Why History Now?

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On Lincoln’s birthday in 1976, The New York Times ran a Tiffany & Co. advertisement in which the headline ABRAHAM LINCOLN SAID MORE THAN 100 YEARS AGO was followed by a cluster of 10 quotes of identical tenor: “You cannot help the poor by destroying the rich,” “You cannot lift the wage earner by pulling down the wage payer,” “You cannot really help men by having the government tax them to do for them what they can and should do for themselves.” And so forth.

A number of The Times ’s readers protested that this didn’t sound like Lincoln to them, and sure enough, they were right. The quotes were the work of William J. H. Boetcker, a Brooklyn clergyman who had abandoned his pulpit to follow the call of lecturing on industrial relations, and who composed and published a booklet that contained the apothegms under the modest title of “Gold Nuggets.” In its October 1976 issue, American Heritage explained how the quotes came to be attributed to Lincoln (concluding with a peculiar vehemence that might have pleased Big Bill Haywood: “Of course, Lincoln is the object of many tenacious misattributions . . . but few of them serve his memory so poorly as those spurious musings on the prerogatives of wealth").

It was an interesting little story, but it’s nothing we could have published a decade later. That’s because it was little—worth a couple hundred words at most—and the forum where so brief an article could run, “Postscripts to History,” had been carried away by the editorial tides that are continuously effacing and remaking the elements of magazine journalism.

Our editors felt the absence of “Postscripts” over the years, of a home for stories that have charm and interest but lack the heft to fill a feature slot—and a stopping place for a reader who does not at that moment have half an hour to spend.

But starting with this issue, “Postscripts” makes its return, greatly transformed and expanded, as “History Now,” the new section that opens what all magazine people and nobody else calls “the book.” Its components, fluently jigsawed together by our art director, Robin Helman—who has also revamped the departments and, for that matter, the entire magazine—will include brief reviews and recommendations of books, movies, and television shows that deal with history (or, as in the case of the how-to-make-it-through-an-A-bomb-blast films cited this month, have become it), glimpses of museum exhibitions, and visits to the more interesting of the endlessly proliferating history-oriented Web sites.

Unless otherwise attributed, “History Now” has been written by the editors, with one significant exception: In recognition of the extent to which the Internet has revealed us as a nation of collectors while at the same time infinitely expanding access to whatever fetish shines brightest for any of us (check eBay for V-for-Victory jewelry, 1930s kitchenware, postcards showing county jails, Barbizon-school pastels), our long-time contributor Julie M. Fenster, herself a tireless connoisseur of remnants saved from time’s ever-foundering wreck, will conduct succinct tutorials about them in “The Buyable Past.”

“History Now” will, of course, affect the look and structure of the magazine, most notably in the truncating of “The Time Machine,” which has been written, with the greatest elegance and precision, by Frederic D. Schwarz for the last five years.

Since Fred (whose protean duties include the managing editorship of our sister publication American Heritage of Invention & Technology and the occasional article, like the one on Chanukah in this issue) has been given charge of “History Now,” “Time Machine,” being too valuable to extinguish entirely, will move to the back of the book and become a page. And Fred will now be busy bringing us brief, engaging stories in a forum that can remind us of the valuable lesson that history, like everything else, is a grand aggregation of the little.