Two people named John Adams, one born in Braintree, Massachusetts, in 1735, the other about twenty miles west of Braintree in Medway in 1812. The first was a leader of the American Revolution, helped write the Declaration of Independence, and succeeded George Washington as president of the United States. The second made a career of capturing and training grizzly bears in the Sierra Nevada Mountains for exhibition around the country in the 1850s. You can read about the first John Adams in the new American National Biography (ANB) and also, at somewhat greater length, in the older twenty-volume Dictionary of American Biography (DAB). You can read about the second John Adams, better known as Grizzly Adams, only in the ANB. That, in short, is the difference between these two reference works. But it is a difference that reaches well beyond the fun of finding so improbable a character as Grizzly Adams while looking for his more famous namesake.
Not that the fun should be discounted. The contrasting personalities joined by alphabetical juxtaposition is enough to jolt anyone into exclamations of “Only in America!” Look up Margaret Fuller, the New England Transcendentalist, and find her in a pack of Fullers not much like her. Alfred Carl Fuller, the original Fuller Brush Man, resembled her a little in doing a lot of traveling. Buckminster Fuller, the inventor of the geodesic dome and various other engineering marvels, shared with her an absorption in cosmic problems. But we get pretty far from Margaret with Blind Boy Fuller, “probably the Southeast’s most important and influential blues artist.” Blind Boy started out as a street singer and guitarist, teaming up with Bull City Red, a washboard player, and Sonny Terry, another blind street singer, who specialized in the harmonica. Before Blind Boy died at the age of thirty-three in 1941, he had cut 135 titles like “Rag, Mama, Rag” and “Truckin’ My Blues Away” for Decca and other major record companies. And don’t miss Jesse “Lone Cat” Fuller, a drifter who worked variously as a circus roustabout, yard hand for the Southern Pacific, and shipyard welder before making the big time on TV and film with his one-man band performance on the harmonica, kazoo, washboard, cymbal, double bass, and twelve-string guitar (“he employed a northern Georgia/Piedmont picking style and could play in open-tuned slide style as well”). Only in America, indeed, and only in the ANB will you find them joined, not just for fun but in serious recognition of what they all did to make America whatever it is.
Before saying any more about these remarkable twenty-four volumes, we have to admit to a seeming conflict of interest. One of us is listed as a member of the “advisory board” for the project; the other was an editor with the DAB; and each of us wrote one of the 17,450 biographical sketches. But the only advice this member of the advisory board can remember offering was the erroneous suggestion that the enterprise would…
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