- Historic Sites
Working With Bruce Catton
February/March 1979 | Volume 30, Issue 2
“Oh, Brown,” replied Bruce, seized by panic and searching to combine truth with kindness. “It was a fine piece. Yes, indeed, a great subject.” A year or two later the bird came home to roost in the form of a perplexed and outraged call from the publisher: Brown’s book was a disaster. Bruce came quivering into my office, saying, “I finally told him I touched up that fellow’s work a little. Why do I get into scrapes like this?”
He was not only kind but approachable, which is not always the hallmark of editors. His door was open and he was interruptible by any head poked in. Would he look over this map, or tell us whether this photograph really showed Fitz-John Porter, or this other General Burnside? Did he have a minute to meet so-and-so? He could, and he did, but you were only halfway out the door before his fingers were flying again at the old-fashioned, non-noiseless typewriter.
His book writing continued at the same time, along with the lectures, the articles and reviews by the score for AMERICAN HERITAGE and other periodicals, the roundtables, the prefaces for other authors, the prize givings and receivings (among them his receipt of the Medal of Freedom from President Ford), and all the other rewards and penalties of literary success. He doggedly endured them. In these years he published eleven more books on the Civil War, including This Hallowed Ground , two volumes on Grant in the war (to complete a series commenced by the late Lloyd Lewis), the three-volume Centennial History of the Civil War , and for our company and Doubleday jointly, the narrative of The American Heritage Picture History of the Civil War (which won a special Pulitzer citation for him and for Stephen Sears of this company, who wrote and put together the picture sections). Then there was the childhood memoir; a history of Michigan; a juvenile called Banners at Shenandoah ; and, coming out as this is written, The Bold and Magnificent Dream: America’s Founding Years, 1492–1815 , a collaboration between Bruce and his son Bill, Professor of History at Middlebury College in Vermont. Somehow in this vast body of work he never repeated himself, and never flagged, although he did step back somewhat from the job of editor in 1959, to become senior editor—taking what he called “vacations” in Michigan. But he usually came back from them with another book manuscript under his arm. And he continued to write for the magazine.
Concentration was no doubt the secret, that and getting an early start. For many years Bruce was always the first person in the office, so early that most of the staff never knew when he did arrive. On his desk the little piles of yellow sheets grew slowly, with much larger piles in the wastebasket. A neat and orderly man, he preferred to type a new page than correct very much in pencil. By the time the rest of the staff had ordered coffee and hung up their coats, Catton was ready for the day’s business. At home Bruce and his wife, Hazel, who died in 1969, lived an intensely private life, at least in the big cities where fortune took them. He saw his friends at lunch, and he loved good restaurants with a former country boy’s zest. “Thank God for the Army of the Potomac,” he would tell his Doubleday editor as his royalty statements were delivered over the delicacies in the comfortable precincts of the Oak Room of the Plaza Hotel in New York. A man who has beaten the birds out of bed and done his stint is hungry and thirsty and enjoys his midday break among friends. He joined several clubs, some convivial and some august, although his favorite watering place was no doubt his corner table at the old-fashioned Algonquin Hotel, then a few steps from the office.
Of all the customs of business and city life, I believe meetings pleased Bruce the least. He never called one in my memory, although he would loyalb attend those of others, sitting through them quietly with every sign of alert attention, sometimes making what I first thought were notes on a small white pad. It was quite a while before I discovered that these supposed notes, which he regularly dropped in the wastebasket on leaving, were mainly doodles, or cartoons. And I began retrieving them after he once passed me a note, like a boy in a schoolroom, seeking to be released at twelve o’clock. On the other side I found a cartoon of a train of the Civil War era with a tiny shack coupled on the end. You looked twice to see that it was an outhouse, with a little half-moon cut over the door. There was that side of him, and that kind of humor in him, too. It occurs to me now that Catton possessed much the same mix of melancholy and rough wit that characterized Mr. Lincoln.