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 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!)