the perfectibility of human society and to good works. “We felt that the eye of God was constantly upon us,” wrote Catton, and his memoir confirms that if God was looking, he would have pronounced Benzonia quite satisfactory.

If Benzonia sounds a bit unreal, it was. In a hard-bitten lumbering region, it was exceptional, and Catton never forgot that he had lived briefly in a lost Eden: in fact, one of the most conspicuous landmarks east of town was actually named Eden Hill.

Nevertheless, the men of Benzonia played their part, like millions of others, in the Civil War. They fought at Gettysburg, at Shiloh, at Stones River and Cold Harbor. One day, some thirty years after the war, the Benzonia veterans decided they wanted a memorial.

“The monument they built,” Catton wrote, “was completely homemade. It was a fat column of Beldstone and mortar, no more than four or five feet tall, capped by a round slab of rock that was just a little wider than the supporting column; it looks like an overgrown toadstool, and it would be funny if it were not so unmistakably the work of men who were determined to have a monument and built one with their own hands because they could not pay for a professional job. The spirit that built it redeems it; it stands today as the most eloquent, heartwarming Civil War memorial I ever saw.”

A few weeks ago at Columbia University the Society of American Historians raised a monument of a much more professional kind—a prize to be given every two years to a historian not for a single book but for a lifetime of achievement in the writing of American history. It is a great honor to his memory that the society named this prize—underwritten by a grant from American Heritage—after Bruce Catton. He epitomizes the scholar whose works are read both as history and as literature—and by a wide audience. The idea that good writing is and ought to be the bridge between the scholar and the intelligent layman is the reason-for-being of the Society of American Historians itself. And, of course, the naming of the prize seems especially appropriate to us because Catton was the very first editor of American Heritage, a magazine that has been sponsored since its birth in 1954 by the SAH.

All the past and present editors of American Heritage congratulate the society on their choice of Dumas Malone, the great Jefferson scholar, as the winner of the first Bruce Catton Prize. There is no question that the man from Benzonia would have approved. Nor would he have forgotten, in the midst of the august ceremonies, Benzonias roughhewn, toadstool-shaped monument that still stands where it was built by the men who made the history we write about.