Thirty Years Later

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IN THE INTRODUCTION to his Gateway to History , Allan Nevins, a journalist turned Pulitzer Prize-winning historian, regretted that American magazines no longer published the kind of historical articles that had been the pride of editors before the First World War. Nevins called for a magazine of history that would bridge the gap between scholars and the general public. While the subject matter of the professors was important and evocative—what, after all, could be more fascinating than the story of man in time?—with few exceptions the professors simply could not write well enough. Their admirable ability to extract detailed knowledge of the past from documents was not commensurate with their ability to sense, imagine, and express.

That was in 1938. In 1954 Nevins’s call was answered when American Heritage in its present form was founded by a group of journalists and historians. As John A. Garraty of Columbia tells it: “The success of American Heritage was rapid and substantial. It achieved a wide circulation, and the best professional historians began to publish in its pages. Its articles, at their best, have been authoritative, interesting, significant, and a pleasure to read…”

But the history of the magazine itself was not all smooth. In the early seventies our popularity was affected by a kind of moral Great Depression that troubled the land and cast a pall over words like American and heritage . Something was abroad that recalled Hemingway’s words from A Farewell to Arms : “I was always embarrassed by the words sacred, glorious, and sacrifice and the expression in vain … I had seen nothing sacred, and the things that were glorious had no glory.… Abstract words such as glory, honor, courage … were obscene.”

Those who continued to read us knew that we were not chauvinists, nor did we see ourselves as spokesmen for any party, ideology, or administration. Our goal was neither to celebrate nor to denigrate our history but to explore it. Yet a new generation was understandably scornful and distracted, and it is only recently that a reasoned pride of country has emerged once more. The Independence Bicentennial was a turning point; and so, too, was the perception—which took a long time coming—that the dreadful Vietnam War was really over.

The rising circulation of the magazine attests to the desire of Americans to know what happened in history to people like themselves. And the slaking of this thirst for knowledge about the past seems to be an elixir for the gloomy and a stimulant for those who have never lost heart. If you have any doubts about this, see the special thirtiethanniversary feature that kicks off our issue. It is an exercise of the historical imagination in which dozens of interesting minds speculate on the moments in American history they would most like to have witnessed. The result, we believe, is a confirmation of everything our founding editors hoped for; for the present editors, it is the kind of new beginning that brings joy to the task.