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A Funeral Oration for American Heritage

Allow me to shed a sentimental senior tear or two for the dear, departed print version of American Heritage,  executed by Forbes, Inc., for the crime of attracting only one third of a million (350,000 to be exact) regular readers.  Whether the online edition is granted a full pardon or merely a reprieve seems unclear at this moment.  It's all rather personal with me.  I'm one of the earliest contributors, with a piece on revivalist star of the eighteen-seventies, Dwight L. Moody, in the August 1955 issue,  Subsequently I wrote a very large quantity of  reviews and articles on assorted topics, the last  (on political polling) appearing in 2000--plus books for the then-independent American Heritage Corporation's   juvenile, text-book and mail-order book divisions,  all long since sold away or terminated with extreme prejudice.  But the magazine was my true home, a perfect haven for an academically trained historian who enjoys the challenge of writing respectable history for a general readership.  From 1970 to 1972 I was on full-time staff as an Associate Editor, a personal  way station on the road to leaving college teaching.  Finally, from 1989 to 1999 I was a regular columnist, connecting today's news with yesterday's history, much as HNN does now.

But it's those two years as Associate Editor that I recall most fondly.  The company's offices were then in the Fred F. French building at 45th Street and 5th Avenue, handy to the restaurants, theaters and tourist attractions of midtown Manhattan.  Bruce Catton was still there, friendly  but usually secluded in his office and working on his own projects, but also doing a smooth, professional job of doctoring articles referred to him by Oliver Jensen, the active editor.  Oliver, one of the three founding fathers of the enterprise, was alternately maddening and side-splitting, arbitrary and open to a running a story whose subject he hated (like an article of mine on the Industrial Workers of the World)  if it was well-written.  He had an instinctive  sense of what "his"  magazine's core audience liked,  to wit what he himself liked.  It was the kind of gut reflex that made Henry Luce rich.  Other "pioneers"  of the earliest days like Stephen Sears, Joan Kerr, Carla Davidson  and Murray Belsky  were there, as were later additions like Barbara Klaw, David McCullough (at that time editing a short-lived Conservation Section) and myself. So were three future editors-in--chief,  Alvin Josephy  E.M. Halliday, and Richard Snow (at twenty-two, obscurely toiling in the mail room).

We had our squabbles, our jealousies, our complaints of the management and our  share of the clashes between editorial and business departments.  But I do not recall tension between the "picture people"--the highly competent pictorial research staff--and those of us on the "print side."  We all agreed on the concept of a generously illustrated magazine, with words and images mutually reinforcing each other, that took history seriously.  We liked and respected what we did, and this is not mere nostalgia for golden days of youthful aspiration--we were all well past thirty.

It is, of course,  exactly that seriousness which critics of the magazine denied.  They said its wish to entertain short-changed its power to instruct.  I'll grant that there was a possible over-supply of drums and trumpets, "quaint corners of the past," and Great White Males in those early numbers. (Oliver Jensen stoutly denied this.)  But there was also plenty of food for reflection.  What was more, the pages included many  articles by rising and already risen stars of the academy--Britons like B. H. Liddell Hart, J.H. Plumb and D.W.  Brogan, and Americans like Allan Nevins, Richard B. Morris, Daniel Boorstin,  Carl Degler, David Donald,  T. Harry Williams and Bernard Bailyn.  The thinking was that well-told narrative reclaimed history, for many readers, from memories of abominable teaching in their elementary and high schools, and that the amalgam of words and images opened minds and doors to further exploration.  Of course scholarly analysis and critical examination of sources is urgent and can even occasionally be made intriguing. But I personally thought that  the separate existence  of "popular"  history was saving the field from the flight into specialization and distance from the common concerns of life that befell  academic philosophy and what was once called "political economy"  and was read by most educated people.  I have taken that philosophy with me into the areas of television documentaries.  History deserves and has many mansions.

It was a good time for me personally, learning new tricks as I edged into my fifties.   I became used to calling an article a "piece," and an issue, "the book."   I enjoyed sharpening, shortening and pointing up a "piece" submitted to my editorial pencil, and the word-game of devising captions that would fit precisely into a given space under a picture.  I never did master layout, the arrangement of illustrations and text on a page--a crucial skill for our kind of publication.

As it happened, I was on the scene in what turned out, alas, to be the best of times.  American Heritage Corporation, overextended into spin-offs and especially the labor and capital intensive but slow-paying Dictionary, fell on lean times.  It was sold by its founders to McGraw-Hill, then to Samuel  Reed, and finally to Forbes, Inc., like an aging mistress passing to successive sugar-daddies, and now it's gone except in electronic storage.  I will not inveigh--certainly not on this website--against online dissemination of information.  I still believe that the printed page will not die after nearly six hundred years of existence, and that it is indispensable for genuinely deep and long investigation of fields of knowledge.  But the age of bytes and bits is, quite properly, here to stay.  So farewell, dear old American Heritage, The Magazine of American History.  I will miss you like the old friend you were.