August/September 2005 | Volume 56, Issue 4
As this issue was going to press, we learned that Oliver Jensen had died.
Oliver—along with James Parton and Joseph J. Thorndike, Jr.—founded American Heritage, bringing out the first issue of the magazine just a little over half a century ago in December 1954. The infant company grew quickly: Soon it had launched another magazine, Horizon, which approached the world’s history much the way its sister publication did America’s. Jim Parton was an effective force on the business side, and Joe Thorndike edited Horizon. But Oliver’s interest remained most firmly rooted in the American past, and he focused his formidable energies mainly on this magazine.
Born in 1914, Oliver went to Yale; neither the school nor its state—where he spent much of his life—ever had a more steadfast supporter. Not long after graduating, he found his way into publishing, “employing,” he recalled, “my faint editorial abilities at the old humor magazine Judge, which in the summer of 1938 was teetering on the edge of well-deserved bankruptcy.”
A couple of years later Judge was gone and Oliver was working as a writer for Life . His career, like so many millions of others, was interrupted by World War II. He served in the Navy in the Pacific and afterward wrote the first of his many books, Carrier War.
After V-J Day he returned to Life, and left it in 1950 with his new partners to found a publishing company of their own. Life, of course, had become a prodigious success by making its pictures as important as its text. The partners used this same recipe in American Heritage , and by so doing began the process that in time would elevate the visual to parity with the written in the eyes of historians. The picture here shows Oliver sorting through historical photographs—the sort of big, crisply printed images that went into his book American Album, which he created with his colleagues Murray Belsky and Joan Paterson Kerr. Oversized, and with its black-and-white photographs reproduced by techniques until then almost exclusively consecrated to costly color art books, American Album was a record of every aspect of American life from the moment the camera opened its eye on the young country up until World War I, when the Kodak had become a common fixture in the home. The book is gorgeous, but what gives it a unique life are Oliver’s captions: He explains the sometimes remote doings in the photographs with such fluent intimacy, with such respect for his subjects and fond amusement at the foibles of their eras, that the readers feel they, too, are in the presence of Lewis Cass, or boarding the side-wheeler to go from Martha’s Vineyard to Nantucket.
American Album came out in 1968. In a year it had a dozen imitators; by the end of the 1970s, hundreds.
But if American Album is the reflection of something that Oliver did perhaps better than anybody else ever, it is by no means a summary of all his accomplishments, which extend from a history of women in America to “The Gettysburg Address in Eisenhowerese,” a small and indestructible jewel of parody (it begins, “I haven’t checked these figures but eighty-seven years ago, I think it was, a number of individuals organized a governmental setup here in this country …”).
He left the editorship of this magazine to write a book on one of his favorite subjects, The American Heritage History of Railroads in America. His love of the heroic age of steam power in this country manifested itself in even more corporeal form: He founded the Valley Railroad, which brought live steam back to Connecticut, and which flourishes today.
Oliver went on to the highly appropriate job of chief of the division of prints and photographs at the Library of Congress, but he remained in close touch with the magazine he had founded and was a valued contributor to it. The phrase—“valued contributor”—should not in this case carry an odor of the perfunctory, for it was Oliver’s enviable gift to become a better and better writer all his life—and he was a fine one from the outset. (Readers with a set of back issues might want to take a look at late Oliver in his memoir of his career as a Boy Scout, February 1985, and his vivid description of the discomforts of summer living before the advent of air conditioning, August 1984.)
He brought that same grace to his editing, and the same energy that built a railroad to his editorship. In the office he was a great, intimidating, inspiriting power— tall, buoyant, querulous, amused, fizzing with ideas. He would arrive like a line squall, outraged by something he’d read in the Times and seeking historical precedents to refute it, then be enchanted by a 90-year-old trade card that depicted the Brooklyn Bridge with its deck supported by strands of “Schuyler’s patent twine,” conceive a cluster of future stories founded on a forthcoming election, and then pause to squint briefly at a caption on the blue-gridded copy paper of those days and unfailingly change the almost-right word to the right word. The difference between the two, as Mark Twain said, is the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning.
More than any other person, Oliver built the editorial house his successors at American Heritage inhabit today. It feels empty indeed just now.