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Present At The Creation

March 2024
1min read

I was interested in Timothy Forbes’s editorial “Liberty Alive” (June/July) because I was early associated with American Heritage and have watched its development. I think he has a feel for the magazine.

Back in 1949 the only historical journals of national and regional scope in this country were academic, fearful of popularity, and largely dull. The state historical magazines were smaller imitations of these few bellwethers. Illustrations were carefully avoided. The American Association for State and Local History decided to demonstrate that American history could be made readable and colorful without sacrificing accuracy, substance, or even profundity. The initial concept was the idea of Earle Newton of the Vermont Historical Society and the late S. K. Stevens of the Pennsylvania Historical Commission. 1 was drawn in with them, then being secretary of the Indiana Historical Society and a writer of history. We tapped a few others of our colleagues, begged and borrowed color plates, and on the proverbial shoestring launched American Heritage in September 1949 as a quarterly. We found a few academic historians who agreed with us that history did not need to be dull. The new magazine was encouragingly received in spite of the fact that we could not undertake a subscription campaign. Of course, most academic history departments ignored or casually dismissed the new voice for years.

We persevered, but our success was strangling us. We all had regular jobs outside the magazine and we could not raise the funds needed to advertise it or hire a staff. We got up to a circulation of fifteen thousand in 1954, and we found a means to approach the Rockefeller Foundation. They politely informed us that publishing ventures did not appeal to them or to other foundations; they were admiring enough to refer us to Joseph J. Thorndike, Oliver Jensen, and James M. Parton, three young men with magazine experience who hoped to advise on badly managed house organs. They were immediately interested in American Heritage and its possibilities. Most important, they had access to money. Jim Parton took over as active publisher and hired Bruce Catton as editor. It was not a cash sale, but our Association was paid by receiving a royalty on sales. (We became the wealthiest historical society in the country.)

I am glad the Forbes family has taken over this responsibility with its continuing potential. I ended up as director of the Clements Library of American History at the University of Michigan and as a writer of history, my vision enlarged by my experience on American Heritage.

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