A month or so ago I found myself having lunch with a group of television executives at the Pen & Pencil, a classic sixty-year-old Manhattan steakhouse that survives and, indeed, seems to prevail in a pallid age of tofu and turkeyburgers. The venue was appropriate, because we were there to discuss progress in the founding of the History Channel—a twenty-four-hour network entirely given over to history.
As you might suspect, American Heritage editors are always on the lookout for a “revival of interest in history” (rumors of such a groundswell have over the years been fomented by things as diverse as the success of the movie The Sting with its scrupulous 1930s settings and 1900s soundtrack and the all-vanquishing PBS Civil War series). But if the hoped-for delirium never quite materialized, the History Channel is certainly an impressive straw in the wind—the more so since it is being put together by real pros, the people who set up the Arts & Entertainment network.
Television is a voracious medium, and it is hard to imagine enough historical material to fill hour after hungry hour, until one thinks of what a broad franchise history really is. We in this office are constantly kept aware of this through the steady stream of books, tapes, CDs and cassettes that come in for review. In fact, this deluge has been somewhat discomfiting, since it’s been a constant reminder of how much good material we’ve had to pass by simply because we’ve had no forum in which to mention it.
That changes with this issue. The brief reviews in the new “Editors’ Choice” feature that makes its debut here reflect some of the plenty that is out there—history in every form ranging from the songs of Ella Fitzgerald to Ben Katchor’s somber, moving, and utterly unique cartoon chronicle of the presence of the past and a lavish book that traces the arc of the Victorian age through the furnishings of the people who lived it. The works have little in common—except that each reflects some facet of the past, and each engaged the interest and sympathy of one of us here. We have also managed—by dint of considerable strain on the part of the back office—to make those items that might appeal to you available through the simple expedient of a phone call.
Also making its appearance—or, more accurately, its reappearance—in this issue is the “American Characters” feature, which began life more than thirty years ago as a series of succinct, one-spread biographies under the title “Faces From the Past” and was reborn over the years as various authors (myself among them) struggled to attain the very high standard set by Richard M. Ketchum at the outset. Now the torch has passed to Gene Smith; you’ll find his profile of Libbie Custer on page 108.
And here too are such unusual offerings as an insider’s view of the first real battle between the networks in television’s morning time; Bruce McCaIl, with fond and sardonic omniscience, exploring the confident nation of ninety years ago through the medium of the era’s oddly dispiriting general-interest magazines; the head of the U.S. Army talking about how history helps him do his job; and, of course, an especially wide array of American artworks.
All of this might give a measure of reassurance to the History Channel people; it certainly suggests that once they get their network going, they’ll never run out of things to show on it.