- Historic Sites
Working With Bruce Catton
February/March 1979 | Volume 30, Issue 2
One of these little rescued drawings suggests that he possessed an undeveloped talent—whatever the art teachers may think. In this particular cartoon is a character labeled “Sinner” crawling like a man dying of thirst toward a sinister bottle, urged on by a dandified “Satan” while a shadowy figure called “Better Angel” buries her face in her hands. The creator’s title reads “The Prohibition Era,” but, as someone else suggested, it could be titled also “Benzonia Versus Babylon: The Struggle for Bruce Catton.” We live in an age of too much home psychiatry, however, for the fact is that Babylon never got much of a grip on Catton.
He was actually born in nearby Petoskey, Michigan, a little seaport, camp meeting ground, and resort town at the lakefront in the northern part of the state’s Lower Peninsula. The fame of the native son led Petoskey to celebrate “Bruce Catton Day,” with speeches, a concert of Civil War music, and the unveiling of a bronze plaque with his likeness, one fine July day in 1965. In the course of the ceremonies a local Indian tribe placed a war bonnet on his head and bestowed on him a name in their own tongue; to Bruce’s intense relief none of us who went were able to catch the words. (He had been equally agile at disposing of his real first name, Charles.) Petoskey, however, was his grandfather’s town; Benzonia, with a population of some 350 souls, was where Bruce grew to manhood. The souls were unlike those in most of the other little lumber and resort settlements of this part of Michigan, for Benzonia (a name concocted out of Greek and Latin to mean “good air”) was a college town, a city set upon a hill. The Congregationalist educators who founded it in 1858 clearly stated that it was to be “a temperance, anti-slavery, educational Christian community.”
Bruce was in the thick of it. His minister father, George R. Catton, was the head of the little college, which for lack of students and cash eventually declined into a sort of preparatory school, closing entirely two years after Bruce graduated. Bruce’s brothers and one sister, like their father, became ministers of the gospel, so that he, perhaps, seemed a renegade in his own mind. He acquired, in any case, a marvelous knowledge of the Bible, and inhaled that spiritually optimistic air. There was very little money, and consequently no danger of encountering the rich man’s difficulties in entering the kindgom of Heaven, but above all there was a belief in the perfectibility of the social order. That was before the mass slaughters, concentration camps, and other horrors of modern times in which (in another Catton phrase) “the world took off its mask.” It was a happy childhood, although, as he has written, “Growing up in Benzonia was just a little bit like growing up with the Twelve Apostles for next-door neighbors. You never could forget what you were here for.”
Man is indeed an interesting piece of work, but how much of this man was assembled from Benzonia, how much from Babylon, how much from the far-off music of the bands of 1865, no one can say. Bruce Catton’s fame will rest on the grace and beauty and emotional power of his narratives of the Civil War, and for his understanding of all its courage and its tragedy. His achievement is so moving that it lends a kind of truth to the offhand reply he once gave a friend, his researcher E. B. Long, when he asked how Bruce could describe the scenes of the war with such uncanny power.
“I don’t know,” he answered. “Maybe I was there.”
Certainly he was here with us, and his presence made an enormous difference to the success of AMERICAN HERITAGE . There are a hundred times a hundred reminders of him about us, on walls, on shelves, in drawers, and in the echoes. And perhaps we should close with his own description, from his memoir, of how it is to wait at the junction for the night train:
“You have seen all of the sights, and it is a little too dark to see any more even if you did miss some, and the waiting room is uncomfortable and the time of waiting is dreary, long-drawn, with a wind from the cold north whipping curls of fog past the green lamps on the switch stands. Finally, far away yet not so far really, the train can be heard; the doctor (or station agent) hears it first, but finally you hear it yourself and you go to the platform to get on. And there is the headlight, shining far down the track, glinting off the steel rails that, like all parallel lines, will meet in infinity, which is after all where this train is going. And there by the steps of the sleeping car is the Pullman conductor, checking off his list. He has your reservation, and he tells you that your berth is all ready for you. And then, if he is like all other Pullman conductors, he adds the final assurance as you go down the aisle to the curtained bed: I’ll call you in plenty of time in the morning.’
”… in the morning.”