American Heritage

  • by June 25, 2008

Give the folks behind the revived American Heritage credit: They haven't dumbed it down. Maybe they deemed the mildly jaunty attitude of the previous incarnation of the history magazine, which had suspended publication in May 2007, inappropriate. But after reading the two issues published since AH mounted its comeback in late winter, I got this squirrelly feeling afterward that an old white guy was intoning, "There will be a test."

Maybe that's because of the All-Star lineup of contributors to the new AH: David McCullough, Russell Baker, Richard Brookhiser, John Lukacs. The writing is suffused with sincerity, which is refreshing in this era of unrelenting irony, but it's a little short on passion for my taste.

In its previous incarnation under Forbes Inc., AH also featured heavy-hitting historians, but also took the reader off the beaten paths to Williamsburg, Gettysburg, New Amsterdam and the Barbary Coast. Elvis made one cover (and why not?); another touted the history of pizza in the U.S. of A. AH celebrated capitalism in a Forbesian feature called "The Business of America," reviewed historical-themed movies and rocked readers' worlds with its annual "Overrated and Underrated" issue.

In sum, a little fun, as opposed to the reconstituted AH, which so far has been very little fun.

In the first comeback issue I was delighted to find World War II-era editorial cartoons by Theodore (Dr. Seuss) Geisel reprinted from PM, the left-leaning New York daily. But the best the second issue could come up with were some donkey and elephant cartoons by Thomas Nast that even a non-journalist would probably recognize. Both appeared under the heading Cartoonery, implying that it will be a regular feature. I hope that isn't as frothy as things are going to get. New owner Edwin Grosvenor Jr. (Forbes still has a minority stake) says AH is departing from tradition by publishing opinion pieces. OK, Ed, it's your magazine, but I'll be looking in the next issue for somebody besides Newt Gingrich, whose praise of Ronald Reagan's Evil Empire and Star Wars speeches took me back to 1983 in another way -- to conservative carping about criticism of Reagan by a news media "deeply committed to the secular left."

In the same piece, Gingrich writes that "senior people in the White House, including his wife, thought [Reagan] should retire" less than halfway through his first term! What's up with that, Newt? Elaborate! Give me more!

Grosvenor is described by The New York Times as a great-great-grandson of a founder of the National Geographic Society. Grosvenor also is a great-grandson of Alexander Graham Bell, though he doesn't mention that in his nearly page-long review of a book accusing Bell of stealing key technology behind the telephone. (He finds the claim bogus, of course.)

Grosvenor, to his credit, also has resuscitated American Heritage's Invention and Technology after the AH spinoff went on a hiatus of its own. Any magazine that can explain the development and mechanism of DNA testing to a technophobe like me is worth every darned dime.

It remains to be seen which direction AH is going to take. I'd just as soon see it find some middle ground between stuffy and fluffy, but there is one thing I can fall back on if necessary:, its butt-kicking Web site. The site, which remained up while the magazine was on hiatus, has discussion boards, blogs, a comprehensive archive of every AH going back to 1954. In short, a pleasing combination of resources and real-time opportunities to examine our history. 

Harry Truman said the only thing new in the world is the history you don't know. These days, AH 's glossy, earnest pages notwithstanding, it's the history you haven't clicked through.


Published by: American Heritage Inc.

Frequency: Quarterly

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