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Working With Bruce Catton

July 2024
12min read

Oliver Jensen, who was for many years the editor of this magazine and who worked with Bruce Catton from its first publication in 1954, has written this account of what it was like to have him as a colleague. We are pleased to run it here as a tribute to our late distinguished senior editor, together with some side comments from others who enjoyed the privilege of “working with Bruce Catton.”

“Early youth is a baffling time,” Bruce Catton wrote in a boyhood memoir published seven years ago. “The present moment is nice but it does not last. Living in it is like waiting in a junction town for the morning limited; the junction may be interesting but some day you will have to leave it and you do not know where the limited will take you. Sooner or later you must move down an unknown road that leads beyond the range of the imagination, and the only certainty is that the trip has to be made. In this respect early youth is exactly like old age; it is a time of waiting for a big trip to an unknown destination. The chief difference is that youth waits for the morning limited and age waits for the night train.”

Last August our good friend was spending the summer at his home in Frankfort, Michigan, very close to the junction town of his youth, when the night train came for him, at the age of seventy-eight. There had been no passenger trains for years, of course, in his part of the state—much to his sorrow—but those who loved and admired him at AMERICAN HERITAGE over the last twenty-four years can almost hear the ghostly whistle, and mourn. He had called his memoir Waiting for the Morning Train , and it is hard to get the metaphor out of one’s head.

His morning train had plucked young Bruce out of the little town of Benzonia, Michigan, in 1916, and carried him off to Oberlin College. But that experience was interrupted by World War I and another symbolic train that took him into brief service as a gunner’s mate in the Navy. Afterward he went back; he did not finish to take a bachelor’s degree. It was not a notable lack, a fact attested by his collection of honorary degrees, which numbered twenty-six when the company lost count about 1974. Catton was much too modest to volunteer any information, and the tally had to be wormed out of his secretary. Fame had come late, for his first book had not been published until he was forty-nine. In the nineteen twenties and thirties he had been a newsman—reporter, editorial writer, interviewer, book reviewer—for the Cleveland News , the Boston American , the Cleveland Plain Dealer . By 1939 he was in Washington, writing a syndicated newspaper column.

With the onset of World War II, Catton was tapped to serve the War Production Board as director of information, affording him a ringside seat at the battles between his boss, Donald Nelson, and the Army: the old struggle of the civilian with the military arm of government. Out of these governmental follies and missed opportunities our future editor drew his first book, The War Lords of Washington , written at times at white heat but received with calm if not silence when it appeared a few years later. He quit government in 1948 to write books—a bold step in middle life—and with the war lords off his chest he turned to his favorite subject, America’s most monumental drama and morality tale, the Civil War.

Once when he was away in Michigan I asked in a letter how he had developed such enthusiasm for that particular topic. In his reply he remarked, “That question always reminds me of the old gag about ‘How did a nice girl like you ever get into a business like this?’ ” He went on to say, “I grew up amidst a regular flower-bed of Civil War veterans. In the small town that I infested as a lad I used to hear the old gentlemen tell war stories until I felt as if the whole affair had taken place in the next county just a few years ago. I remember especially on Memorial Day when I was small there’d always be a meeting in the town hall, with the Grand Army of the Republic veterans on the platform, with songs and speeches: then everyone would troop out to the village cemetery, to lay lilacs on the graves of the departed veterans. … Incidentally, our cemetery was built on a low ridge looking out over pleasant rolling country, and one or another of the G.A.R. vets told me it was not unlike the famous, much-fought-over cemetery at Gettysburg. That’s how direct the line was to the Civil War, in those days.…”

It became in time his favorite topic. Presently he was collecting the ponderous regimental histories, reading the Official Records, indeed all the literature of the conflict—until the people of the 1860’s came to life as distinctly for him as his own contemporaries. He resolved, he told us long afterward, to try a novel about the war. But disliking the result, he tore up the manuscript and decided to go at things straight. And his first subject was that great, vanished, blue-clad host, by turns overconfident, defeated, valiant and triumphant, the Army of the Potomac. The first volume of what became a trilogy, Mr. Lincoln’s Army , had trouble finding a publisher. “Sorry,” he would be told, “but who wants to read any more about the Civil War?” Turned down at several noted houses, it was published by Doubleday in 1951, with the second volume, Glory Road , following a year later. The reception was modest until, with the publication of A Stillness at Appomattox in 1953, all the trumpets sounded. This intensely moving account of the closing of the war, full of high drama and homely detail, carried off both the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award.

