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History’s Inconstant Muse

June 2024
6min read

An American Heritage veteran looks at our first year to see what four decades have done to our subject

Happy Birthday, American Heritage ! I say it with a certain avuncular pride, for though I am not among the magazine’s first contributors, I come close. My earliest appearance in these pages was in the fifth number of the first hardcover volume, dated August 1955. For the moment I am simply establishing my old-timer credentials. I am the only first-year contributor now writing a regular column. Moreover, of my fellow twenty present Contributing Editors, only two others (Oliver Jensen and John A. Garraty) had signed pieces in the first year’s issues and two more—Joseph Thorndike, Jr., and Joan Paterson Kerr (then Mills)—were, like Jensen, on the editorial staff in December 1954.

Hence, readers, I claim the right of seniority to detain you, like the Ancient Mariner, with my tale—but mine will be shorter than his. The most appropriate celebration I can think of is to take a backward glance at those early issues, especially the very first, and hazard a guess as to how differently their contents might read these forty years afterward. And differences there would certainly be. As John Lukacs says in the September 1994 issue, “History is revisionism. . . . the ceaseless . . . reviewing and revising and rethinking of the past.” I concur, of course. No account of a historical event is final and beyond reinterpretation, a now-commonplace sentiment that itself revises a major premise of “scientific” history as it was taught very early in this century. On the other hand, not all new versions of history are created equal. As Lukacs goes on to illustrate, some, in either ignorance or malice or both, simply shrug off contrary evidence. But my aim here is neither to praise nor to denounce the historical fashions of 1954 and 1994. All I want to do is to show the revisionary process at work.

Bruce Catton launched things with a moving opening page essay, saying that “our heritage is best understood by a study of the things that the ordinary folk of America have done and thought and dreamed.” Nonetheless, it was the usual out-of-the-ordinary figures who predominated in the first six tables of contents. Of the ninety pieces listed, including book excerpts and reprinted documents, a very rough survey shows about a third of them to be biographical in nature. The subjects or authors were either universally familiar—John Brown, Abraham Lincoln, Alexander Hamilton, Eli Whitney, Henry Ford, Theodore Roosevelt, Robert E. Lee—or at least recognizable to those likely to have done some reading in history after their school days: figures such as the journalistic tycoon James Gordon Bennett, the society architect Richard Morris Hunt, the evangelists Dwight L. Moody and Ira Sankey (my contribution), and the drillmaster of Washington’s army, Baron von Steuben.

Yes, indeed, they were predominantly successful white men. The only black man to be the subject of an article was a murderer named “Crazy Bill.” Only three women made the table of contents: Emily Dickinson, Mary Todd Lincoln, and Lola Montez, and even then somewhat peripherally. The Dickinson article was actually about a man with whom she was possibly in love, while that on Mary Lincoln told of how her son had her temporarily placed in an insane asylum. The Montez piece —she was the mistress of the King of Bavaria—was about her reception in New York during an 1851 visit. There were no other women named in titles, nor were there any articles then on subjects that play a large part in the historical writings of the most recent decade. None on the groups that populated the world of the city, such as immigrant communities and their churches and synagogues, working families and their living conditions, or “disreputables” like prostitutes and criminals. None on black life, and certainly none on homosexuals or any aspect whatever of sexual behavior. None on childbirth and child rearing or on social mobility, the economic organization of neighborhoods, the control of the public schools, and the various unofficial networks of communication (on the job, in the streets and marketplaces, in the clubs and cafes and saloons, or in the newspaper pages) that taught men and women their proper “roles” in American life.

Getting beyond city limits, there was only one piece on Indians—but that one, about the Iroquois, thoroughly admiring—and none on what pioneer communities did to the environment. There were some reflections on the American landscape, like Wallace Stegner’s memoir of the prairie skies of Montana and Saskatchewan, and an excerpt from Paul Morgan’s superb history of the Rio Grande.

