I’m slowly wading through news from the past week or two and was saddened to read in The New York Times (registration is free or use Bug Me Not) that the wonderful American Heritage Magazine has suspended publication with the April/May 2007 issue, now on newsstands. Editor Richard F. Snow, who started in the magazine’s mailroom in 1965, told The Times earlier this month that the bimonthly magazine, owned by Forbes Inc., has been for sale since January, and “in the absence of a buyer … the publishers have decided to put the next issue, June-July, on indefinite hold.”
The good news is that at least for the present, American Heritage will continue to publish on its incredibly useful and informative (not to mention easy to navigate) website. Make use of it now while you can. You can, believe it or not, search the archives for articles in each and every print issue all the way back to the very first of December 1954, which includes the article on “The Writing of History: An English Authority Compares British and American Viewpoints” by D. W. Brogan. You can also revisit eminent American historian and first AH managing editor Bruce Catton‘s column, “Reading, Writing, and History” on the long-forgotten Cadwallader commotion. The AH website each day includes several features at the bottom of the page, including “today in history” and the quotation of the day. Today, the former includes the news thatin 1929, the Marx Brothers’ first film, The Cocoanuts, opened; in 1883, the Brooklyn Bridge opened to traffic; in 1844, Samuel Morse sent the first telegram; and in 1830, the first American passenger railroad began service. The thought for the day is one of my favorite’s from Mark Twain: ““It were not best that we should all think alike; it is difference of opinion that makes horse races.”
There’s also a link on the home page to historian Bernard Weisberger‘s “Funeral Oration for American Heritage“, published at History News Network [links provided by me],
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 [many of which grace the Farm School shelves], 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. …
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. [Emphasis mine, too.]
Read the rest here, especially Mr. Weisberger’s thoughts on what led to the company’s demise.
From the Times article [links provided by me, not NYT],
The magazine has always been a bit of an anomaly among American publications.
The circulation is currently 350,000, or as high as it has ever been, and hundreds of those readers can still be reliably counted on to write in arguing about the true causes of the Civil War or, as happened recently, to point out that the author of a World War II article doesn’t know the difference between the M-1 rifle and the M-16, which didn’t come in until Vietnam.
American Heritage was founded in 1954 by James Parton, Oliver Jensen and Joseph J. Thorndike Jr., refugees from Life, who from the beginning broke most of the rules of magazine publishing. They determined not to accept ads, for example — on the ground that there was a “basic incompatibility between the tones of the voice of history and of advertising” — and instead charged a yearly subscription of $10, a figure so steep at the time that readers were allowed to pay it in installments. They also published in clothbound, hardback volumes with full-color paintings mounted on the front.
The format was an instant hit with readers, who instead of tossing back issues often shelved them in their bookcases, but it initially confounded the United States Post Office, which decreed that American Heritage could use neither the book rate nor the periodical one. That ruling was eventually overturned, but not until the magazine had almost bankrupted itself by paying for parcel post.
The first editor of American Heritage was Bruce Catton, a Civil War historian who wrote in the inaugural issue in December 1954 that “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.” In the beginning, at least, that meant a fair amount of WASPy nostalgia and a steady ration of stories about the Civil War. That inaugural issue, for example, includes a piece about a Union general who was falsely accused of treason in 1862, as well as articles about the country store, the Fall River steamship line and a lament by Cleveland Amory about the decline of New York men’s clubs.
Mr. Snow, 59, went to work in the American Heritage mailroom in 1965, when Columbia University insisted he take a little time off, and joined the staff full time when he finally graduated, in 1970. He has been there ever since, and in 1990 he became the magazine’s sixth editor, succeeding Byron Dobell. …
Mr. Snow has been at American Heritage long enough that he can remember when it was an empire in the mid-’60s, employing 400 people, with the magazine as a flagship for what was in effect a publishing company selling books, many of them by some of America’s best-known popular historians, by direct mail. He was managing editor in 1980, when the magazine ceased publishing in hardback (except for subscribers who wanted to shell out extra for what Mr. Snow now calls a “padded, leatheroid edition”), and in 1982 when, bowing to economic necessity, it began soliciting ads.
“We all felt very bad about taking advertising,” Mr. Snow recalled. “But it had the odd effect of making us feel we were in touch with the world. There was a sense of a living connection to a process that was actually sort of fun — or at least it was fun while we were getting ads.”
American Heritage remained more driven by circulation than by ads, however. According to Scott Masterson, a senior vice president at Forbes and president of American Heritage, the magazine was losing money when Forbes bought it in 1986 and then bounced back for a while. But in the late ’90s, Mr. Masterson said, it failed to reap the kind of profits that many magazines did, and after 2001 it experienced the same downturn that afflicted the magazine business in general and had trouble recovering.
Part of the problem was the Internet, Mr. Snow said. “We’re really a general interest magazine,” he said. “We don’t play to a history buff in any narrow sense — like the Civil War re-enactors, for example. They can go on the Web and get thousands and thousands of hits.”
Three years ago Mr. Snow and Mr. Masterson decided to embrace the magazine’s aging readership and rejiggered American Heritage to appeal more specifically to baby boomers, mostly publishing articles about things that had happened in their lifetime. The formula was an editorial success, Mr. Snow said, yielding articles like one that appeared in the February-March issue about the Wrecking Crew, an unheralded studio band that played on many hit records in the ’60s and ’70s. But it failed to provide the hoped-for bump on the business end. “Forbes has been very, very patient,” he said. “but basically they’ve been carrying us for a while.”
Read the rest here.
From Bruce Catton’s inaugural essay cited by The Times, “What They Did There”, American Heritage Magazine, December 1954:
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 worth-while 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.
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