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Happy 60th, American Heritage!

May 2024
4min read

A longtime contributor and former editor introduces the special anniversary issue

READERS, I HAVE THE honor of introducing this birthday banquet of essays on critical moments in our nation's story by some of its ablest current thinkers. I even get to follow on the distinguished heels of President John F. Kennedy; whose resounding words in the preceding article remind us of the vital importance of a citizenry knowing its history. It's worth noting that two of Kennedy's White House predecessors-Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson were published historians and presidents of the American Historical Association. History really does matter.

One of the astonishing things about celebrating American Heritage's 60th birthday is the realization that more than half a century has been added to the history that it so vividly relates--60 years filled with great events that some of these essays recall. Sometimes they are shattering and violent (Pearl Harbor and Vietnam), sometimes miraculous (landing on the Moon and curing an age-old scourge), sometimes heartening (electing an African American president), and always transformative. Sixty years is more than a full quarter of our 220-year history under the Constitution.

My first article in American Heritage appeared in August 1955 (vol. 6, no. 5). By that time, the magazine had already been published for six years, the first five under the auspices of the American Association for State and Local History (AASLH). (Through the promotion of museums, libraries, and educational programs, the AASLH dedicates itself to the praiseworthy job of putting Americans in touch with their communities' histories.) The illustrated, soft-cover quarterly was sold to members by subscription and featured eminent professors, such as Allan Nevins, as well as authors who wrote history for nonspecialists.

In 1954 three young men trained in the snappy journalism of Henry Luce's Time-Life-Fortune empire bought the title and rights. James Parton, Joseph Thorndike, and Oliver Jensen were united by a passion for America's history and a hunch that it could be packaged effectively to a general audience. With only $60,000 of capital, Parton recalled, they launched a hardbound, advertising-free, beautifully graphic "Magazine of History." They scored a coup by collaring as their first editor Bruce Catton, the famous Civil War historian who had recently published the classic A Stillness at Appomattox.

Their story and mine merged shortly thereafter with the appearance of "Evangelists to the Machine Age," a piece about two Gilded Age revivalists and the first of many stories that I would write for them. I was then an assistant professor at Wayne State University in Detroit. On a visit to New York City late one afternoon, I visited the magazine's midtown Fifth Avenue office and asked if I might see Catton. After exchanging a few pleasantries, I turned to go. He called me back, and we fell into conversation about war, history, and historians. Three hours, a couple of martinis, and a bite at the Players Club later, he hailed a taxi for me and I headed off to LaGuardia Airport.

That unforgettable afternoon seemed a clue to the businesslike but easygoing atmosphere at the publication's headquarters. When events brought me back 17 years afterward to become an associate editor, that had not changed. My teenaged daughter, waiting to pick me up at the office one day, was startled to hear my voice raised with Oliver Jensen's as we belted out a Gilbert and Sullivan song during a moment of after-hours relaxation. Senior editors, she had thought, didn't cavort with junior staffers. But rank did not strut its privileges there. We all enjoyed our work and took history seriously, but we tried not to take ourselves too seriously.

A few of my fellow professors sniffed at American Heritage, implying that it would inevitably trivialize or prettify the past in search of cheap amusement or flag-waving bombast. Actually, the magazine's standards held firm that articles should be written in jargon-free prose, easily gain the attention of the general reader, and be capable of enlisting the added visual power of good and pertinent illustrations. While we need to be mindful of the deeper currents that sweep   us along to unknown destinations, noted Catton, "it is the people who make the pattern and not the other way around. . . . Our chief requirement . . . is that the things we talk about must be interesting."

Those standards worked well enough to make American Heritage an overnight success and establish itself as a cultural force in its own right. The 1950s were a post-Depression and postwar period of seeking consensus rather than conflict. The magazine and a number of spin-off books addressing those moments in our shared past drew Americans closer together.

Nor did American Heritage repel all academics. My companions in that first volume included Allan Nevins of Columbia (joined in later issues by his colleague Henry Steele Commager) plus rising stars such as John A. Garraty and T. Harry Williams, as well as novelist Wallace Stegner, political scientist Clinton Rossiter, and the busy president of Pennsylvania State University, Milton Eisenhower, who among other things was an adviser to his big brother Dwight in the White House.

Almost every well-known and respected historian of the United States has appeared in these pages over the years, and the tradition continues with the list of authors of the following essays—distinguished professors, curators, educational administrators, and journalists, 14 of whom have been honored with the Pulitzer Prize.

Time and chance impacted the fortunes of American Heritage, and in 2007 its then owner, Forbes, Inc., put it exclusively online. At that time I wrote a loving but, as it turned out, premature obituary for the print magazine. Never have I been so happy to be wrong. Edwin Grosvenor bought the publication, determined to restore its print version and focus on its original beat as Catton had defined it—"everything that ever happened in America." As executive editor he acquired John E Ross—author, adventurer, and onetime editor at Smithsonian magazine.

I had not expected to publish in these pages again, but when Ed solicited my advice (along with that of other veteran contributors) and I happened to mention my wartime experience in military intelligence, he pounced on me with glee. "Write a piece about that for us, will you?" I did and was delighted to find as I worked with John in the editing process that the standards and integrity of my old journalistic home, as well as the friendly atmosphere, were as alive as ever. The past, it seems, has a future.

Now, like any sensible presenter, I step aside and leave you to the enjoyment of the feast…

We hope you enjoy our work.

Please support this magazine of trusted historical writing, now in its 75th year, and the volunteers that sustain it with a donation to American Heritage.