Thus it was at the height of his new fame that, less than a year later, in mid-1954, Bruce Catton, urged on by such eminent friends as the late Allan Nevins, consented to join the small group who were organizing the new hard-cover magazine of history, AMERICAN HERITAGE . The magazine had existed before, to be sure, for five modest years as the quarterly of the American Association for State and Local History, but this was a new, bigger, and riskier enterprise. Before meeting him I wondered whether our proposed first editor would be a little flamboyant, in the newspaper tradition of The Front Page , or perhaps a big-time bureaucrat, but what appeared was a tall, quietly dressed, and unassuming man with the faintly courtly good manners of the old Midwest. He put on no airs, and made no demands. As his editor Samuel Vaughan of Doubleday once wrote of him, “Many popular or distinguished writers receive (in the post-office phrase) special handling; but Mr. Catton, who is both distinguished and popular, earns much special handling and never demands any.”

It would be idle to deny the fact that our distinguished historian had been invited, certainly in part, to lend tone to the new enterprise, but he turned out to be a thoroughly professional editor as well. His knowledge of history, it was soon clear, was prodigious and by no means confined to the war whose Homer he had been proclaimed. He had perception, taste, and an unerring ear for good writing by others. He seemed to have at command a fact or an anecdote to back up (or, if necessary, refute) any point, in conversation or on paper, and he indulged odd interests as varied as ancient Mayan timekeeping and professional baseball. There was nothing pedagogical or academic about him, as a result of which he was a natural teacher.

A magazine like AMERICAN HERITAGE , heavily illustrated but carrying no advertising, is necessarily designed throughout. That part of the job Bruce largely left to others, reserving his enthusiasm for the business of all editors, getting articles and performing the necessary rites (and rewrites) that precede publication. Years as a newspaperman had taught him the art of speedy revision, as well as the other art of knowing when to leave things alone. He was the best cutter I have ever encountered. Seven thousand words, say, would come down to five, yet many an author, going over his prose in print afterward, would not understand why, somehow, it was even better than he had thought.

Reading through manuscripts circulating among the editors for opinions, he could be blunt in the little comments he would attach to the memo sheets. Blunt to the point of annihilation, as a few quick samples from the files will indicate: “This can’t be repaired and wouldn’t be much good if it were.” (Of a piece on Coolidge) “Almost as insubstantial and uninspiring as Coolidge himself, about whom it is easy to read too much.” “The high-water mark of this piece comes at the bottom of page one, where the naked Indian nymph offers the hero strawberries. Unfortunately this level is not maintained.”

Actual dealings with authors, whether through the mails or in person, are another matter. To be rejected by Catton was like landing in a pile of pillows.

The Catton kindness was so great that it could come back to haunt him later. Very occasionally a magazine will buy a badly written article because the subject or the information it contains is new or compelling, and someone will rewrite it. Once I saddled us with an execrable manuscript on an amusing Civil War topic by a writer I will call Mr. Brown. Would Bruce repair it? He liked the subject too, but regarded me with a sigh after reading it. A few hours later he emerged from his office with a pile of yellow foolscap, his favorite writing paper, on which nothing of the original had survived but the author’s by-line. So it appeared in print. Some months later Bruce received a call from a publisher who was considering employing Brown to write a company history. “Brown gave you as a reference, Mr. Catton,” said the caller. “He showed me an article he wrote for you. What do you think of him?”

