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Letter From The Editor

July 2024
2min read

To most of our readers, Bruce Catton means Civil War. Mention his name and they hear tramping feet, the music of far-off bands, and, of course, that renowned stillness at Appomattox, where the great protagonists played out the last, gentlemanly scene. Somehow Catton makes all this come to such vivid life that it all seems only yesterday, so much so that about ten years ago one young lady in our company, breathlessly admiring but rather lightly instructed in American history, asked us which side Mr. Catton had fought on himself, the Union or the Confederate.

We are privileged to announce now that the old campaigner is out of the trenches, has put away his knapsack full of Pulitzer Prizes and honorary degrees, and is busy with a civilian task. It is tempting to say that, like the postbellum United States, he is Opening Up the West, but the truth compels us to confess that it is really the Old Northwest or, to be specific, Michigan. Catton was born there, at Petoskey, and grew up not far away in a small town called Benzonia, in a family of educators and ministers of the Gospel. He has a place now in the same northwest corner of Michigan’s Lower Peninsula, a house in the woods near Frankfort, overlooking not only the lake on our cover but also the vastness of Lake Michigan beyond—a fine vantage point from which to keep an eye on nature, the changing seasons, and the occasional steamboat in the distance. There, away from his office in New York, he has been writing the book that we are beginning to excerpt in this issue. There will be three more installments in the magazine before the entire book, tentatively titled A Michigan Boyhood , is published sometime this fall by Doubleday & Company.

Like all of Bruce Catton’s work, the title is deceptively simple. The author is an intensely private man, bent not at all on the modern mode of self-revelation. That is, the subject is more Michigan than Catton; he appears in the story, to be sure, but as a sharer of experience and witness to change. And as far as change goes—the changes that stripped the great forests, that uprooted and ruined the Indian, the changes that polluted and destroyed—he is a quietly hostile witness. Looking into the cold North where, he says with only slight exaggeration, there is nothing between Michigan and Siberia but the watchful radar towers and the DEW line, he makes a worried assessment of the future of our society.

Originally, Catton left Michigan in his teens, to join the Navy in World War I, but he was too young and too late for action. After attending Oberlin College for three years, he became a newspaper man in Cleveland, Boston, and finally Washington. Then, during World War II , he was in public relations for the War Production Board, moving on later to Henry Wallace’s Department of Commerce; eventually all this experience was distilled into a devastating but, he says wryly, little-read book called The War Lords of Washington . His own road to Appomattox, which he had been privately following as a hobby since boyhood, did not open up until he was fifty-one and published his first Civil War book, Mr. Lincoln’s Army . After three publishers who must still regret it had turned the manuscript down, Doubleday picked it up, and the rest is not only history but very good history—a sizable shelf of it.

That was twenty years ago, and for the last eighteen of them Bruce Catton has also been closely associated with AMERICAN HERITAGE magazine. He was the first editor of our hard-bound series, beginning in December, 1954; in 1959, busy with his career in writing and lecturing, he moved aside to be our Senior Editor, albeit a very active one. To outsiders the thought of so dazzling a career beginning after fifty is no doubt reassuring; to us on the magazine staff it has been a constant delight. And now there is Michigan , which, if you will read it carefully, seems to be a kind of parable about our whole country, and the promise and peril of American life a hundred and seven years after Appomattox supposedly solved our problems.

—Oliver Jensen

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