Hometown: Petoskey, Michigan
About: Catton was known as a narrative historian who specialized in popular histories that emphasized the colorful characters and vignettes of history, in addition to the simple dates, facts, and analysis. His works, although well-researched, were generally not presented in a rigorous academic style, supported by footnotes. In the long line of Civil War historians, Catton is arguably the most prolific and popular of all, with Shelby Foote his only conceivable rival. Oliver Jensen, who succeeded him as editor of American Heritage magazine, wrote: "There is a near-magic power of imagination in Catton's work that seemed to project him physically into the battlefields, along the dusty roads and to the campfires of another age."
Bruce Catton was born in Petoskey, Michigan, but spent most of his boyhood in Benzonia. He was the son of a Congregationalist minister, who accepted a teaching position in Benzonia Academy and later became the academy's headmaster. As a boy, Bruce first heard the reminiscences of the aged veterans who had fought in the Civil War. Their stories made a lasting impression upon him, giving "a color and a tone," Catton wrote in his memoir, Waiting for the Morning Train (1972), "not merely to our village life, but to the concept of life with which we grew up ... I think I was always subconsciously driven by an attempt to restate that faith and to show where it was properly grounded, how it grew out of what a great many young men on both sides felt and believed and were brave enough to do."
Catton attended Oberlin College, starting in 1916, but he left without completing a degree due to the outbreak of World War I. After serving briefly in the U.S. Navy during the war, Catton became a reporter and wrote for various newspapers: the Cleveland News (as a freelance reporter), the Boston American (1920–24), and the Cleveland Plain Dealer (1925). From then until 1941, he worked for the Newspaper Enterprise Association (a Scripps-Howard syndicate), for which he wrote editorials, book reviews, and served as a correspondent from Washington, D.C.
At the start of World War II, Catton was too old for military service and, starting in 1941, he served as Director of Information for the War Production Board and later held similar posts in the Department of Commerce and the Department of the Interior. This experience as a federal employee prepared him to write his first book, War Lords of Washington, in 1948. Although the book was not a commercial success, it inspired Catton to leave the federal government in 1952 to become a full-time author.
In 1954 Catton was one of four founders of American Heritage magazine, and served initially as a writer, reviewer, and editor. In the first issue, he wrote:
We intend to deal with that great, unfinished and illogically inspiring story of the American people doing, being and becoming. Our American heritage is greater than any one of us. It can express itself in very homely truths; in the end it can lift up our eyes beyond the glow in the sunset skies.
In 1959 Catton was named senior editor of American Heritage, a post he held for the rest of his life.
Bruce Catton died in his summer home at Frankfort, Michigan.
SOME OF Bruce Catton WORKS: