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American Heritage

My grandfather was an original subscriber to American Heritage Magazine, the classy hardbound history magazine written and edited by some of America’s most distinguished historians and scholars of the fifties and sixties. Civil War historian Bruce Catton, was the founding editor, and remained at his post for many years. David McCulloch began his career there as an editor and contributor.

I remember spending many happy summer hours pouring over the issues which had arrived over the winter, and which had been duly transported to the ranch (along with every other periodical that Grandpa subscribed to) for the benefit of family and guests who may have somehow missed them. (With no electricity, reading was very big at the ranch.)

I wish I could say that the shelf full of vintage American Heritages which now line my own bookcases were his. Oh, he had saved them all right. Grandpa never threw away anything (a quality which I – alas – have inherited), and when he died, Grandma became their caretaker, packing them all up for the move back to town. Unfortunately, space dictated that they be housed in the basement where they became casualties of the devastating and deadly Rapid City flood of 1972.

Sidebar: There were also decades’ worth of National Geographics in that basement. In 1934 and ‘35 Grandpa had witnessed – along with his three oldest children – the first manned space flights, sponsored by the National Geographic Society and conducted by the Army Air Corps, originating from what is now known as the Stratobowl just south of Rapid City.

As a young wife and mother, I couldn’t afford to replace Grandpa’s collection, so I started working my way through the full collection at my local library. One day I turned up to check out the next volume, to find out that they had all been discarded “because nobody was reading them”. I was apoplectic. Not only was a valuable resource cold-heartedly cast aside, but the librarian’s statement relegated me to non-personhood! I was reading them, and I was devastated. I determined right then – starving artist or not – that I would somehow own every one of those magazines.

Subsequently, my collection – still a work in progress – has been scrounged and gathered piecemeal from used books stores, rare book collectors, and the occasional yard sale over many years. I am none the less proud of them, however, and have read through the entire shelf more than once. One of the things that strikes me is that so many of the articles, dating back to 1954, are distinctly nostalgic, suggesting a sense of longing or loss experienced by post-war Americans despite enjoying so much prosperity and technological advances. The fifties, particularly, were filled with inventions which made our lives easier, faster, more “modern” – but if these articles are any indication, not necessarily better.

This seems most apparent in the holiday issues, when stories including “sleigh rides over the river and through the woods” abound. Even I – a Boomer weaned on “modernity” – am drawn to such stories.

While researching this article I found that American Heritage had apparently had its critics from the beginning. Sean Wilentz described the “sentimentally descriptive style of American Heritage, whose influence is everywhere.” He specifically identified film maker Ken Burns and historian David McCulloch, as among those who “followed the American Heritage style: popular history as passive nostalgic spectacle”. Charles McGrath, in his 2007 New York Times article on the magazine’s demise, added his two cents, stating that from the beginning the magazine included “a fair amount of WASPy nostalgia and a steady ration of stories about the Civil War.”

If in fact this formula existed, an awful lot of highly respected historians wrote for it, some also serving on the editorial staff. Names you would recognize: Stephan Ambrose, Douglas Brinkley, John Lukacs, David McCullough, James M. McPherson, Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., Barbara Tuchman. Given the sad homogenization of history evident in American textbooks and general lack of enthusiasm for the subject in our schools at all levels, I’ll take the “popularization” of history any day from the pens of such talent.

I myself have been known to criticize what I call “History Lite” , but there is a difference between well-researched, relevant history told by gifted story tellers and the dumbed-down schlock with titles like, “Ten things you didn’t know about….”

OK, now that I have dissed American education, I hasten to add that there are exceptions to every rule. One of my Lewis & Clark sojourners in 2014 was a middle school teacher who reached far into his own pocketbook to add show-and-tell items for classroom use. A staunch advocate of living history, he looked like he had stepped right out of 1803, with his knee-length fringed split cowhide jacket, and possibles bag. (That’s him, on the far left of the group photo at the Sakakawea statue in Bismarck.) It is just such dedicated educators who can and do counteract the stultifying effects of textbooks dedicated to lists and dates, and teachers who don’t understand that history is merely stories – and good ones at that! He understood instinctively that if it isn’t interesting, there is absolutely no hope to make an impression, let alone to teach. He gets it!



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