Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Magazine Update: The History Channel Magazine July/August 2010

As the temperature rises, it is time to pore yourself a glass of your favorite beverage as we turn to the latest issue of the History Channel Magazine’s History. Unlike its parent channel History is actually dedicated to the exploration of American history. (If only the History Channel would follow the example set by its official magazine—but enough fantasizing!) History is geared for the armchair historian as a result the articles are short and written in a breezy, conversational style by a collection of free lance writers. I have always considered it a shame that History has yet to employ some of the regular historians featured on its parent channel to write feature articles, since many of the cover stories are tied directly to History Channel specials.

History is everything that the History Channel is not. While in recent years the History Channel has become pre-occupied with trying to determine if ancient aliens built the Great Pyramids and who the Anti-Christ might be; History has remarkable kept itself grounded firmly in American history. The sad part is that many of the feature articles produced by History would have made better shows than the dribble that passes as “history” on its parent channel.

Because History exclusively focuses on American history, the Civil War is a common subject—much to my delight. The latest issue of History (July/August 2010) proves to be no exception as a number of Civil War related articles are sprinkled throughout its pages. With next year marking the 150th anniversary of the start of the Civil War greater attention has been given to the tumultuous political climate of the 1850s; particularly seen through the political career of Illinois lawyer Abraham Lincoln. As part of the “This Day in History” section the start of the Lincoln-Douglas debates on August 21, 1858 receives top billing as one of the most important events that occurred during July and August (pg. 10). Perhaps the most famous example of American political theater, the Lincoln-Douglas debates were more about Lincoln’s attempt to get national press coverage than to sway potential voters. But the Lincoln-Douglas debates deserves it’s place in American political history as it demonstrates clearly the divided nature of American politics on the eve of Civil War through Lincoln’s opposition to the spreading of slavery versus Stephan Douglas’s support of popular sovereignty. The brief feature on the debates is a clear and concise summary of the debates and the outcome. While Lincoln lost his bid for the United States Senate, Stephen Douglas was never able to repair his image within the Democratic Party. Douglas’s nomination for president in 1860 was one of the contributing factors to the sectional splitting of the Democratic Party that allowed Abraham Lincoln and the Republican Party to win the Presidency in 1860.

As part of the “Save Our History” section writer Rick Beyer contributes a wonderful, but brief article on Civil War era illustrated envelops (pg. 12-13). Usually overlooked, Civil War illustrated envelops are fascinating window into 1860s material culture. Illustrated envelops, largely produced in the North, were used by civilians and soldiers alike to express their patriotic feelings. Flags, political slogans, camp scenes, popular generals and politicians were the main subjects featured on illustrated envelops that were used in both the Union and the Confederacy. The heyday for illustrated envelops occurred during the euphoric early days of the war. By mid-1862 it became clear to both sides that the Civil War was going to be a protracted struggle, the original patriotic frenzy subsided as bodies piled up and resources dwindled. Beyer article recounts the history and production of illustrated envelops accompanied by several examples of the wide diversity of subjects featured on illustrated envelops.
The July/August edition of History magazine’s feature article explores the evolution of America’s national image Uncle Sam in David Hawley’s article “Yankee Doodle Dandy: We’re All Real-life Nephews (and Nieces) of Our Universally Recognized Uncle Sam” (pg. 20-24). Known today as the stern image accosting viewers in World War I and World War II recruiting posters and the fodder of political cartoonists, Uncle Sam has had a number of makeovers since his appearance in the early nineteenth-century as the stand in for the United States. The Uncle Sam that we recognize today owes his likeness to Thomas Nast who turned illustrated journalism into an art form during the nineteenth-century. Nast not only transformed Uncle Sam for the readers of Harper’s Weekly, but also turned Santa Claus into the jolly old elf we see every Christmas, he also created the donkey and the elephant as symbols for the Democratic and Republican parties. Hawley traces Nast’s part in Uncle Sam’s long and storied history and even includes an informative side-bar highlighting Nast’s artistic accomplishments. The main problem with the article is that Hawley or the editors who assembled the collection of images to go with the article failed to include a representation of Nast’s Uncle Sam. This makes absolutely no sense—the majority of the article is dedicated to Nast! Instead the reader gets an entire page devoted to the many images of Uncle Sam which consist of World War I and World War II propaganda posters.

The final Civil War related topic covered in this month’s issue of History is the discovery of a rare Lincoln film (pg. 40). While not made during the Civil War, but of interest nevertheless to the Civil War community and early film enthusiast was the discovery of the only known copy of the film made in 1913. Titled When Lincoln Paid the thirty minute movie was made by and stared Francis Ford (brother of John Ford), and is about a dead Union soldier’s mother who pleads with the president to spare the life of a Confederate soldier she had turned in. Basically it’s an example of traditional silent film melodrama. Ford produced eight silent films in which he stared as Abraham Lincoln, but this is the first known copy of these films. Fortunately for Lincoln scholars this film has been re-discovered and restored. With the discovery of the long lost When Lincoln Paid, it gives hope that perhaps the other seven films will eventually be discovered in a long forgotten trunk tucked away in an attic.

History: The History Channel Magazine can be found at selected Borders and Barnes and Noble Bookstores.

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