Josephy, Alvin M., Jr.
Josephy, Alvin M., Jr.
(b. 18 May 1915 in Wood-mere, New York; d. 16 October 2005 in Greenwich, Connecticut), popular historian of Native American heritage who penned classics such as The Patriot Chiefs (1961) and Now That the Buffalo’s Gone (1982).
Josephy was born in Woodmere, New York, a hamlet in Nassau County, but grew up in New York City. His parents were prominent members of literary society, as his mother, Sophia (Knopf) Josephy, was the sister of the publisher Alfred A. Knopf; his father, Alvin M. Josephy, managed the operations of a poultry business. Josephy, who had one brother, was educated in the New York City public schools and in the Horace Mann School for Boys during the 1920s and early 1930s. He was enamored by the history of the American West from an early age, listening to stories of a grandfather who had once owned land in Oregon and watching historical films like The Iron Horse (1924). Josephy later recalled, “Many of the epics were very realistic and made a strong impression on me because they were about the West.”
Josephy showed a keen interest in literary endeavors from an early age, and both his mother and maternal grandfather prepared him to assume his place in Alfred A. Knopf’s publishing firm. He joined the staff of the Horace Mann Record and was later encouraged to purse a literary career by the literary critic and family friend H. L. Mencken. Mencken also played a central role in Josephy’s acceptance at Harvard, writing a letter of recommendation. Enrolling at Harvard in 1932, after his graduation from the Horace Mann School, Josephy participated in cross-country running, sang in the university’s instrumental clubs, and developed an interest in Democratic politics. Due to the impact of the Great Depression on his family’s fortune, however, he was forced to leave the college and find employment following his sophomore year, in 1934.
On 22 June 1934 Josephy rode a bus to Hollywood, where he gained employment as a screenwriter for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM). This was his first trip to the American West, and during a stop in New Mexico, he saw Pueblo Indians selling jewelry. He later recalled, “They were about the first ‘real’ Indians I had ever seen, and I felt very sorry for them.” After two years in Hollywood, Josephy worked as a reporter for the New York Herald Tribune in Mexico in 1937, then as a news and special features director at the radio station WOR from 1938 to 1942. Between 1943 and 1945, during World War II, Josephy served as a journalist with the U.S. Marine Corps, witnessing fighting in Guam and Iwo Jima. Following the war he returned to screenwriting for United Artists, an MGM subsidiary, from 1945 to 1951, then served as an associate editor at Time magazine from 1951 to 1960.
Beginning in the mid-1940s Josephy also revived his interest in literary pursuits. In 1945 he contributed to The U.S. Marines on Iwo Jima, along with Raymond Henri and three others, and the following year he published The Long and the Short and the Tall, his own account of battles in Iwo Jima and Guam. During his work with Time, Josephy developed an interest in American Indians, as he himself referred to them, and conducted extensive research on the history of the Nez Perce Indians, which was published as The Nez Perce Indians and the Opening of the Northwest in 1965. Mentioning his wife, Josephy later noted, “With Betty sleeping in the living room until I called it quits at two or three or four in the morning, I worked on the book at night and on weekends. Off and on, the history took me about twelve years to write.” Before the book was published, however, he found the time to write The Patriot Chiefs: A Chronicle of American Indian Leadership (1961), a series of portraits on Nez Perce leaders.
In 1960 Josephy became a senior editor for American Heritage Publications, where he oversaw the issue of a series of history books, including The American Heritage Book of Indians (1961). As an author, he continued to concentrate on Native American history, issuing Chief Joseph’s People and Their War in 1964 and The Indian Heritage of America in 1968. The latter book offered an expansive history of Indians in both South and North America from the last Bering land bridge crossings 10,000 years ago to the mid-1960s. Noting his motivation for writing that volume, Josephy wrote, “There was nothing like it in existence—no single book written in a readable style, as devoid as possible of falsehoods, half-truths, and stereotypical thinking.”
Josephy published a steady stream of books from the 1970s to the 1990s further documenting the history and culture of Native Americans. In 1971 he helped edit Red Power: The American Indians’ Fight for Freedom, a documentary book covering land claims, sovereignty issues, and cultural traditions. In Now That the Buffalo’s Gone: A Study of Today’s American Indians (1982), Josephy chronicled Native Americans’ ongoing struggles. Regarding that text, the renowned Native American writer N. Scott Momaday remarked in Natural History, “It’s a book that ought to be read by anyone who is interested in our American heritage and in the evolution of our idea of ourselves as a nation.” In 1991 Josephy published The Civil War in the American West, about which the American Indian Quarterly noted, “This book will remain not only a remarkable contribution to the military and political history of the Civil War but also to the regional history of the West.”
Josephy married Rosamond Eddy in July 1938; the couple had one daughter before divorcing. On 13 March 1948 Josephy married Elizabeth Carlisle Peet, with whom he had three children. Having retained his interest in Democratic politics, Josephy ran unsuccessfully for the Connecticut state legislature in 1958 and 1960. On 16 October 2005 Josephy died at his home in Greenwich, Connecticut.
In the 1960s, when the general public remained unaware of the distinguished history of the Nez Perce and other Native American tribes, Josephy’s books served as rich introductions. Between the publication of The Patriot Chiefs in 1961 and of America in 1492: The World of the Indian Peoples Before the Arrival of Columbus in 1992, he became the foremost white expert on Native American history. Momaday wrote, “Alvin Josephy is one of the more knowledgeable and perceptive students of American Indian life—not only its contemporary manifestations, which are certainly intricate and various, but also its history.” In 2000 Josephy published A Walk Toward Oregon: A Memoir, about which Walter Bernstein of the New York Times noted, “Josephy has seen his time clearly; he has acted on his idealism; he has written a valuable book about a valuable life.”
Josephy’s memoir, A Walk Toward Oregon (2000), offers the fullest account of his life and career. Obituaries are in the Washington Post (18 Oct. 2005) and Guardian (27 Oct. 2005).
Ronald D. Lankford