August/september 1981 | Volume 32, Issue 5
Those who occasionally glance at our masthead will have noticed a startling omission. Last issue, for the first time in twenty-seven years, the name of Oliver Jensen, our long-time editor, did not appear there. This was no doing of ours. The fact is, we—and possibly Oliver—would have gotten in trouble with the Feds had we continued to display his name, because he now works for the government. He is ideally suited to his new job—Chief of the Prints and Photographs Division at the Library of Congress. Indeed, it may not be going too far to say that Oliver helped invent the post, for he understood earlier than most that old photographs were a great deal more than amusing family heirlooms. Long before they had evolved into art objects, Oliver saw their curious power to stir, to explain, and—in the greatest examples—to illuminate a whole era in a single thunderclap of stilled motion. We continue to seek out great pictures.
And we share Oliver’s belief that AMERICAN HERITAGE should help restore history “to the place it once occupied as the noblest branch of literature.” Our history is many things, but it is always a grand story, and there is no excuse for not telling it that way.
Oliver also gave about the soundest description of what it is like to work here. In a reminiscence recorded at Columbia’s pioneering oral history project back in 1959, he asked, “I wonder whether people on the outside ever realize that we the editors are conducting our own self-education in front of their very eyes, with the advantage of choosing the subjects ourselves and being a few lessons ahead.”
That’s just as true today, because our curriculum remains as broad as the country itself, and as varied. This month, for instance, we were surprised —and hope to surprise you—with a number of things of consequence, great and small: the perverse tenacity with which Americans have clung to the idea that every individual would soon have his own private airplane; the Smithsonian’s Curator of Transportation’s delightful personal account of how he smuggled his grandest relic out for a spin on her 150th anniversary; the almost unbelievable battlefield feats of the pacifist who became America’s greatest hero in World War I; the forgotten photographs whose sun-charged tranquillity and classic composition so impressed a panel of judges that they voted to put a Midwestern farm wife ahead of Alfred Stieglitz in a nationwide photography contest; the fascinating paradox that is embodied in the hundred-million-dollar re-creation of Virginia Colony’s old capital at Williamsburg; the brilliant West Coast architect who was too modest to seek out disciples, whose name is only dimly recalled by most, and yet who left his stamp on the entire discipline here in America; the startling metamorphosis of tennis in our time; the late Fawn M. Brodie’s compelling account of the dark and complex forces that culminated in the Hiss-Chambers case and catapulted Richard Nixon toward the Presidency.
Each of these stories contained things entirely new to us here; taken together they cover a formidable breadth of human endeavor. So, considering current tuition fees, the cost of this particular education is infinitesimal.
And there’s no final exam.