Turning the page

Turning the page is a common metaphor for beginning a new year—often implying that we are leaving what was unpleasant in the last year behind. There was plenty of unpleasant in 2020, but some good things happened too, sometimes in spite of or even as a result of the Pandemic. Read The Article

Over and over again

I finished reading David McCullough’s John Adams, and despite the fact that he omits early colonial dealings with Native peoples, I enjoyed it immensely. It was good to see and hear how narrow the passages to the government we got were—how, as McCullough says in other places, things could have turned out differently.

And although I had heard and probably mouthed myself the centrality of slavery to the American story, I liked how McCullough—through Adams—brings the issue forward with the compromises in the composition of the Declaration of Independence, Washington and Jefferson’s holding of slaves, and Adams’ disgust with it all. According to McCullough, Adams was willing to compromise with the southern colonies in order to form and hold the new union, but it always troubled him. He had dreams of blacks and whites slaughtering each other, and feared that “a struggle between the states over slavery ‘might rend this mighty fabric in twain.’”

In later years, when old Read The Article

Invisible Indians

I had been reading David McCullough’s book, John Adams, with great pleasure. My knowledge of colonial times and the birth of the nation is old and limited, so the exploration of the lives and careers of Adams, Franklin, Jefferson, Jay, Madison, Hamilton, and all of the lesser names and big ideas that led to a Declaration of Independence, the War for Independence, the Constitution and formation of a new nation was carrying me along like a good novel. The man can write!.

And then, on page 396, the first mention of Indians. Their absence in the first 395 pages had barely occurred to me.

Assessing the state of things on Adam’s return from Europe in 1789, McCullough tells us that the nation’s population has grown to four million, that the biggest city is Philadelphia, with 40,000, New York is growing quickly with 18,000, and Pittsburgh, the last western outpost, has but 500. (There are 700,000 slaves!)

As a result of Read The Article

McCullough and Josephy—part 2

I mentioned in an earlier blog that Alvin hired David McCullough at American Heritage. I implied that Alvin began working for and hired David for the magazine, but in fact Alvin’s first job and his hire of David were in the book division of American Heritage. Alvin would later become editor of the magazine.

Parallels: David McCullough was a lit major in college, and had been a journalist with Sports Illustrated and the United States Information Agency when Alvin hired him at American Heritage. At some point, McCullough came across a batch of photos of the Johnstown flood. He had grown up in Pennsylvania with stories of that catastrophe, so his interest was aroused, and he went to the bookshelf. Finding no acceptable history of the event, he determined to write it himself. The Johnstown Flood was his first book.

Alvin was working at Time Magazine when he came across the Nez Perce story. He had been a print and Read The Article

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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