Working With Bruce Catton

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Oliver Jensen, who was for many years the editor of this magazine and who worked with Bruce Catton from its first publication in 1954, has written this account of what it was like to have him as a colleague. We are pleased to run it here as a tribute to our late distinguished senior editor, together with some side comments from others who enjoyed the privilege of “working with Bruce Catton.”

“Early youth is a baffling time,” Bruce Catton wrote in a boyhood memoir published seven years ago. “The present moment is nice but it does not last. Living in it is like waiting in a junction town for the morning limited; the junction may be interesting but some day you will have to leave it and you do not know where the limited will take you. Sooner or later you must move down an unknown road that leads beyond the range of the imagination, and the only certainty is that the trip has to be made. In this respect early youth is exactly like old age; it is a time of waiting for a big trip to an unknown destination. The chief difference is that youth waits for the morning limited and age waits for the night train.”

Last August our good friend was spending the summer at his home in Frankfort, Michigan, very close to the junction town of his youth, when the night train came for him, at the age of seventy-eight. There had been no passenger trains for years, of course, in his part of the state—much to his sorrow—but those who loved and admired him at AMERICAN HERITAGE over the last twenty-four years can almost hear the ghostly whistle, and mourn. He had called his memoir Waiting for the Morning Train , and it is hard to get the metaphor out of one’s head.

His morning train had plucked young Bruce out of the little town of Benzonia, Michigan, in 1916, and carried him off to Oberlin College. But that experience was interrupted by World War I and another symbolic train that took him into brief service as a gunner’s mate in the Navy. Afterward he went back; he did not finish to take a bachelor’s degree. It was not a notable lack, a fact attested by his collection of honorary degrees, which numbered twenty-six when the company lost count about 1974. Catton was much too modest to volunteer any information, and the tally had to be wormed out of his secretary. Fame had come late, for his first book had not been published until he was forty-nine. In the nineteen twenties and thirties he had been a newsman—reporter, editorial writer, interviewer, book reviewer—for the Cleveland News , the Boston American , the Cleveland Plain Dealer . By 1939 he was in Washington, writing a syndicated newspaper column.

With the onset of World War II, Catton was tapped to serve the War Production Board as director of information, affording him a ringside seat at the battles between his boss, Donald Nelson, and the Army: the old struggle of the civilian with the military arm of government. Out of these governmental follies and missed opportunities our future editor drew his first book, The War Lords of Washington , written at times at white heat but received with calm if not silence when it appeared a few years later. He quit government in 1948 to write books—a bold step in middle life—and with the war lords off his chest he turned to his favorite subject, America’s most monumental drama and morality tale, the Civil War.

Once when he was away in Michigan I asked in a letter how he had developed such enthusiasm for that particular topic. In his reply he remarked, “That question always reminds me of the old gag about ‘How did a nice girl like you ever get into a business like this?’ ” He went on to say, “I grew up amidst a regular flower-bed of Civil War veterans. In the small town that I infested as a lad I used to hear the old gentlemen tell war stories until I felt as if the whole affair had taken place in the next county just a few years ago. I remember especially on Memorial Day when I was small there’d always be a meeting in the town hall, with the Grand Army of the Republic veterans on the platform, with songs and speeches: then everyone would troop out to the village cemetery, to lay lilacs on the graves of the departed veterans. … Incidentally, our cemetery was built on a low ridge looking out over pleasant rolling country, and one or another of the G.A.R. vets told me it was not unlike the famous, much-fought-over cemetery at Gettysburg. That’s how direct the line was to the Civil War, in those days.…”