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Who’s Really Who

American National Biography Societies

published under the auspices of the American Council of Learned, by John A. Garraty, by Mark C. Carnes
Oxford University Press, $2,500.00, 24 volumes


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 take much longer to complete than in fact it did. Together we contributed no more to it than the six thousand other historians to whom the editors assigned particular sketches.

What gives the volumes their unique significance is the vision that guided the two principal editors and the associates who helped them in choosing persons for inclusion and establishing guidelines for writing about them. American National Biography is an editorial work of art, different in kind from any preceding study of American history. It could perhaps be compared to the many historical series of books in which twentieth-century publishers have periodically enlisted experts to rewrite the history of the United States, as perspectives have changed over time: the American Nation series, the New American Nation series, the Chronicles of America series (edited by the original editor of the DAB), the History of American Life series, The Chicago History of American Civilization, the Oxford History of the United States. Each has sought to offer the latest in historical interpretations by the latest experts. But none of them approaches the reconception of American life in the ANB.

The ANB was originally projected as an update of the DAB, and an update it certainly is. Quite apart from any larger significance, it presents, through its new depictions of individual lives, all the advances in historical understanding that have occurred since the DAB was published between 1928 and 1936 (some of which were already evident in the supplementary volumes issued periodically from 1944 to 1995). More than any of the historical series, in which each volume is the work of a single author, both the DAB and the ANB represent a collective effort of the historical profession by a wide spectrum of its members.

The profession had just come of age in the 1920s and early 1930s when some of its then leaders cooperated with the American Council of Learned Societies to put together the DAB. Few of the entrepreneurs had the time or the inclination to work extensively on the biographies themselves. Carl Becker did a classic one on Benjamin Franklin. But Charles Beard and Frederick Jackson Turner, whose interpretations dominated American history at the time, contributed none. Nor did Charles McLean Andrews, the dean of colonial studies. The editors, first Allen Johnson, then Dumas Malone and Harris Starr, had to call on a couple of thousand people, many of them just beginning their careers, to undertake more biographies than any of them could bring a degree of expertise to. Interpretation of large areas of history rested more on assumption than research, and the assumptions of most of the profession at the time were “progressive.” American history was seen as a continuing struggle for betterment by the common man against the dominance of usurping superiors. That view is not in itself without merit, but a close look at any time, place, or person has generally revealed a situation that does not yield to explanation by previously accepted suppositions.

Since the 1930s several generations of historians (historiographical generations are pretty short) have been taking closer and closer looks at every part of the American past, and there are now several times as many professional historians doing it as were present or available in the 1920s or 1930s. They have singled out narrower and narrower segments of the past and disclosed new complexities that require continual revising or reversing of previous suppositions. The revisions and reversals are often exaggerated, resulting in a kind of pendulum swing, from emphasis on conflict to emphasis on consensus, back to a more complex conflict and forward to a different kind of consensus, and so on. The swings sometimes follow corresponding swings in public opinion, or at least academic opinion, about current issues that may have no immediate bearing on the subject. But the net result is a much more sophisticated understanding of the American past and of the people in it than would have been possible in the 1930s. The difference is evident in the ANB’s handling of people also covered in the DAB. In general, the new treatments take more space: the ANB, with twenty-four volumes instead of twenty, over three hundred more pages per volume, and more words to a page, is almost twice as long as the DAB, but it contains only 22 percent more entries (17,450 as against 13,633). In general, also, the new sketches show greater interest in and understanding of what people thought, give a little less attention to genealogical origins, public careers, offices held, honors received. And they show far greater familiarity with the sources from which the stories they tell have to be drawn.

A good example can be found in the treatment of figures from early New England. Seventeenth-century Massachusetts exhibited several conflicts in which liberty-loving democrats could be seen as arrayed against tyrannical aristocrats. Thomas Hooker, who led an exodus from Massachusetts to found Connecticut, becomes in the DAB “a born democrat,” as evinced by writings in which he placed the origin of government in a social contract, while the leaders of Massachusetts “opposed democracy tooth and nail.” The ANB notes Hooker’s reputation as a pioneer of democracy and deflates it by showing that his views on the origin of government were shared by all Puritans. His statements about it were merely reminders to readers “of conventional truths of political theory they already knew.” Similarly, Roger Williams in the DAB was banished to Rhode Island because his ministry at Salem “roused the fears of the governing class for their own supremacy,” and his opposition to oaths of allegiance endangered their attempts “to bind the lower orders to strict submission.” The ANB sets the record straight in showing that Williams’s offensiveness to the Massachusetts authorities lay in his intransigent insistence that the colony’s Puritan churches were not pure enough. He never found one that was, for “in his heart he was a congregation of one.”

A similar study in contrasts arises in examining the cluster of individuals whose lives converged in southern Montana during the Indian wars. General George Crook’s column of one thousand troopers, as well as his Crow and Shoshone allies, were defeated by a large force of Sioux and Cheyenne led by Crazy Horse at the Battle of the Rosebud. Only eight days later, five companies of the Seventh Cavalry, led by George A. Custer, were wiped out by Lakota Sioux and Cheyenne warriors. Here the ANB offers a markedly different version from the DAB of the people and forces which brought about the collision. The 1920s’ take on Indian warfare was very much influenced by William James Ghent, an editor of the DAB with a specialist interest in Western history. Ghent, who wrote many articles for the DAB, admired Custer as a gentleman of the old school: “In personal habits he was abstemious; except in the peace-pipe ceremony with Indians he did not use tobacco.” Likening him to a figure of Greek tragedy, Ghent went so far as to repeat the pious misrepresentation that Custer’s corpse “was unmutilated.” The character of Sitting Bull he sums up as “wily, untrustworthy,” comparing his spiritual gifts to those of a table-turning fake medium.

Sixty years on, Robert M. Utley makes the observation that “had Custer been killed at Appomattox, he would be remembered as a great cavalry general, second only to Sheridan among Union horsemen.” As an Indian fighter, however, “the fame came as much from newspaper attention and from his own writings” as from victories on the field of battle. Noting the endless controversies that still swirl around the Battle of the Little Bighorn, Utley laconically concludes, “The soldiers lost because the Indians won—although in victory lay the seeds of their ultimate defeat.”

Joseph C. Porter, who profiles General George Crook, praises the sympathy with which he studied Indian ways of life, for he “appreciated that American Indians fought to preserve their cultures and lands.” Whereas the DAB’s G.J. Fiebeger deemed it important to establish that Crook was “never profane, indulged in no intoxicating liquors, and was clean of speech,” Porter analyzes his soldiering in some detail. Highly skilled in logistics and strategy, he was implacable in his pursuit of hostile Indians—whose villages he ruthlessly extirpated to weaken their ability to wage war—but magnanimous toward those he conquered. He campaigned tirelessly to persuade the federal government to grant them civil rights. “The southwestern press vilified Crook for his evenhanded treatment of the Apaches,” who suffered terrible oppression at the hands of Crook’s successor, General Nelson Miles.

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