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 about “The Next Hundred Years in the American West.” It was an august crew—George Horsecatcher and Terry Tempest Williams, Hal Cannon, Teresa Jordan, Jack Loeffler, Ed and Betsy Marston, Tim Egan, Bill Kittredge, Drum Hadley, Gary Snyder, David McCullough and more rose to say a few words about Alvin and read a poem or tell a story or think aloud about the West to come.
McCullough began with a story about American Heritage. He and Alvin were in the office during the big east coast power failure and resulting “blackout” of 1965, and the two of them carefully walked all of the office secretaries down flights of stairs and to their homes or safe stopping places. I think Ed Marston’s picture of Alvin and Teresa Jordan, later printed in High Country News, was their reaction to that story.
Alvin and David were obviously old friends, men who shared a notion of history, the importance of history, and the telling of it. McCullough went on to talk about history, and a Disney effort to own and control some Civil War sites—could history become commercial property in the next 100 years?
What McCullough didn’t detail that day was his transition from history editor and history lover to historian. I found the answer in a 1999 Paris Review interview.
He had grown up in Pennsylvania with stories of the Johnstown Flood, had later found a trove of photos of the flood at the Library of Congress, and gone back to read books. They didn’t match what he knew about Pennsylvania and Johnstown, and he resolved to write the story himself. But how to begin?
“One evening, in New York, at a gathering of writers and historians interested in the West, my boss, Alvin Josephy, pointed to a white-haired man across the room. He said, That’s Harry Drago. Harry Sinclair Drago. He’s written over a hundred books. I waited for my chance and walked over. Mr. Drago, I said, Alvin Josephy says that you’ve written over a hundred books. Yes, he said, that’s right. How do you do that? I asked. And he said, four pages a day. Every day? Every day. It was the best advice an aspiring writer could be given.”
David McCullough left American Heritage and went on to become the leading writer of popular, well researched narrative history books of our time, books on the Brooklyn Bridge and Panama Canal, and Pulitzer Prize winning books on presidents Truman and Adams. He became a popular host of American Experience programs on Public Television, and received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, our nation’s highest civilian honor.
And throughout this distinguished career, McCullough has promoted and maintained the values of narrative history. In the Paris Review interview, he said that “The problem with so much of history as it’s taught and written is that it’s so often presented as if it were all on a track—this followed that. In truth, nothing ever had to happen the way it happened. Nothing was preordained. There was always a degree of tension, of risk, and the question of what was going to happen next… No one knew Truman would become president or that the Panama Canal would be completed.”
On receiving a National Book Award, he put it this way: “There’s no secret to making history come alive. Barbara Tuchman said it perfectly: ‘Tell stories.” The pull, the appeal is irresistible, because history is about two of the greatest mysteries—time and human nature.”
Alvin Josephy couldn’t have put it better.
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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 documents—treaties, proclamations, occasionally the newspaper article, although journalism was suspect. And Indians didn’t have much written history of their own. There were the treaties and the accounts of military officers in campaigns against them, but their own stories, carried from generation to generation by families and tribal storytellers, were invisible to most academic historians.
Stories of women and accounts of the Chinese and Japanese, the people whose written records were in different languages and scripts, were likewise invisible or hard to find in standard texts—although in the 70s, the women’s movement and women historians like Sue Armitage at Washington State University were finding and publishing women’s diaries and letters. But, in the 1970s and 80s, most of these things were still mostly found in small, local, often self-published editions, the things Alvin had made a habit of collecting since he heard and was captivated by the Nez Perce story while a journalist at Time Magazine.
According to him, amateurs kept the stories of the West alive. Here in the Wallowas, “Pioneer Society” stalwart Harley Horner assembled a “History of Wallowa County” in big scrapbooks in alphabetical order by names and places, with letters, news accounts, and his own reportage pasted in. When Grace Butterfield, whose father was a newspaper man, moved to town, she worked with Horner and transcribed his scrapbooks into a typed document that has had an amazing journey of its own. Fortunately, the “Horner papers” are now back in the Wallowa County Museum–but that is another story!
When Alvin wrote his book on the Nez Perce, Grace differed on some local matters, and Alvin encouraged her to get the details straight. She did, in The Wallowa Country: 1866-76, a fine locally published book about the ten years of White settlement leading up to the Nez Perce War.
Later, Josephy worked with Grace and her Nez Perce husband, Harry Bartlett, to get the true history of the Appaloosa horse to the public. Alvin wrote a piece and helped publish one by Harry and Grace about the spotted horses in the Brand Book a magazine published by a group of artists, writers, librarians, and aficionados of the West who called themselves “Westerners.” This New York posse would meet monthly for dinner and discussion of Billy the Kid, General Custer, and, as Alvin once wrote, “which side of the river Lewis and Clark traveled on.” Famed writer Mari Sandoz was a member of the New York posse, and there were brother or sister posses in Chicago, Denver, London, and Los Angeles.
I don’t believe any of the articles in these magazines were written for PhD theses—but there their contents must have been used by many later candidates for the degree.
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 two friends with whom he was running a custom publishing business–Joseph Thorndike, a former managing editor of Life magazine, whom I had known on the Crimson at Harvard, and Oliver Jensen, a former Life text editor–bought and restyled it.”
Parton’s first overtures were turned down, but Alvin began writing for their magazine–the pieces that led to Patriot Chiefs appeared in AH first–and in 1960 did go to American Heritage’s book division to produce a large illustrated history of American Indians. He stayed for 19 years, retiring in 1979 as Vice President and Editor in Chief.
In my quick look, I didn’t find anything else on Thondike in Alvin’s book, but reading the son’s Sun piece brought A Walk Toward Oregon to mind in many ways. Back to Joe Thorndike: He was “managing editor, then president, of the Crimson,…. In 1934 he took a job at Time under Henry Luce, and twelve years later, at thirty-thee, he became Life’s third managing editor. He founded a pair of hardcover magazines, American Heritage and Horizon, edited dozens of books and wrote three himself, the last when he was almost 80.” I learned from googling his biography that Thorndike was a journalist in Europe and North Africa during WW II. And am sure that he and Alvin worked together on many projects at American Heritage–try googling Alvin along with American Heritage and you can go on forever!
The parallels in life and career are many. Thorndike and Josephy both went to Harvard, both worked as journalists during the War, both worked for Luce, and then ended up at American Heritage. They were also close in age–Thorndike was born in 1917; Alvin in 1915, and they were lifelong journalists who found it hard to write in the first person. I remember Alvin telling me how hard it was to do that as he wrote Walk–and, unfortunately, I did not read The Long and the Short and the Tall, his personal account of Marines in the Pacific, while he was alive, so could not counter that “you used first person then!”
In the Sun piece, Thorndike’s son cares for his father and tries to get personal stories out of him as dementia advances, lamenting that “All his life my father has talked easily and eloquently about history, economics, art, archeology, literature, and politics. What he has never talked about are his private thoughts and emotions.” The son wants such talk, and doesn’t get it.
Reading A Walk Towards Oregon, we learn about Alvin’s amazing cruise through the major events of the 20th century. We learn about his politics, and his passionate concern for Indian rights. But he–and many in his generation–were much more guarded about strictly personal matters. Compare that with many recent memoirs, which make their hay on private traumas and exploits, rather than on being a part of larger history.
(On Tuesday, January 11, at noon at Fishtrap, we will have a brown bag discussion of A Walk Toward Oregon. Open to all!)