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What They Did There

April 2024
3min read

Our American heritage is greater than any one of us.

Cannon at Gettysburg, by Craig M. Fildes
An 1857 12-pound Napolean cannon still guards the battlefield at Gettysburg. Photo by Craig M. Fildes.

The sun goes down every evening over the muzzle of a gun that has been a museum piece for nearly a century, and where there was a battlefield there is now a park, with green fields rolling west under the sunset haze to the misty blue mountain wall. You can see it all just about as it used to be, and to look at it brings up deep moods and sacred memories that are part of our American heritage.

Yet the moods and the memories are not quite enough, for Gettysburg battlefield—like any other historic site—is memorable not for its scenic and evocative qualities but because it symbolizes the struggles and the sacrifices and the terrible hopes of people in a great moment of crisis. The men who fought at Gettysburg are all gone now but once they were very much alive, contending desperately with a fate which was almost more than they could cope with; and as Mr. Lincoln remarked, the world can never forget what they did there.

It is precisely that question—What did men do there?—that animates every worthwhile examination of the American past.

For history after all is the story of people: a statement that might seem too obvious to be worth making if it were not for the fact that history so often is presented in terms of vast incomprehensible forces moving far under the surface, carrying human beings along, helpless, and making them conform to a pattern whose true shape they never see. The pattern does exist, often enough, and it is important to trace it. Yet it is good to remember that it is the people who make the pattern, and not the other way around.

The editors of any magazine calling itself AMERICAN HERITAGE must begin by stating the faith that moves them; and the faith that moves us is, quite simply, the belief that our heritage is best understood by a study of the things that the ordinary folk of America have done and thought and dreamed since first they began to live here. They have done and thought and dreamed some rather extraordinary things, as a matter of fact, whose true significance does not always appear on the surface.

For a great many of the things people do seem rather unimportant, at first glance. They sing tinkly little songs, or they give way to queer enthusiasms about race horses or steamboats or carved figureheads for sailing ships; they fall victim to fear and suspicion, and so work hardship on some of their fellows who are doing the best they can according to the lights that were given them; they paint pictures of Indians, or of fire engines, or of landscapes that seem to carry some important message in their play of light and shade and color: they dig for precious metals in forsaken pockets of dangerous mountain ranges, they drowse lazily about the cracker barrel in a crossroads grocery store, and sometimes a few of them strive frantically to get people to buy one brand of soap rather than another, or grow snobbish and form clubs so that they can live comfortably on a plane above their fellows.

These things are not very important, probably, except that each one contributes its own bit to the heritage by which we live—and each one, therefore, is worth looking at, because in each one we see the enthusiasms, the foibles, the impelling drives or the wistful dreams of the men and women who have made America.

So we propose to look into all such things; and because the infinite drama of human life can come out most clearly when people are least conscious of drama, trying to handle the prosaic business of making a living on a day-to-day basis, we believe that we do not always need to go to what are supposed to be the great moments of history in order to show American history in the making. The fearful climax of Gettysburg compels the attention, to be sure. But Gettysburg would not have been what it was if there had not been generations of plain folk beforehand, laying out farms and working in shops and stores, quite unaware that they were on the high road to destiny but somehow living and working in such a way that when destiny came along they could meet it without batting an eye.

Our beat, in other words, is anything that ever happened in America. Our principal question is: What did men do there? Our chief requirement as we set out to tell about it all is that the things we talk about must be interesting. The games men have played and the songs they have sung, the delusions they have had and the victories and defeats they have experienced, the homes they have built and the clothing they have worn, the aberrations from which they have suffered and the soaring, inexpressible ideals they have served—all of these, in one way or another, go to make up the heritage which we as Americans have today, and all of these make up the field which we propose to cover in this magazine.

The fabric of American life is a seamless web. Everything fits in somewhere. History is a continuous process; it extends far back into the past, and it will go on—in spite of today’s uneasy qualms—far into the future. As editors of this magazine we can think of no more eternally fascinating task than that of examining this continuous process on a day-to-day basis. Sometimes we shall talk about great men and what they did, and sometimes we shall talk about the doings of wholly obscure people who made the great men possible. But always we intend to deal with that great, unfinished, and illogically inspiring story of the American people doing and being and becoming. Our American heritage is greater than any one of us. It can express itself in very homely truths; in the end, it can lift up our eyes beyond the glow in the sunset skies.

Bruce Catton

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