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Working With Bruce Catton

July 2024
2min read

Samuel S. Vaughan, Bruce’s editor at Doubleday for many years: “In preparing to work with him, I was given some advice about editing in general by Ken McCormick, our editor-in-chief. He told me never to write on an author’s manuscript until you had established a real relationship with him—until you trusted each other. Writing on a man’s manuscript, he suggested, was like writing on his skin .

“So in reading my first Catton manuscript, I made only the tiniest, pencil check marks in the margin beside the few sentences that might need another look. My notes themselves I put on a separate tablet of paper. Then I went over to meet the great man in his office at AMERICAN HERITAGE .

“He was extremely cooperative, listened patiently, even respectfully, to some of my suggestions, and in most cases accepted them. But I noticed that before he did anything, he took an eraser and carefully erased the check marks in the margin .

“He was an author who could instruct most editors. His favorite method of revising an unsuccessful sentence was to draw a long, unwavering line through it. ‘Surprising how often that fixes them,’ he said. After reading another author, Bruce remarked: ‘He’s a good plain writer. It’s when he starts flapping his wings that he gets in trouble. … ‘And another time, while editing someone else’s work, he explained why he was taking out some sentences. ‘When you can leave ’em on tiptoes, that’s the thing. Leave them on tiptoes—that’s a no-hit game.’”

In this excerpt from an unpublished column for AMERICAN HERITAGE , Bruce praised a favorite pastime—fishing: “You row to a chosen spot, anchor, bait a line and put it in the water, and then lean back with the line in your hand, half close your eyes, and forget everything .

“And there is where the charm comes in. You are totally at rest and at peace. No exertion is called for, or even possible. Your worries are far away; the thinking part of your mind hibernates. You are wholly inactive, on the water, under the late afternoon sun. You are no longer the captive of a mechanized universe; you are no more mechanized than Saint Peter was on Galilee. If you get a string of perch for breakfast you are that much ahead of the game, but (and this is heresy) it doesn’t really matter very much. What you do get is complete relaxation. You even get away from the unpleasant part of yourself. Next day the modern world is not quite so scary.”

David McCullough, a former colleague at AMERICAN HERITAGE and author of The Path Between the Seas and other works of history, remembers the impact ofBruce’s work: “Like every writer I was a reader long before I was a writer. At Yale I was an English major—I took no courses in American History—but once in my senior year I bought a copy of a book that was receiving a great deal of attention. It was A Stillness at Appomattox by Bruce Cation, and looking back, I think it changed my life, !didn’t know that then, naturally. All I knew was that I had found in that book a kind of splendor I had not experienced before, and it started me on a new path.”

E. B. Long, Professor of American Studies at the University of Wyoming, was for eleven years director of research for Centennial History of the Civil War. He has written to remind us that “Bruce Cation was an easy man to work with, and for those who knew him mainly through his writings, an easy man to know. And yet there was about him something mystical, something unknowable, too .

“Some forty years ago he wrote in a syndicated newspaper column devoted to New Year’s resolutions: ‘We are pretty hopelessly earthbound, but we still live by the stars. We are on a puzzling sort of voyage … and our only recourse then is the traditional recourse of the mariner—to look at the stars, remind ourselves of our charted course, and be guided accordingly. It is our unfailing reminder that in spite of the doubt and discouragement of the daily round we were somehow born of something deathless, and put on this earth to serve a purpose that is greater than ourselves. If we ever lose touch completely with that fact, we are lost indeed.’ ‘Bruce Cation was and is not lost.”

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