“American Heritage” to Become History?

American HeritageThe April/May 2007 issue of American Heritage, that picturesque, literate doyen of popular history magazines, may be its last, at least until a new publisher willing to pay the bills comes along, according to a report in the New York Times of May 17, 2007.

Forbes, Inc., the owner of the bimonthly magazine since 1986, recently decided to divest itself of this historic periodical because it was not profitable, despite its relatively large circulation of 350,000, but has not yet found a buyer, and has now decided to suspend publication of the print version. The web site, Americanheritage.com will, however, continue to be maintained for the time being and will provide free access to the rich archive of articles from past issues.

American Heritage started out in 1948 as a periodical sponsored by the American Association of State and Local History, and was given a new look and direction in 1954 by the Society of American Historians (SAH) under the leadership of Allan Nevins and Bruce Catton, who became the first editor of the magazine’s new incarnation. Indeed, for Nevins, who tried unsuccessfully in the late thirties to get the AHA to launch just such a popular history magazine and then went on to found the SAH, the new magazine was a natural home. Nevins and Catton drew on the technical expertise of journalists who migrated from Life magazine. With its stylish writing (Bruce Catton, Eric Foner, James McPherson, Allan Nevins—indeed almost every noted historian of America wrote for the magazine at one time or another) ensconced in its perfect-bound, picture-filled splendor, American Heritage rapidly grew popular until it became in the 1960s an entire publishing phenomenon. And all this, until the hard times of the eighties, without ever publishing an ad, as the original founders had decided that advertising was incompatible with recounting history.*

If American Heritage disappears into the archives, will others rise to replace it? The small field of popular history magazines in the United States will probably be dominated in the short run by the clutch of magazines—American History, America’s Civil War, British Heritage, and so on—published by the Weider History Group (which purchased the 10 magazines in the group from Primedia Publishing recently).

Though the AHA Council had rejected the original proposal of Nevins (who was elected president of the Association for 1959) the possibility of publishing a popular history magazine was never entirely jettisoned and was occasionally reconsidered. But it always seemed a difficult project, if only for financial reasons. Producing a print magazine for the public is indeed a costly and iffy proposition, especially in these days of declining advertising revenues. But perhaps a webzine . . .

*Details about the colorful and dramatic story of the launching of American Heritage can be read in Roy Rosenzweig, "Marketing the Past: American Heritage and Popular History in the United States," in Susan P. Benson, Stephen Brier, and Roy Rosenzweig, eds., Presenting the Past: Essays on History and the Public (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1986) and in Ian Tyrrell, Historians in Public: The Practice of American History, 1890-1970 (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 2005). Thanks to Robert B. Townsend for these references.

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