- Historic Sites
Working With Bruce Catton
February/March 1979 | Volume 30, Issue 2
It became in time his favorite topic. Presently he was collecting the ponderous regimental histories, reading the Official Records, indeed all the literature of the conflict—until the people of the 1860’s came to life as distinctly for him as his own contemporaries. He resolved, he told us long afterward, to try a novel about the war. But disliking the result, he tore up the manuscript and decided to go at things straight. And his first subject was that great, vanished, blue-clad host, by turns overconfident, defeated, valiant and triumphant, the Army of the Potomac. The first volume of what became a trilogy, Mr. Lincoln’s Army , had trouble finding a publisher. “Sorry,” he would be told, “but who wants to read any more about the Civil War?” Turned down at several noted houses, it was published by Doubleday in 1951, with the second volume, Glory Road , following a year later. The reception was modest until, with the publication of A Stillness at Appomattox in 1953, all the trumpets sounded. This intensely moving account of the closing of the war, full of high drama and homely detail, carried off both the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award.
Thus it was at the height of his new fame that, less than a year later, in mid-1954, Bruce Catton, urged on by such eminent friends as the late Allan Nevins, consented to join the small group who were organizing the new hard-cover magazine of history, AMERICAN HERITAGE . The magazine had existed before, to be sure, for five modest years as the quarterly of the American Association for State and Local History, but this was a new, bigger, and riskier enterprise. Before meeting him I wondered whether our proposed first editor would be a little flamboyant, in the newspaper tradition of The Front Page , or perhaps a big-time bureaucrat, but what appeared was a tall, quietly dressed, and unassuming man with the faintly courtly good manners of the old Midwest. He put on no airs, and made no demands. As his editor Samuel Vaughan of Doubleday once wrote of him, “Many popular or distinguished writers receive (in the post-office phrase) special handling; but Mr. Catton, who is both distinguished and popular, earns much special handling and never demands any.”
It would be idle to deny the fact that our distinguished historian had been invited, certainly in part, to lend tone to the new enterprise, but he turned out to be a thoroughly professional editor as well. His knowledge of history, it was soon clear, was prodigious and by no means confined to the war whose Homer he had been proclaimed. He had perception, taste, and an unerring ear for good writing by others. He seemed to have at command a fact or an anecdote to back up (or, if necessary, refute) any point, in conversation or on paper, and he indulged odd interests as varied as ancient Mayan timekeeping and professional baseball. There was nothing pedagogical or academic about him, as a result of which he was a natural teacher.
A magazine like AMERICAN HERITAGE , heavily illustrated but carrying no advertising, is necessarily designed throughout. That part of the job Bruce largely left to others, reserving his enthusiasm for the business of all editors, getting articles and performing the necessary rites (and rewrites) that precede publication. Years as a newspaperman had taught him the art of speedy revision, as well as the other art of knowing when to leave things alone. He was the best cutter I have ever encountered. Seven thousand words, say, would come down to five, yet many an author, going over his prose in print afterward, would not understand why, somehow, it was even better than he had thought.
Reading through manuscripts circulating among the editors for opinions, he could be blunt in the little comments he would attach to the memo sheets. Blunt to the point of annihilation, as a few quick samples from the files will indicate: “This can’t be repaired and wouldn’t be much good if it were.” (Of a piece on Coolidge) “Almost as insubstantial and uninspiring as Coolidge himself, about whom it is easy to read too much.” “The high-water mark of this piece comes at the bottom of page one, where the naked Indian nymph offers the hero strawberries. Unfortunately this level is not maintained.”
Actual dealings with authors, whether through the mails or in person, are another matter. To be rejected by Catton was like landing in a pile of pillows.
The Catton kindness was so great that it could come back to haunt him later. Very occasionally a magazine will buy a badly written article because the subject or the information it contains is new or compelling, and someone will rewrite it. Once I saddled us with an execrable manuscript on an amusing Civil War topic by a writer I will call Mr. Brown. Would Bruce repair it? He liked the subject too, but regarded me with a sigh after reading it. A few hours later he emerged from his office with a pile of yellow foolscap, his favorite writing paper, on which nothing of the original had survived but the author’s by-line. So it appeared in print. Some months later Bruce received a call from a publisher who was considering employing Brown to write a company history. “Brown gave you as a reference, Mr. Catton,” said the caller. “He showed me an article he wrote for you. What do you think of him?”