JFK on Indians



Alvin Josephy knew the people who had taken over American Heritage Magazinein 1954 and turned it into a profitable hard cover edition of well written and researched articles on American history. He wrote several articles for them, including the piece on “Chief Joseph and the Nez Perce War,” and in 1960 was convinced to take on the job of editing The American Heritage Book of Indians in their book division.,
The text was largely written by William Brandon. Among other things, Alvin scoured the country for images—photos of Indians and artifacts, and original drawings—to accompany the text. In A Walk Toward Oregon, he tells the story of finding original drawings by Fernandez de Oviedo, “the first-known views of Indians in large canoes and as slaves in Caribbean gold mines.” They were stowed away in the Huntington Library in California, and reproduced broadly after their American Heritage publication. (Alvin
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Josephy and David McCullough—the narrative historian

Always, for Alvin, “story” was the important notion in “history.” He insisted on accuracy, trusted the testimony of individuals, and was disgusted by some of the stilted prose and arcane argument of the academics. He loved the idea of history permeating our lives. And capturing its excitement and making it available to the greatest number of citizens was done by writing clean prose and telling good stories.

In 1961, Alvin left Time Magazine for an upstart hard cover magazine called American Heritage. In 1964, he hired a literature major from Yale who had worked for Sports Illustrated and the Unlisted States Information Agency to join him. Multiple Pulitzer Prizes and National Book Awards later, David McCullough would say that American Heritage was his “graduate school.”

In the fall of 1984, I went to Jackson Hole, Wyoming to sit in the audience as the Snake River Institute honored Alvin Josephy with a weekend of readings, speeches, films and discussions

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Amateur Historians

Alvin Josephy loved amateur historians. When I opened the Bookloft in Enterprise in 1976, he was still working full time at American Heritage in New York City, writing his big history books and newspaper and magazine articles in the midnight hours. He and his wife, Betty, would come west each summer, she for the summer, he for a few weeks before he went back to the job.

And the Bookloft was always one of his first stops. He would comb the western and local history shelves for new books like 35 Years on Smith Mountain and Hells Canyon of Snake River, make a big stack of them at the counter, and ask about more. Were there new novels, books or pamphlets, diaries, books of letters, anything on the Nez Perce, fishing the Columbia, on Lewis and Clark and the Indians.

He would talk about academic historians missing out on the West because they confined themselves too much to official Read The Article

Josephy, Thorndike, American Heritage, & the business of memoir

Rick Bombaci stopped by to bring me a Sun Magazine, August 2010, with an article by John Thorndike about caring for his aging father, Joe Thorndike. Rick mentioned that Joe must have overlapped with Alvin, as Thorndike senior edited the Harvard Crimson in 1934, worked for Time, Life, etc. I thought I remembered the name, and on checking, he is of course mentioned in Alvin’s A Walk Toward Oregon:

“My old Harvard friend Jim Parton, who had returned to New York after liquidating the daily newspaper he had tried to start in Los Angeles for Henry Luce, weaned me away from Time and over to his newest–and, this time, sensationally successful–venture, the American Heritage Publishing Company. Its major product, American Heritage magazine, dedicated to popularizing American history by good writing as well as sound scholarship, had been founded after the war by a group of eminent historians, led by… Allan Nevins. but had floundered financially until Parton and Read The Article