December 1979 | Volume 31, Issue 1
Eight million words. Seventeen thousand pages. Fifteen thousand illustrations. Six linear feet. One hundred and seventy-eight pounds. …
The statistics are daunting. Marshaled together, the one hundred and fifty hardcover volumes of AMERICAN HERITAGE now outstretch by thirteen inches Dr. Eliot’s celebrated five-foot shelf. They contain more than sixteen hundred articles. Some are about titanic achievements and tragic struggles, some about lost minor arts. But all are about our history.
“We are the nation’s memory.” Oliver Jensen has written of the magazine he helped create a quarter of a century ago this month. A national memory is a lot like a human memory; is, in fact, made up of the same mixture of the vast and the trivial. Some events stand out in high relief—illuminated, say, by the fierce blaze of an artillery barrage or the flickering of a torchlight parade—while most are quieter: the trip to the beach in the old Hudson; sledding in the side yard under a cold, bright sky; the early morning jostle of milk bottles being delivered.
One might think that sixteen hundred articles would about take care of all the memories, great and small. But, in fact, our land and its people are so various that even after twenty-five years the job is barely begun.
I believe the contents of this anniversary issue demonstrate as clearly as any what I mean. We begin with a look at the census, the great national personality profile that tells us who and what we are every ten years. Our article was written by Gerald Carson, whose skill at making the least likely topics entertaining has made him our most prolific outside contributor. (His current piece marks his twenty-sixth appearance in our pages, with more on the way.)
The census defines how we lived; it cannot show us what we looked like. Only pictures can do that, and AMERICAN HERITAGE was a pioneer in visual history. This issue includes two extraordinary pictorial discoveries. In its time the Brooklyn Bridge was the ultimate example of American technological prowess, and its uniqueness is reflected in the thousands of drawings from which its builders worked. Obsessively detailed and delicately tinted, each is a work of art. We present a portfolio of some of the most beautiful. They very nearly never appeared in our pages—or anywhere else, for that matter: David McCullough tells the story of their hairbreadth escape from destruction. He is the author of The Path Between the Seas: The Creation of the Panama Canal as well as the definitive history of the building of the bridge, and for years was a member of our staff.
No less remarkable are the pictures of Thomas Easterly, the St. Louis cameraman who recorded nearly forty years of city life on the fragile, mirrorlike surfaces of some four hundred daguerreotypes. Here published for the first time, his works represent the largest known collection of daguerrean views of a single city by one photographer. (Incidentally, they appear here because Carla Davidson, our senior picture editor, has pursued them, off and on, for almost a decade.)
Nothing should concern us more than how our children are taught their history. Right now, it doesn’t seem to be going well. Historian Bernard Weisberger, a contributing editor, tells us what’s wrong and suggests some remedies.
Perhaps no subject is so prone to cliché as history. For instance, the white men who first roamed the wilderness are generally regarded as profane, brawling roughnecks who killed grizzlies with their bare hands and drank their weight in whisky. But Edward Hoagland, whom the New York Times has called “our pre-eminent personal essayist,” offers us a very different type of frontiersman—Johnny Appleseed, a gentle zealot who has cast as long a shadow as all the Mike Finks and Davy Crocketts.
In addition, you will find short articles on America’s first great UFO flap; on one of America’s most charming industries; and on one of America’s meanest men.
So, there it is, the December, 1979, issue of AMERICAN HERITAGE : thirteen more articles, ninety-eight more pictures, one hundred and twelve more pages to add to the collection. What does it all amount to? The memory of a people—and more. For, again like human memory, national memory not only preserves our knowledge of the past, it illuminates the future.
And history can give us something else. Robert E. Lee said that it “teaches us to hope.” What he meant was that it provides an endless example that can serve to put our present sorrows and reversals into perspective. We draw strength from knowing the ghosts who stand at our shoulders, and from the sense that America is—as George Orwell said of his own country—”an everlasting animal stretching into the future and the past, and, like all living things, having the power to change out of recognition and yet remain the same.”