American Heritage

Owing to its dark wit, dramatic nuance and astonishingly creative use of profanity, "Deadwood" is the best show on television by a wide margin. That is a declarative statement of fact, not an opinion. So when I saw two of its protagonists beaming at me from the cover of the July American Heritage, I let fly a hearty "giddy-up" and gaily tossed my 499 pennies at the unwitting cashier.

Besides, American Heritage qualifies as a thoughtful magazine read mostly by people with triple-digit IQs, right? That means the pendulum can swing waaaay back in the other direction -- a pet-aficionado fanzine? something with ribbons and hearts and exclamation points on its cover? -- for Thursday's column. Everybody wins, especially me.

Reading American Heritage ain't exactly the rigorous intellectual exercise you'd imagine, however. As opposed to other history-oriented titles (American Legacy comes immediately to mind), American Heritage doesn't do historical context all that well. Its stories, while packed to the gills with information, don't always pass the why-should-I-give-a-hoot? test. As a result, at times it feels more like a random compilation of semi-scholarly articles than one unified topically or thematically.

I like the July issue all the same - but that may say more about my interest in historical arcana than it does about the magazine and its presentation of the material at hand. Good thing I'm supposed to represent Everyman in these little treatises o' mine... What I'm trying to say, I suppose, is that you should take what I write here with a meteor-sized grain of if-you-don't-like-history-you'll-hate-everything-herein salt. We clear on this? Good. Let's move on.

American Heritage distinguishes itself in one place and one place only: its features. While this isn't to say that knowledge-cravers won't find anything else of note, they'll be most swayed by the smartly speculative "What Would the Founders Do Today?" piece (about gun control, preemptive wars and more). "The Madness of Mary Lincoln" unveils a slew of never-before-seen correspondence from her time in a mental institution, while "Sweet Nothing: The Triumph of Diet Soda" presents the not-so-syrupy concoctions as a triumph of savvy marketing. All three add new dimensions to one's understanding of oft-discussed topics.

Far from compelling but still worthy are the "My Brush With History" epistles sent in by the mag's readers. Obviously the quality of writing varies from contributor to contributor, but the stories are worth telling -- especially the recollections of long-ago encounters with JFK and the Watergate miscreants. For what it's worth, my brush with history involves my dad, Duke Snider and an elevator; I've been actively rooting for the ex-jock's bankruptcy and/or disability ever since.

The front-of-book sections barely register -- heck, maybe they should have the readers write those pieces, too. The "History Happened Here" feature on the town where the Union Pacific and Central Pacific railroads were unified offers little of interest, beyond the author's out-of-nowhere use of the word "crepuscular" ("of, relating to, or resembling twilight," according to Merriam-Webster's online dictionary). "In the News" and "Screenings" ought to be dropped altogether if the editors can't drum up subjects more timely and germane than preachy prattle on criminals bearing court- and rehabilitation-related costs (which has been out of the news for several months now) and a way-late take on last year's "Capote" flick.

American Heritage falls similarly flat on the design front. It limits itself to a few bricky shots (usually of the then-and-now variety) for each story, rarely interrupting its vast continents of text with, well, anything. Only in the aforementioned diet-soda piece does the mag break a creative sweat, with the lime-green Tab can and reproductions of old print ads adding needed personality.

This isn't to say that American Heritage needs a distinct personality, nor the chummy relationship with its readers to which every lifestyle pub aspires. But as the eminently devourable mental_floss proves in every issue, brain food goes down easier with a jigger of wit. American Heritage is only a few droll rejoinders and a dollop of topical unity away from every-month consideration.

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