October/november 1983 | Volume 34, Issue 6
For almost four decades, Marshall Davidson, who pioneered a new genre of illustrated history, has worked with many thousands of pieces of American art. Out of them all he now selects fourteen images that have particularly enchanted him .
IN 1951 A BOOK appeared that dealt with American history in a new way—it told its story by fusing pictures and words so that each had equal weight and yet their sum was greater than the parts. Such an ambitious amalgam had never been attempted before, and Life in America by Marshall B. Davidson was an immediate success.
Critics were excited. Bernard De Voto, reviewing it in the New York Herald-Tribune Book Review , explained that “this is not… a collection of pictures arranged like a display of costumes or firearms in a museum. … Neither is it… a history in pictures … for people with reasonably high I.Q.’s. … It is history—historical exposition, interpretation, and comment—which uses pictures to extend and enhance historical realization.”
The critic Lewis Gannett said that with its twelve hundred “often amazing pictures,” Davidson’s two-volume work was “America as perhaps no single book has ever been America before.” As a result of the publication of Life in America , the “floodgates of illustrated history opened wide,” wrote Oliver Jensen, a founding editor of AMERICAN HERITAGE , in 1976, and every issue of this magazine is proof of it.
Davidson never planned to be the pioneering picture researcher he became. In the mid-1940s he was working on the curatorial staff of the Metropolitan Museum’s American Wing, “picking out damasks” and performing other routine chores when Francis Henry Taylor, the museum’s director, acting in behalf of the publisher Houghton Mifflin, asked Davidson if he’d like to prepare an illustrated American history. “I was not particularly involved in graphic arts, nor was I a historian, nor had I ever written a book about anything,” Davidson says, but he was less than inspired with his job and decided to try. When he asked what kind of a book the Houghton Mifflin editors wanted, they said, “That’s what we want you to tell us.”
And so began six years of intense work, starting with a self-taught course in American history. “I had no idea how to do picture research,” Davidson says, but institutions were generous and helpful, letting him poke around in stacks, in basements, in uncataloged material, while he learned. “I spent one summer drenching myself in pictures at the Library of Congress. I picked them up and put them down, picked them up and put them down.” But he gradually became surer of his judgment. Later on he remembers flipping through many thousands of Works Progress Administration photographs and being able to spot instantly what he wanted when he came to it. Sometimes he would turn up material that a museum didn’t know it owned, and often he would fasten onto a picture because it perfectly illustrated his point, only learning later that it was by a well-known artist.
“There were times when some ugly document was just what I needed to make a point and I had to pass up a lovely Eakins,” Davidson recalls. But there were other times when “a picture would be so compelling it would give me a new idea for the text.” He also never knew where he might find what he needed. He had almost given up the search for a picture showing cans of food when an image of shelves of canned goods turned up in some stereopticon slides of a Boston architectural interior. And once, when Davidson had despaired of finding an appropriate illustration for early-twentieth-century trust-busting, a friend spotted in the window of a small-town restaurant a perfect drawing of Teddy Roosevelt wielding a big stick. He tried always to find the originals of contemporary images, because copies, such as engravings, had often enough been changed by the engravers to suit their own preconceptions of the scene.
Altogether Davidson plowed through over a million pictures in museums, collections, and libraries. “It was like a perpetual love affair,” he says. “It changed my life.” When Life in America was finished, Davidson had thousands of photographs of images stuffed into clothing boxes in his apartment, in a disorder that only he understood. Eventually his collection was bought by this magazine, and it became a significant addition to its extensive picture collection.
Davidson, who is seventy-six, has continued writing about America and its iconography, and still turns up new pictures. His most recent adventure in this field has just been published, entitled The Drawing of America: Eyewitnesses to History . Now, many years after his innovative work as a historical picture editor began, we have asked him to make a selection of American images that have special meaning for him. On the following pages, he shares them with us, and tells us why he finds them special.