Over The Transom

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Not long ago a national women’s magazine loftily announced that it would no longer consider any unsolicited manuscripts. This caused a certain amount of bemusement around our offices; for, like Tennessee Williams’ Blanche DuBois, AMERICAN HERITAGE has always depended on the kindness of strangers. Although most of our articles are commissioned, some of the finest come in over the transom—the publishing industry’s curiously old-fashioned phrase for the arrival of a piece that has not been solicited.

We get a lot of them—some fifty a week, more than twenty-five hundred a year. Occasionally, they present their problems. We get patriotic verse, complex genealogies, historical fiction, ambitious general surveys with titles like “The Civil War in America,” and their antitheses, such astonishingly specific essays as “The Button Industry in Ware, Massachusetts: 1845–1861,” as well as a scattering of pieces that are just plain puzzling. (The most warmly remembered of these was an article entitled “Havana—Pre-Castro Sex Orgy,” which contained the breathtaking line: “En route, seas swooped, and passengers puked, en masse.”)

Certain types of submissions seem to mirror inexplicable trends—within the last three months we have received a half dozen pieces on the U.S. Army’s 19th-century attempt to establish a camel corps in the Southwest. Other favorite topics follow no seasonal flux: chief among them are newly discovered photographs purporting to show Abraham Lincoln, usually accompanied by lists of similarities between the sitter and the President. One, which arrived just the other morning, cited twenty-two points: number eighteen was the subject’s “solemn expression”; number twenty-two was his “dark coat.” We get dozens of these hopefully ascribed photographs each year. Most of the subjects are tall; all are thin. None is Lincoln.

Despite these oddities, the morning’s mail remains a prime source of fine material. For example, the two most newsworthy items in this issue—Levi Hill’s pioneering color photographs and Harry Truman’s surprising Potsdam diary—arrived at our offices unheralded. In upcoming issues we will present other such unexpected treasures, among them a Maine sea captain’s extraordinary memoir of his boyhood apprenticeship in the perils of his trade and never-before-published photographs of Presidents McKinley, Theodore Roosevelt, and Taft, taken by an early White House newsman and submitted to us by his daughter.

Fifteen years ago a manuscript came in to us from a New York bank employee. Running a whopping one hundred and five pages, it told of the complex family battle over the will that Commodore Vanderbilt—then the richest man in America—left when he died in 1877. Whittled down to a still hefty twenty thousand words, the piece ran in the April, 1966, issue. It remains one of our most popular articles. Fearing his fellow bankers would suspect (wrongly) that he had used confidential information to which his position made him privy, the author chose to appear pseudonymously. But in his next piece he emerged as Frank Kintrea, one of our ablest contributors, whose engaging profile of Endicott Peabody of Groton will appear soon.

Among the most touching of all the articles to come in over our transom was Elton Mackin’s stinging account of going into combat in Belleau Wood, which we ran two issues back. Sadly, Mr. Mackin did not live to see it in print. His daughter, who was kind enough to send us the story, explained that he had always wanted to show it to us, but didn’t, for fear we’d turn him down.