The Storyteller

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On a shelf near our office-supply cabinet sit three little steel boxes that are, in effect, the magazine’s memory. The five-by-seven cards they contain catalogue the name of every author who has ever written for us, the titles of the articles, the dates when they ran, and what we paid for them. They’re filed alphabetically, so it’s not until you get to the third box that you come across a wad of half a dozen cards, paper-clipped together. This packet charts the career of our most prolific contributor: Weisberger, Bernard A.

Dim on the first card is the information that Bernie’s inaugural American Heritage article, “Evangelists to the Machine Age,” ran in the fifth issue of the new magazine, in August 1955. No record of what he was paid for that or for his second piece, but the third one, “Pentecost in the Backwoods,” netted him $350. (This and the first story were drawn from research he was doing for his fine 1958 book They Gathered at the River: The Story of the Great Revivalists and Their Impact Upon Religion in America .) In 1960 he writes about the Lowell Mills; 1963 brings a Christmas bonus of $100; in the 1970s he produces stories on Pinckney B. S. Pinchback, George Eastman, Benjamin Rush, and Paul Revere; in 1987 his essay “American History Is Falling Down” warns that the increasing fragmentation of the subject in the academy means that teachers are dismantling a coherent narrative and putting nothing in its place; in 1989 he publishes his first “In the News” column (in which he answers the many columnists who complained that the recently concluded presidential race has set “new lows in distortion and trivialization” by quoting a New York Times headline from the sainted Harry Truman’s 1948 campaign: PRESIDENT LIKENS DEWEY TO HITLER AS FASCISTS’ TOOL ); and the final entry on the sixth card records that on 2/3/99 we acquired “Last in the News, July/Aug ’99 AH.”

Bernie inaugurated our “In the News” column and wrote it for a decade. He was the ideal proprietor for this franchise because he could connect present concerns to past precedents with effortless ease. Of course, that ease was the result of a lifetime of hard work and a promiscuous curiosity that produced not only the scores of stories in American Heritage but books on a spectrum of subjects that runs from Civil War correspondents to the flamboyant Billy Durant of General Motors, from the La Follettes of Wisconsin to the long, tense confrontation of the Cold War.

As for the effort, Bernie never let it show. His clean, brisk, relaxed writing, informed with strong feeling but free always of polemicizing, drew a steady stream of correspondence from our readers that is itself a tribute to his warmth and accessibility. Not everyone agreed with him (Bernie is pretty close to an honest-to-God New Deal liberal, a distinction I found useful to point out when we received the occasional letter accusing the magazine of having become a pawn of the right wing—just as we cite Bernie’s figurative next-door neighbor, the “Business of America” columnist John Steele Gordon, when mail accuses us of abandoning our old standards to veer leftward), but he answered all with a courteous enthusiasm that invariably proved infectious. Bernie is that rare creature, a man of powerful convictions and no enemies.

I’m in his debt not only for fourscore good columns; when, in the long-ago spring of 1972, he decided to leave his post on the magazine to teach history at Vassar, it opened up a slot on the editorial staff that I was able to move into. Of course, nobody thought I was replacing Bernie, just as Bernie’s successor will not replace him. But I am happy to be able to welcome as the new “In the News” columnist, Kevin Baker, who comes from serving as the chief historical researcher on Harold Evans’s bestseller The American Century and has recently published the highly acclaimed historical novel Dreamland , a spirited, passionate, and altogether absorbing chronicle of life in New York City at the century’s turn.

He’ll appear in the next issue. In this one Bernie speaks of his ten-year ambassadorship between today’s news and yesterday’s and says good-bye to his readers—but not forever: He is currently in the midst of a book on the pivotal election of 1800. And in saying good-bye to Bernie, I’ll quote a passage from one of his more recent columns that seems to me eloquent of the spirit in which he has approached his life’s work. In speaking of those who think that the much-beleaguered traditional narrative of our past fails to make itself relevant to many in an increasingly multicultural society, Bernie writes, “Somehow I have certainly never had a problem in assuming that even though my own ancestors did not reach these shores until around 1900, men like Washington, Jefferson, and Lincoln had made and preserved the United States for people like me. I rather thought I was discharging a debt to them in telling the story to people like you.”

Richard F. Snow