There was a good representation of military history, with articles on battles of the French and Indian War, the Revolution, the War of 1812, the Mexican War, and, of course, the Civil War. None of them dealt with the home front, nor was there any questioning of the aims or justice of the particular war involved. There was a sprinkling of pieces that looked nostalgically on colorful (and conventional) artifacts and figures from bygone days: clipper ships, passenger steamboats, street vendors, folk medicines, and country general stores. For the reflective there were “think pieces” like D. W. Brogan’s still-provocative essay on the differences between American and British writers of history. A couple of what might be called group portraits enlivened the first volume: one of Salem’s merchant princes who filled their parlors with curios of the East Indies and another of the Rocky Mountain fur trappers and their wild freedom. But there were no efforts to see in these anything like “elites” or “classes” in the process of “formation” or to enroll them among “traditional” or “modernizing” forces—all the terms in quotation marks being analytic staples of present-day doctoral dissertations in United States history.

Glancing more closely at that very first issue is a lesson in the constantly changing context in which we all read the past. T. Harry Williams had an article on how the Union general Charles P. Stone, after losing a battle, was harassed and jailed in 1862 by the Congressional Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War, dominated by Radical Republicans trying to sniff out traitors. I suspect that Williams and the editors who ran his piece were aware of its “hook” to the Red-hunting senator Joseph McCarthy’s inquisitorial rampages of 1950 to 1954. In the same way, it was eminently reasonable to include Allan Nevins’s Henry Ford A Complex Man . Nevins had just completed a major and generally admiring biography of Ford (or at least of his work), but more important, the interstate highway program was in its birth process with Eisenhower’s blessing, and the American-made automobile was the unchallenged king of our roads and our culture. I can’t help thinking that forty years later any article on automotive history would not have at least a phrase or two on the negative impact of automobilization on our lungs, nerves, and pocketbooks. Likewise dated are the personal reminiscences of Albert Lasker, described in an editorial note as the “father of modern advertising.” One of his proud boasts (among many), in the memoir from the Columbia University Oral History Collection, is of the work he did in marketing cigarettes for the American Tobacco Company, especially in hooking a generation of women smokers with the slogan “Reach for a Lucky instead of a sweet.” At a minimum that might now call for an editorial sidebar noting how dangerously innocent we then were about the weed.

Glancing closely at American Heritage ’s first issue is a lesson in the constantly changing context in which we all read the past.

I cannot repeat strongly enough that this roster of omissions is not a denunciation or in any way motivated by what is often (and often unfairly) called political correctness. I am only pointing out that the distinctive individuals and events celebrated—and I use that verb very deliberately—in the pages of American Heritage in 1954 and 1955 were generally taken for granted to be the basic stuff of history. Although most academic historians were then somewhat disdainful of a popular pictorial magazine, their own books and journal articles covered essentially the same topics in greater depth. The difference was and still is in the fact that American Heritage always gave priority to what Catton conversationally called “a good yarn,” whereas the professors assigned themselves the task of explaining and theorizing about the past mainly for their colleagues, students, and other insiders.

But these latest shifts in subject matter and perspective are not the simple result of some conspiracy of aging New Leftists in endowed chairs. They are not even especially novel. “Social history” dealing with the daily doings of ordinary people in the aggregate goes back to the nineteenth-century British, French, and German historians of “peoples and civilizations,” back to American chroniclers like John B. McMaster and the authors of a multivolumed, minutely detailed History of American Life series that was standard graduate school reading in 1954.

Nor is it unusual that 1990s historians should be drawn to look for historical light to throw on live current questions such as the appropriate places of men, women, races, bosses and workers, natives and newcomers in American life—or that some historians should be critical and controversial in their answers. The real problem has always been that histories of class, gender, ethnicity, and environment easily slip into deadening retrospective sociology with little power to stir us or even to bind us by shared national memories. On the other hand, old-fashioned hero tales that leave out the kind of collective, common experience sung by a Walt Whitman—well, a steady diet of these can cheat and falsify the past by incompleteness. The trick, as always, is balance. So I expand my fortieth birthday greeting and wish American Heritage , its present and future editors, contributors, and readers many more years of happy balancing.

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