“Oh, Brown,” replied Bruce, seized by panic and searching to combine truth with kindness. “It was a fine piece. Yes, indeed, a great subject.” A year or two later the bird came home to roost in the form of a perplexed and outraged call from the publisher: Brown’s book was a disaster. Bruce came quivering into my office, saying, “I finally told him I touched up that fellow’s work a little. Why do I get into scrapes like this?”

He was not only kind but approachable, which is not always the hallmark of editors. His door was open and he was interruptible by any head poked in. Would he look over this map, or tell us whether this photograph really showed Fitz-John Porter, or this other General Burnside? Did he have a minute to meet so-and-so? He could, and he did, but you were only halfway out the door before his fingers were flying again at the old-fashioned, non-noiseless typewriter.

His book writing continued at the same time, along with the lectures, the articles and reviews by the score for AMERICAN HERITAGE and other periodicals, the roundtables, the prefaces for other authors, the prize givings and receivings (among them his receipt of the Medal of Freedom from President Ford), and all the other rewards and penalties of literary success. He doggedly endured them. In these years he published eleven more books on the Civil War, including This Hallowed Ground , two volumes on Grant in the war (to complete a series commenced by the late Lloyd Lewis), the three-volume Centennial History of the Civil War , and for our company and Doubleday jointly, the narrative of The American Heritage Picture History of the Civil War (which won a special Pulitzer citation for him and for Stephen Sears of this company, who wrote and put together the picture sections). Then there was the childhood memoir; a history of Michigan; a juvenile called Banners at Shenandoah ; and, coming out as this is written, The Bold and Magnificent Dream: America’s Founding Years, 1492–1815 , a collaboration between Bruce and his son Bill, Professor of History at Middlebury College in Vermont. Somehow in this vast body of work he never repeated himself, and never flagged, although he did step back somewhat from the job of editor in 1959, to become senior editor—taking what he called “vacations” in Michigan. But he usually came back from them with another book manuscript under his arm. And he continued to write for the magazine.


Concentration was no doubt the secret, that and getting an early start. For many years Bruce was always the first person in the office, so early that most of the staff never knew when he did arrive. On his desk the little piles of yellow sheets grew slowly, with much larger piles in the wastebasket. A neat and orderly man, he preferred to type a new page than correct very much in pencil. By the time the rest of the staff had ordered coffee and hung up their coats, Catton was ready for the day’s business. At home Bruce and his wife, Hazel, who died in 1969, lived an intensely private life, at least in the big cities where fortune took them. He saw his friends at lunch, and he loved good restaurants with a former country boy’s zest. “Thank God for the Army of the Potomac,” he would tell his Doubleday editor as his royalty statements were delivered over the delicacies in the comfortable precincts of the Oak Room of the Plaza Hotel in New York. A man who has beaten the birds out of bed and done his stint is hungry and thirsty and enjoys his midday break among friends. He joined several clubs, some convivial and some august, although his favorite watering place was no doubt his corner table at the old-fashioned Algonquin Hotel, then a few steps from the office.

Of all the customs of business and city life, I believe meetings pleased Bruce the least. He never called one in my memory, although he would loyalb attend those of others, sitting through them quietly with every sign of alert attention, sometimes making what I first thought were notes on a small white pad. It was quite a while before I discovered that these supposed notes, which he regularly dropped in the wastebasket on leaving, were mainly doodles, or cartoons. And I began retrieving them after he once passed me a note, like a boy in a schoolroom, seeking to be released at twelve o’clock. On the other side I found a cartoon of a train of the Civil War era with a tiny shack coupled on the end. You looked twice to see that it was an outhouse, with a little half-moon cut over the door. There was that side of him, and that kind of humor in him, too. It occurs to me now that Catton possessed much the same mix of melancholy and rough wit that characterized Mr. Lincoln.

