Back in June of 2007, I posted a note about American Heritage magazine's decision to do away with a print edition and publish all of their content on-line. Apparently the magazine is back on the newsstands again, following a traditional advertising revenue model, but not without controversy.
An issue devoted to Lincoln includes a full, back page ad by the Illinois Bureau of Tourism, calling upon we readers to “Walk the same halls and streets that led him to the White House.” Well that seems harmless enough. What's the controversy? Oh, right. On the opposite page of the Illinois tourism ad is one for some unholy jewelry—a gaudy ring sporting the Confederate battleflag—I haven't seen this issue, but I found the item online easily enough.
James McPherson cried foul. According to a brief notice in the New York Times, "Mr. McPherson, a history professor at Princeton and author of Tried by War: Abraham Lincoln as Commander in Chief, said that many saw the Confederate flag as an incendiary symbol of slavery and that he would have protested the ad had he been aware of it before publication." Is this the first time McPherson contributed something to a magazine that also sold schlocky goods celebrating the short-lived Confederacy? That hardly seems possible, given the kinds of ads that make up the bulk of advertising in Civil War glossies. Maybe he just doesn't like jewelry.
I admire McPherson's work—Battle Cry of Freedom remains, to my mind, the most important single volume on the subject of the Civil War published in my lifetime. And I'm pretty sure that, if given the opportunity, I would likewise recycle my work far beyond the point that pride or good manners made it uncomfortable. But shouldn't anyone who contributes to glossy history magazines expect—going in—that their work will eventually share pages with ads for any number of products that somehow glorify or memorialize the Lost Cause?
Certainly contributing authors have no idea what ads will appear in a given issue, or about the placement of those ads, but when was the last time our most celebrated Civil War historians denounced nostalgic, Confederate-themed advertising in the pages of North & South, or Civil War Times, Illustrated, or America's Civil War? Or is it just the flag itself that crosses the line? Isn't hagiographic artwork featuring Lee, Jackson, and others—paintings, commemorative plates, belt buckles, figurines—part and parcel of our popular periodic literature? Is any of that substantively different—less symbolic or meaningful—than a ring with the CSA battleflag? These are interesting questions.
It occurred to me that this is the third time I can personally recall McPherson expressing after-the-fact regrets about a publication he contributed to or endorsed with an introduction. As mentioned, he can't be held accountable for the advertising in American Heritage. In another instance, he withdrew an enthusiastic endorsement after receiving convincing evidence of copyright violation. But the one that left me stumped was a Civil War atlas for which he wrote the introduction, and which, after publication, was discovered to contain maps riddled with errors.
It happens. Who among us hasn't, at some point, trusted someone who turned out to be untrustworthy? I'm sure that on the next atlas introduction project, Dr. McPherson will insist on scrutinizing the maps first.