Has American Heritage Gone Soft?


Editor's Note:
On July 2, 2001, the New Republic published Professor Wilentz's review of David McCullough's book John Adams. In the course of the article, Wilentz criticized American Heritage magazine, which prompted the following exchange of letters.



Here I am, editing a magazine devoted to American history, and there are days when this occupation can feel like yelling into the void. So on one level it's actually a bit bracing to learn from Sean Wilentz ("America Made Easy," July 2) that American Heritage is responsible for nothing less than what your issue's cover heralds as the"Fall of Popular History" in the second half of the twentieth century. According to Wilentz, this is how it happened: During the 1950s"[Bernard] DeVoto's style of seriousness [was] eclipsed by the more journalistic and sentimentally descriptive style of American Heritage, whose influence is everywhere." Then, our vast seminal destructive force spent, we settled into an amiable fatuity,"producing every month a quirky grab bag of fascinating but undemanding features on everything from (as in one recent issue) the history of the voting machine, Americans' centuries-old love affair with Venice, and the rise and fall of the Oldsmobile." The sort of piffle we publish, moreover, characterizes a sunny and simplistic view of our national past inaugurated by American Heritage's founding editor, Bruce Catton. It diverged from the darker, more mordant, more complex view held by another popular historian of the day, DeVoto; and it was seductive enough to have kept readers in its thrall ever since. David McCullough, Wilentz continues,"is the most accomplished practitioner" of the American Heritage"style"--"popular history as passive nostalgic spectacle" marching"under the banner of 'narrative'"--but he is by no means"the only culprit, nor is he the worst": That would be Ken Burns. McCullough and Burns need no defending by me (nor, alas, can American Heritage fairly claim credit for their work, although I'll happily embrace the idea that we helped foment the climate in which it flourishes). But I would like to say a little about American Heritage magazine itself.

Since its founding in 1954, this magazine has never taken an overly sentimentalized or simplistic view of the past. Those Wilentz calls the"few" nonacademic historians"who upheld DeVoto's analytical and literary standards, including Catherine Drinker Bowen, Fawn Brodie, and Shelby Foote" have all written for it, as has DeVoto himself. It is a magazine addressed to a lay audience and thus it has the usual fixtures--columns, picture stories, and so forth--and a variety of topics, some of greater consequence than others. Wilentz's representative sampling of our articles is disingenuous--he could equally well have chosen Louis Menand's essay on the pragmatists, or the new evidence we published about Leo Frank's lynching, or Nicholas Lemann challenging Dinesh D'Souza on the history of race in America--but, although his selection is meant to suggest vapidity, I think that each of the stories he cites reflects the magazine's virtues. The Oldsmobile makes its appearance in John Steele Gordon's regular column about business history as an example of how General Motors' Alfred Sloan changed America's view of the automobile from transportation to object of desire, and of the worst possible consequences of a single advertising campaign. Surely the problem of our voting machines is not a wholly whimsical subject for an article commissioned, as this one was, in the wake of the most recent presidential election. And the story on America's"love affair"--Wilentz's phrase, and one we were careful to avoid--with Venice is by John Lukacs, who is among the most eminent of living historians and whose work nobody has ever called simplistic, or sentimental, or undemanding.


Richard F. Snow's whimsical sarcasm will get him nowhere. Yelling into the void? American Heritage's circulation is 340,000, more than three times that of The New Republic. Sure, Snow's magazine has sometimes run, and continues to run, articles by admirable writers like Bernard DeVoto and John Lukacs. But can he say, with a straight face, that his slick magazine has ever made a habit of publishing anything close to their best or most demanding work?

I didn't say that American Heritage is"sunny." Nobody, not even David McCullough or Ken Burns, can take a resolutely sunny view of our past and get away with it anymore. But the magazine is simplistic and sentimental; and its simplifications and sentimentality--about ideas, politics, our national tragedies, and our national triumphs--are directly responsible for the current abysmal state of popular history. Perhaps Snow hasn't read McCullough's recent remark that American Heritage was his"graduate school." Or perhaps Snow takes pride in it. Does Snow really not see that he is publishing a slick magazine? My guess is that most people look at American Heritage only for the piety and the pictures. A historian of my acquaintance recently remarked that a word is worth a thousand pictures. American Heritage plainly takes the more conventional view. The cover of its current issue displays Jane Fonda ("MS. AMERICA: WHY JANE FONDA IS A MIRROR OF THE NATION'S PAST 40 YEARS."). Q.E.D.

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Luther Spoehr - 9/23/2001

11As one who has often read Prof. Wilentz's historical writing with pleasure and profit, I couldn't quite believe my eyes when I read "America Made Easy." In his self-righteous wrath, he seemed to confuse himself with St. Peter, deciding who gets into Historians' Heaven. His supercilious response to Richard Snow only confirms this impression.
11Prof. Wilentz got at least one thing right: academic historians' disdain for "popular" history goes back many decades. To too many of us, "popular" is a term of opprobrium that means "well-written." Prof. Wilentz is only the latest spokesman for such snobs. He appears really to believe that history would be better off without Ken Burns, David McCullough, and the others who fill the gap between, say, Oliver Stone's "histories" and the more abstract, less accessible monographs so often produced by academic historians. Is it not at least possible that readers of popular history are better prepared and more likely than non-readers to go on to the academic stuff? Prof. Wilentz evidently thinks not.
11University-based historians like Prof. Wilentz who are interested in having their own books read and their classes taken should climb off their high horses and give thanks every day for the "popularizers," particularly the first-rate ones like McCullough, Burns, and American Heritage. Without them, the study of history would be hurrying toward the margins of the curriculum, there to join the likes of Latin and Greek, even faster than it already is.

Luther Spoehr
Brown University