One of these little rescued drawings suggests that he possessed an undeveloped talent—whatever the art teachers may think. In this particular cartoon is a character labeled “Sinner” crawling like a man dying of thirst toward a sinister bottle, urged on by a dandified “Satan” while a shadowy figure called “Better Angel” buries her face in her hands. The creator’s title reads “The Prohibition Era,” but, as someone else suggested, it could be titled also “Benzonia Versus Babylon: The Struggle for Bruce Catton.” We live in an age of too much home psychiatry, however, for the fact is that Babylon never got much of a grip on Catton.

He was actually born in nearby Petoskey, Michigan, a little seaport, camp meeting ground, and resort town at the lakefront in the northern part of the state’s Lower Peninsula. The fame of the native son led Petoskey to celebrate “Bruce Catton Day,” with speeches, a concert of Civil War music, and the unveiling of a bronze plaque with his likeness, one fine July day in 1965. In the course of the ceremonies a local Indian tribe placed a war bonnet on his head and bestowed on him a name in their own tongue; to Bruce’s intense relief none of us who went were able to catch the words. (He had been equally agile at disposing of his real first name, Charles.) Petoskey, however, was his grandfather’s town; Benzonia, with a population of some 350 souls, was where Bruce grew to manhood. The souls were unlike those in most of the other little lumber and resort settlements of this part of Michigan, for Benzonia (a name concocted out of Greek and Latin to mean “good air”) was a college town, a city set upon a hill. The Congregationalist educators who founded it in 1858 clearly stated that it was to be “a temperance, anti-slavery, educational Christian community.”

Bruce was in the thick of it. His minister father, George R. Catton, was the head of the little college, which for lack of students and cash eventually declined into a sort of preparatory school, closing entirely two years after Bruce graduated. Bruce’s brothers and one sister, like their father, became ministers of the gospel, so that he, perhaps, seemed a renegade in his own mind. He acquired, in any case, a marvelous knowledge of the Bible, and inhaled that spiritually optimistic air. There was very little money, and consequently no danger of encountering the rich man’s difficulties in entering the kindgom of Heaven, but above all there was a belief in the perfectibility of the social order. That was before the mass slaughters, concentration camps, and other horrors of modern times in which (in another Catton phrase) “the world took off its mask.” It was a happy childhood, although, as he has written, “Growing up in Benzonia was just a little bit like growing up with the Twelve Apostles for next-door neighbors. You never could forget what you were here for.”

Man is indeed an interesting piece of work, but how much of this man was assembled from Benzonia, how much from Babylon, how much from the far-off music of the bands of 1865, no one can say. Bruce Catton’s fame will rest on the grace and beauty and emotional power of his narratives of the Civil War, and for his understanding of all its courage and its tragedy. His achievement is so moving that it lends a kind of truth to the offhand reply he once gave a friend, his researcher E. B. Long, when he asked how Bruce could describe the scenes of the war with such uncanny power.

“I don’t know,” he answered. “Maybe I was there.”

Certainly he was here with us, and his presence made an enormous difference to the success of AMERICAN HERITAGE . There are a hundred times a hundred reminders of him about us, on walls, on shelves, in drawers, and in the echoes. And perhaps we should close with his own description, from his memoir, of how it is to wait at the junction for the night train:

“You have seen all of the sights, and it is a little too dark to see any more even if you did miss some, and the waiting room is uncomfortable and the time of waiting is dreary, long-drawn, with a wind from the cold north whipping curls of fog past the green lamps on the switch stands. Finally, far away yet not so far really, the train can be heard; the doctor (or station agent) hears it first, but finally you hear it yourself and you go to the platform to get on. And there is the headlight, shining far down the track, glinting off the steel rails that, like all parallel lines, will meet in infinity, which is after all where this train is going. And there by the steps of the sleeping car is the Pullman conductor, checking off his list. He has your reservation, and he tells you that your berth is all ready for you. And then, if he is like all other Pullman conductors, he adds the final assurance as you go down the aisle to the curtained bed: I’ll call you in plenty of time in the morning.’

”… in the morning.”




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