Walking Backward

A Walk Toward Oregon by Alvin M. Josephy, Jr. (Alfred A. Knopf). Hardcover, $27.50.

ALVIN JOSEPHY, A journalist, editor, historian and writer, has packed an extraordinary range of experience into a long life. The author of books such as The Civil War in the American West, 500 Nations and America in 1492 here turns to chronicling his own life and times, a passage that brought him into contact with a host of major events and personalities.

Josephy's A Walk Toward Oregon is figurative, describing Josephy's westward-tending researches into American Indian history, ending with his studies of the Nez Percé chief Joseph. It is also literal, for, even as a young man, the East Coast-bred writer nursed dreams of leaving civilization and making his way West, where he could get a little dust on his boots.

Born in 1915, Josephy spent his childhood in a well-to-do New York household, one in which progressive political and social ideas bumped up against Gilded Age mores. Determined as a young man to be a writer, Josephy tried his hand, with mixed success, at journalism, screenwriting and short fiction; his account of life in the manic world of metropolitan daily newspapers and the still more manic world of 1930s-era Hollywood is both instructive and entertaining.

He had much encouragement along the way from his uncle, the noted publisher Alfred Knopf, and from family friend H. L. Mencken. But rather than coast on family connections, Josephy strived to advance on his own merits, refusing a legitimate medical deferment to enlist as a Marine combat correspondent in World War II.

In the 1950s, after working at Time, the Herald Tribune and other New York-based periodicals, Josephy became an editor and writer for American Heritage, which encouraged his long-standing interest in the history of the American West and afforded him many opportunities to explore a lifelong passion, American Indian history. His book The Patriot Chiefs, a set of biographical sketches of noted American Indian leaders, he writes, was initially a commercial failure when published in 1961. Hidden "among books on trees, butterflies, seashells, and other subjects of natural history" rather than among books of anthropology or politics, it found readers only in the later 1960s, when proto-New Agers adopted Indians as spiritual mascots.

Josephy has since gone on to write other books, to act as an advocate for several American Indian nations, and to tend to his small patch of the West. His welcome memoir makes for an engaging stroll through history and on into the sunset.