December 1999 | Volume 50, Issue 8
This issue of American Heritage is unlike any that has ever before been published. As you’ll see, it contains just one feature story, which is not, strictly speaking, a real story at that.
We’ve given you that dangerous thing, a “special issue.” Dangerous because this usually means “single topic,” and if the reader doesn’t happen to be drawn by the topic, he or she will be nettled—quite rightly; after all, this is a magazine and not a book.
But we believe—hope, anyway—that you will like this one, whatever your particular interests. It took seed some time ago when the editors realized we were faced with the twin obligation of propitiating the gods of the millennium while marking the magazine’s forty-fifth anniversary. This mandated something out of the ordinary, and once we’d begun discussing it, we found ourselves more and more drawn to the visual.
Writing on the magazine’s twentieth anniversary, our founding editor Oliver Jensen said, “What pleases us most of all … is that American Heritage has been the leader in reawakening a public appreciation of the importance, indeed usefulness, of history. We have made enormous efforts to be accurate and to bring out the drama of the past in all its varied excitement, and we have been pioneers in unearthing its authentic pictorial riches.”
All this is true, of course, and yet perhaps it is in that last category—pictures—that this magazine has made its greatest contribution. This is fitting; it was founded by three men—Oliver, Joseph Thorndike, and James Parton—who had left Life , which had become the most successful magazine on the planet thanks to pictures, to create a magazine about history. Forty-five years ago paintings and photographs were not as important to historians, whose training, wrote one of them, Raphael Samuel, “predisposes to give a privileged place to the written word, to hold the visual in comparatively low esteem, and to regard imagery as a kind of trap.” Today, however, people study “images” as seriously as they do any other historical evidence. This is in large part thanks to the conviction of this magazine’s original editors that, say, a John Sloan painting can tell you as much about the ferment of city life a century ago as can any number of municipal surveys, diaries, and newspaper archives, a conviction they advanced with such scrupulousness, imagination, and vigor that it cut new roadways into the past.
So we set ourselves a challenge. There have been a number of recently published visual surveys—some of them very good indeed—of the century now closing (Harold Evans, who wrote the last of our “Summing Up” columns, in this issue, is the author of an especially fine one). But none, as far as we know, reached into the whole immense variety of visual material generated in the past century to select a single emblematic image from each year. We decided to try.
We formulated a fairly strict rule: Whatever it was, the picture had to be produced in the year it represented. This is a trick, but we felt it was a good trick. Every picture carries encoded in it all the myriad things that distinguish the look of one decade—indeed, one year—from another. Assemble our choices in this way, we told ourselves, and if we’re lucky, maybe we’ll get not only some lively anecdotal scenes but a sense of the process of time passing, of our grandparents’ world turning into ours.
Well, here’s the result. Pictures are captivating things, and it turned out to be quite a passionate process, with people disputing various favorites and fretting at length between two irresistible subjects that had the bad grace to get themselves produced in the same calendar year. Some of the pictures here first appeared in American Heritage , some are new to us, and there was only one out of the hundred that we felt was inevitable: the stretch of beach at Kitty Hawk where the Wrights’ airplane seems to be lifting the whole infant century into the future with it.
That flight was a technical triumph, and looking over how our anniversary project turned out, we found there is more of technology here than we thought we were including—computers, air conditioners, cars—but this seems to be appropriate. Arnold Toynbee wrote, “The twentieth century may be remembered, not for its devastating wars or such special triumphs as splitting the atom, but for being the first age since the dawn of civilization … in which people dared to think it practicable to make the benefits of civilization available for the whole human world.” If this is true—and I think it is—it is largely because of what has happened in America since 1900, and the idea would be meaningless if it were not underpinned, nourished, and given velocity by a growing technical mastery, a productive genius that changed the life of everyone it touched. And at least once in this century, what Americans built, propelled by an idea, helped save the world.
Perhaps that comes through in this collection. We hope so. We hope, too, that it offers some of the crackle and fizz of life, of its accidents and missteps and lubricity and bravery and its whole palette of the foolish and the glorious. Most of all, we hope you enjoy it.