The Story of the Landmark Books
Once there was a history book series that was so successful, it lured an entire generation of young readers to the discipline, including many of today's professional historians. The publisher hired the absolute best authors of the day, which might account for a small but dedicated audience in the present. Yet Random House's Landmark Books Series, which ran from 1950 to 1970 and ultimately generated 180 volumes, is so little studied, there isn't even a Wikipedia article on it. This is unfortunate, for the books captured the spirit of the postwar consensus, with all its strengths and weaknesses. I recently taught a freshman seminar, Doing History in the 1950s, using this remarkable collection. Here is what I have discovered about the unique history of the Landmark Books.
Bennett Cerf, the magisterial publisher who helped found Random House, invented the Landmark series in 1948. While vacationing with his family on Cape Cod, he went to buy a book about the Pilgrims for his young son. The proprietor of the local bookstore told Cerf that there were no juvenile books in print on that topic. Cerf thereupon decided to fill the gap.1 And fill it he did. In short order, James Daugherty, winner of the Newbery Medal, completed the book about the Pilgrims.2
Cerf set the pattern for the series by persuading celebrated novelist Dorothy Canfield Fisher to write two of the early volumes—one on Paul Revere and the other called Our Independence and Constitution. Her name added a certain gravitas to a new series directed at teens, especially since rival series relied on professional children's book authors. Thirty-five out of the 114 writers were women, a high proportion for the day. (Many authors contributed more than one title.) Some of the books were biographies, and some were more traditional histories.
Not a single author was an academic. Cerf clearly preferred skilled wordsmiths, the more famous the better, who could engage a general audience. The early years of the series relied on such literati as war correspondent Quentin Reynolds, Pulitzer Prize winner MacKinlay Kantor, double Pulitzer Prize recipient Robert Penn Warren, and Nobel Prize winner Pearl Buck. C. S. Forester, author of The African Queen and inventor of the Horatio Hornblower novels of adventure on the high seas, penned The Barbary Pirates for the series. Shirley Jackson, already famous for her short story "The Lottery," contributed The Witchcraft of Salem Village.
The books first sold for $1.50 (about $13.25 today)—not bad for a hardcover. 3 Random House wisely packaged them with inviting dust jackets for the general reader, and in reinforced bindings for libraries (often with the dust jacket image embossed on the front cover). The paper was of the highest quality: even today the pages haven't yellowed. All the books came in just under 200 pages, with a legible Caslon font, reasonably wide margins, and even comprehensive indexes. They were illustrated, then the norm for children's books. Each Landmark volume had about 10 one-color block prints, although in the 1960s photographs became more common. Cerf shrewdly linked them to the Book-of-the-Month Club: about 70,000 Young Readers of America, as they were called, received Landmark books on a regular basis, along with a "personal" letter from the author, inviting the reader to dive right in.4
The sales figures for the series seem to be gone, but they were assuredly high. The authors apparently received 10 cents per copy as a royalty. Yet from this seemingly meager amount one former writer in the series, whom I interviewed, said that his book—certainly not one of the best sellers—earned him about $10,000 (about $80,000 today), meaning sales of about 100,000 copies. That many of the books overlapped with popular TV series—mostly westerns—boosted sales for the biographies of Daniel Boone, Davy Crockett, Francis Marion (the "Swamp Fox"), Wild Bill Hickok, Wyatt Earp, and Kit Carson. A prominent American historian recently told me he read the Davy Crockett biography wearing a coonskin cap popularized by TV series star Fess Parker.5
The Landmark series embodied all the strengths and weaknesses of the period. Most of the books celebrated the achievements of white Protestant males, subscribed to the certainty of American exceptionalism, and upheld "the march of progress." Thus, we have books on the Wright brothers, the Lewis and Clark expedition, and Commodore Perry and the opening of Japan, to pick from the list almost randomly. One or two of the books were explicitly racist. But many displayed a wonderful magnanimity of spirit—as, for example, in MacKinlay Kantor's capacious treatment of Lee and Grant's dramatic surrender ceremony at Appomattox. Moreover, the series included 15 books with female subjects, not the least of which was Women of Courage. Seven of the books dealt exclusively or largely with Native Americans, including sympathetic biographies of Geronimo and Sequoyah. And one of my personal favorites was George Washington Carver: it made me want to be a botanist.
If the titles from the 1950s focused mostly on colonial history, the American West, pirates, and inventors, the 1960s highlighted the events of World War II. Most of these were written by actual war correspondents, such as Bruce Bliven, Richard Tregaskis, and John Toland. In some instances, these were adult best sellers simplified for younger readers. William Shirer published his mammoth The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich in 1960. The next year, his Rise and Fall of Adolf Hitler appeared in the Landmark series.
Bennett Cerf had phoned Shirer, asking for the Landmark biography of Hitler. "It was not so easy as he assured me it would be. . . . How did you write for young people? You couldn't be condescending. You had to respect them. But you had to keep it simple enough for them to understand," Shirer recalled in his memoir A Native's Return.6 His comment goes to the heart of the success of the Landmark series. The authors had no in-house guide to follow, no formula for how many words of four syllables were allowed. Each author was given absolute freedom to craft the subject matter as he or she saw fit. Most took their task very seriously.
The authors had no in-house guide to follow, no formula for how many words of four syllables were allowed. Each was given absolute freedom.
Cerf's hunch was correct: for young readers it was more important to tell a good story and to tell it in a simple but urbane way. In that regard, it would be hard to find prose more challenging and engaging to a juvenile than Shirer's closing words: "The remembrance of the grisly world nightmare [Hitler] provoked, of the millions of innocent beings he slaughtered, of the hurt he did to the human spirit, lingers on. The memory fades but slowly as the years pass and mankind resumes its ages-old effort to make the world a more decent place in which to live."7
The Landmark series has an afterlife. About 10 of the titles have been reissued, but in paperback, with different illustrations, with the type completely reset and with tiny margins—noble, but altogether less inviting—by Sterling Point Books. And since so many copies of the original series were printed, they are still to be found in used bookstores and online, and are often employed in the curricula of home schoolers.
It would be a shame if this icon of American history were forgotten.
David Spear is William E. Leverette Jr. Professor of History at Furman University, where he has taught since 1982. He teaches in a wide range of areas and won Furman's Meritorious Teaching Award in 1995. He has published several books, articles, and book reviews in medieval history.
1. At Random: The Reminiscences of Bennett Cerf (New York: Random House, 1977), 157–58.
2. For an early account of the first 10 books in the series, see Katherine B. Shippen, "The Landmark Books," Horn Book Magazine 27, no. 2 (March–April 1951).
3. "Trade Winds," Saturday Review, September 12, 1953, 6.
4. "Trade Winds," 6; Charles Lee, The Hidden Public: The Story of the Book-of-the-Month Club (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1958), 94–95.
5. David Shi, coauthor with George Tindall, America: A Narrative History, 9th ed. (New York: W. W. Norton, 2013).
6. William L. Shirer, A Native's Return, 1945–1988 (Boston: Little Brown, 1990), 265.
7. William L. Shirer, The Rise and Fall of Adolf Hitler (New York: Random House, 1961), 178–79.
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