Wednesday, February 22, 2012

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 radio journalist before the War and a Marine Corps correspondent during the War. He picked up all the available literature on the Nez Perce—and like McCullough with the Jamestown flood, found the books on the shelf wanting. Eventually, after finding Yellow Wolf and Hear Me My Chiefs, first person accounts of Nez Perce history and the their war, Alvin determined to write the Nez Perce book himself.

Here is where paths part. David McCullough finished the Johnstown book, and, after three years at American Heritage, determined to make it in the world as a narrative historian. He knew it was a gamble, but, with support from his wife (who was his first reader), he made the leap and never looked back. Books on the Brooklyn Bridge, the Panama Canal, and presidents Truman and Adams followed He also began introducing and narrating historical programs—“Smithsonian World,” and then “American Experience”—for public television. Today, David McCullough is the recognized dean, and probably the most widely read, historian in America.

Alvin started plugging away at his Nez Perce book in the early 1950s—while working full time and climbing the editorial ladder at American Heritage. His books were written at a slower pace—The Nez Perce and the Opening of the Northwest was a dozen years in the writing—because he had the other jobs, and because he was becoming an advocate for Indians as well as historian. But the “other job” at American Heritage allowed him to weigh in, as editor, editor in chief of book division, editor of the magazine, on a wide range of subjects that interested him, from the history of flight and seafaring to wars and civilizations. It allowed him to make his marks in American history in many ways—choosing topics and writers for books and the magazine, and hiring the likes of McCullough!

It also gave him access to organizations and individuals promoting Indian rights, and he was soon on the board at the Heye Museum of the American Indian, giving speeches at the National Congress of the American Indian, working with the Native American Rights Fund, and consulting on Indian affairs to Stuart Udall under President Kennedy and directly for President Nixon.

The interesting thing about Alvin is that through it all, a big part of him worked away at being a narrative historian. He did write Patriot Chiefs and the Nez Perce book, and, eventually, a landmark historical treatise on the Civil War in the West. He worked on a Hudson’s Bay history project, which was aborted by the death of Happy Rockefeller (but that is another story!), and there are 13 huge folders of material and manuscripts for articles and a book on the Sioux in the Josephy Archives at the University of Oregon.

I believe that what drove McCullough in his writing and his public television presentations, and what drove Alvin, as an editor, publisher, and historian, is a similar view of history. They both believed in narrative history, well researched and showing all sides of historical events and the people involved in them. More importantly, it was history as a living thing, a series of men’s and women’s actions and choices rather than of predetermined events and glories. McCullough summed it up in the Paris Review interview I quoted last time around:

“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.”

That view drove McCullough to serious history; it drove Josephy to history—and to activism!

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