December 1974 | Volume 26, Issue 1
Just twenty years ago the first issue of the hard-cover A MERICAN H ERITAGE , dated December, 1954, went out to those who had risked a subscription sight unseen. Its very first cover appears at left. That buffalo hunter, painted by an unknown hand about 1840, was the standard-bearer for all the hopes of an impecunious and equally unknown young company formed a few months earlier by James Parton, Joseph J. Thorndike, and the undersigned.
Just twenty years ago the first issue of the hard-cover A MERICAN H ERITAGE , dated December, 1954, went out to those who had risked a subscription sight unseen. Its very first cover appears at left. That buffalo hunter, painted by an unknown hand about 1840, was the standard-bearer for all the hopes of an impecunious and equally unknown young company formed a few months earlier by James Parton, Joseph J. Thorndike, and the undersigned. The plan was simple enough: to make American history come to life by tapping unused and often unplumbed resources of good writing and authentic illustration. Bruce Cation, who joined up immediately, defined “our beat” as “anything that ever happened in America.” Our friends, including a hardy group of investors who risked the scarcely colossal sum of $64,900, were hopeful but not convinced.
After two decades thousands of our original subscribers are still with us, and so, in one capacity or another in the company, are five of the original editorial staff: Mr. Gallon, Mr. Thorndike, Joan Paterson Kerr, Stephen Sears, and I. Both Mr. Catton and Mrs. Kerr have contributed to lhis issue. The other three of us have each either written or edited an American Heritage book during 1974 (Thorndike’s Seafaring America , Sears’s The American Heritage Century Collection of Civil War Art , Jensen’s A College Album ), so that there is still life and a little esprit left in the old corps.
The company itself and the American Heritage Society gained a more secure financial and corporate base through merger into McGraw-Hill, Inc., in 1969 and have been headed since 1970 by Paul Gottlieb, who joined us originally in 1962. Meanwhile A MERICAN H ERITAGE has grown into a modest national institution that we rarely need any longer explain to strangers. Our circulalion and mailing subsidiary in Marion, Ohio, the Fulfillment Corporation of America (which mails for other publishers as well), has some three hundred employees, and the staff at our New York office numbers a little over a hundred. The latter edit and publish our three magazines, A MERICAN H ERITAGE , A MERICANA , and H ORIZON , as well as our books and The American Heritage Dictionary , and handle our lours, recordings, and artifacts.
Success, as the old saw goes, has a thousand falhers, while failure is an orphan. And lhe question of our paternity does come up from time to lime, if only because—as sharp eyes will notice—this issue begins Volume Twenty-six . Why nol Twenty-one? The answer, of course, is that we began with Volume Six; A MERICAN H ERITAGE was published as a soft-cover quarterly for five previous years, 1949 into 1954, edited by Earle Newton for the American Association for Stale and Local History. It in turn had another parent, or stepparent, with the same name, a quarterly pamphlet in a sober blue cover called American Heritage: A Journal of Community History , edited by Miss Mary E. Cunningham of Cooperstown, New York, as the professional organ of the association. It had commenced in 1947 but was converted into the more general magazine in 1949 under the leadership of the association’s president, the late Dr. Sylvester K. Stevens. That first issue, Volume i, Number 1, appears at right. Underfinanced and burdened with deficits, our predecessor was in difficulty by 1954. By coincidence, at the same time the Society of American Historians, the creation of that eminent author the late Allan Nevins, was seeking a means for establishing a popular magazine in the field. Whereupon another parent emerged—Alexander F. Hehmeyer, currently-executive vice president of Field Enterprises in Chicago but then a New York lawyer acquainted with all the parties including ourselves; he brought everyone together into the existing enterprise. That, of course, is one reason why, as the page opposite shows, we enjoy the sponsorship of both the association and the society.
So much for our twentieth and twenty-fifth anniversaries. It was once remarked that we might “run out of history,” a suggestion we can only greet with a hollow laugh, for our subject, if anything, is suffering from egregious overproduction. We began operations in the troubled times of Senator Joe McCarthy and his Capitol Horrors; after a brief false dawn under a new Chief Executive we find ourselves still enmeshed in the “White House Horrors.” For whatever reasons, President Ford seems determined to bury by pardons the true story of Watergate and the whole complex of abuses, crimes, and scandals that one mild word has come to symbolize. Leaving aside all other considerations—morality; equality of justice; the battered reputation of our country, once the hope of the world; even simple horse sense—this is a profound disservice to history and ought to be so recorded in that Book of Judgment over which parliaments and princes and imperial presidents have no power.
We do not ordinarily mean to involve ourselves, as historians, in the incomplete events of any given moment. In fact, this is written late in September, two months before readers will see it, a period during which all manner of fresh shocks may be dealt the Republic. But even the euphoria of our personal anniversary cannot relieve our distress at such an assault on history itself, that lamp which all perceptive men and women carry to light their path into the unknown future.