American Heritage Magazine

May 17, 2007

Magazine Suspends Its Run in History

After more than 50 years
American Heritage, the magazine that furnished not just the minds but,
in its original hardcover format, the dens of generations of American
history buffs, is suspending publication, its editor, Richard F. Snow,
said last week.

The bimonthly magazine, which is owned by Forbes Inc., has been for
sale since January, and in the absence of a buyer, Mr. Snow said, the
publishers have decided to put the next issue, June-July, on indefinite
hold. For at least the time being, however, American Heritage will
continue to maintain a Web site.

That leaves Mr. Snow and his staff, which has dwindled to four from
a dozen, in limbo, where they have been since just before Christmas,
when they were informed that the magazine was going on the block. “It’s
a little like sailing the Flying Dutchman through the fog,” Mr. Snow
said. “On the other hand, I’ve been here for 40 years, so I can’t
really bitch about job instability.”

The magazine has always been a bit of an anomaly among American publications.

The circulation is currently 350,000, or as high as it has ever
been, and hundreds of those readers can still be reliably counted on to
write in arguing about the true causes of the Civil War or, as happened
recently, to point out that the author of a World War II article
doesn’t know the difference between the M-1 rifle and the M-16, which
didn’t come in until Vietnam.

American Heritage was founded in 1954 by James Parton, Oliver Jensen
and Joseph J. Thorndike Jr., refugees from Life, who from the beginning
broke most of the rules of magazine publishing. They determined not to
accept ads, for example — on the ground that there was a “basic
incompatibility between the tones of the voice of history and of
advertising” — and instead charged a yearly subscription of $10, a
figure so steep at the time that readers were allowed to pay it in
installments. They also published in clothbound, hardback volumes with
full-color paintings mounted on the front.

The format was an instant hit with readers, who instead of tossing
back issues often shelved them in their bookcases, but it initially
confounded the United States Post Office, which decreed that American
Heritage could use neither the book rate nor the periodical one. That
ruling was eventually overturned, but not until the magazine had almost
bankrupted itself by paying for parcel post.

The first editor of American Heritage was Bruce Catton, a Civil War
historian who wrote in the inaugural issue in December 1954 that “the
faith that moves us is, quite simply, the belief that our heritage is
best understood by a study of the things that the ordinary folk of
America have done and thought and dreamed since first they began to
live here.” In the beginning, at least, that meant a fair amount of
WASPy nostalgia and a steady ration of stories about the Civil War.
That inaugural issue, for example, includes a piece about a Union
general who was falsely accused of treason in 1862, as well as articles
about the country store, the Fall River steamship line and a lament by
Cleveland Amory about the decline of New York men’s clubs.

Mr. Snow, 59, went to work in the American Heritage mailroom in 1965, when Columbia University
insisted he take a little time off, and joined the staff full time when
he finally graduated, in 1970. He has been there ever since, and in
1990 he became the magazine’s sixth editor, succeeding Byron Dobell.

Either he was a perfect fit to begin with, or over the years he has
taken on many of the characteristics of his workplace, for he now
closely resembles his own magazine. He is quite youthful looking, on
one hand (probably because he is one of those people who mature early
and then never change), and a little old-fashioned on the other. He
speaks in perfectly turned paragraphs and may be the last person left
in New York to unself-consciously use “indeed” as an exclamation.

He favors gray suits and sweater vests, his telephone manners are
impeccable, and he has a bubbling, high-pitched voice that turns a
simple “hello” into something that resembles the opening bar of a
Broadway show tune. Like his magazine he has an almost insatiable
curiosity and is particularly expert on the Revolutionary and Civil
Wars, not to mention Coney Island amusement rides at the turn of the
last century.

Mr. Snow has been at American Heritage long enough that he can
remember when it was an empire in the mid-’60s, employing 400 people,
with the magazine as a flagship for what was in effect a publishing
company selling books, many of them by some of America’s best-known
popular historians, by direct mail. He was managing editor in 1980,
when the magazine ceased publishing in hardback (except for subscribers
who wanted to shell out extra for what Mr. Snow now calls a “padded,
leatheroid edition”), and in 1982 when, bowing to economic necessity,
it began soliciting ads.

“We all felt very bad about taking advertising,” Mr. Snow recalled.
“But it had the odd effect of making us feel we were in touch with the
world. There was a sense of a living connection to a process that was
actually sort of fun — or at least it was fun while we were getting

American Heritage remained more driven by circulation than by ads,
however. According to Scott Masterson, a senior vice president at
Forbes and president of American Heritage, the magazine was losing
money when Forbes bought it in 1986 and then bounced back for a while.
But in the late ’90s, Mr. Masterson said, it failed to reap the kind of
profits that many magazines did, and after 2001 it experienced the same
downturn that afflicted the magazine business in general and had
trouble recovering.

Part of the problem was the Internet, Mr. Snow said. “We’re really a
general interest magazine,” he said. “We don’t play to a history buff
in any narrow sense — like the Civil War re-enactors, for example. They
can go on the Web and get thousands and thousands of hits.”

Three years ago Mr. Snow and Mr. Masterson decided to embrace the
magazine’s aging readership and rejiggered American Heritage to appeal
more specifically to baby boomers, mostly publishing articles about
things that had happened in their lifetime. The formula was an
editorial success, Mr. Snow said, yielding articles like one that
appeared in the February-March issue about the Wrecking Crew, an
unheralded studio band that played on many hit records in the ’60s and
’70s. But it failed to provide the hoped-for bump on the business end.
“Forbes has been very, very patient,” he said. “but basically they’ve
been carrying us for a while.”

Over lunch recently at Keens — another venerable New York
institution, decorated with old clay pipes and playbills and where he
pointed out, for the sake of accuracy, that the famed mutton chop is
really lamb — Mr. Snow lamented that the next issue of American
Heritage might never get into print.

“We’re just about finished with the issue, and we have a
particularly fine piece by Teller, the nontalking half of the Penn and
Teller team,” he said. “It’s a superb piece of writing, an essay about
a fellow named David Abbott, who was a great American magician.”

Mr. Snow added, “You know, some issues are better than others, but I
don’t think there’s been a single one where anything really bored me.”

He said he was still unsure about his own fate, but if need be he
could go back to writing historical novels. “I’ve written four,” he
said. “Two were loathed by everyone who read them, but two actually got
published.” And no matter what happens, he has worked out a crucial
point of his severance: He gets to keep his Royal manual typewriter.

“That was the typewriter I was assigned in 1970, and it will follow
me to the grave,” he said, and he added: “I wish this were more a sign
of granitic stability, but in fact it’s a sign of my computer
incompetence. I use it just to type labels, but it works beautifully.
Every year someone comes in and cleans it. I don’t think he’s paid by
Forbes. He’s some spectral presence who just turns up.”

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