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.
A like evenhandedness informs the ANB portraits of the principal Indian actors in the Little Bighorn disaster, Crazy Horse, Gall, and Sitting Bull, whose personal attributes and leadership roles are analyzed with care and sensitivity. In evaluating the now common accusation that Gall, an Episcopalian convert and opponent of the native Ghost Dance religion, was “a pawn of white culture who sold out the reservation Sioux for personal gain,” Neil C. Mangum declares that “this perception is not entirely accurate.” Calling Gall “a visionary” who understood all too well the overwhelming force white America had at its disposal, Mangum explains that he “accepted reservation confinement because to resist meant defeat and death.”
Nothing dates the DAB as markedly as its treatment of charismatic religious leaders who flourished outside mainstream Protestantism. In the late 1920s the fact that Mary Baker Eddy was a New Englander, had established a thriving “Mother Church” in Boston, and had a following of educated and mostly affluent men and women must have worked in her favor with the editors of the DAB. But it is hard to see why she was accorded an article nearly the length of Jonathan Edwards’s, and especially one that harps on her “little airs,” her “little court,” and her propensity for bitter litigation. Even then it must have been apparent that Christian Science was a religion that appealed to few, as compared with Mormonism, whose founder, Joseph Smith, was given short shrift by Bernard DeVoto in a DAB article cast as a quizzical look at a phenomenon at once grotesque and hardy.
It is inconceivable that any serious historian of today would exhibit the degree of scorn that DeVoto visited on Smith. While acknowledging his great influence upon others, DeVoto sums him up by saying, “He was at his best in situations that could be personalized and dramatized, but he lacked intelligence and his judgment was almost uniformly bad.” DeVoto even attaches a show of legality to the murder of Smith and his brother Hyrum by a lynch mob, in the bald statement that they were “arrested and lodged in the jail at Carthage, Ill., whence they were taken on June 27 and shot.” Religious ideas are taken much more seriously by the authors of the ANB, who strive to place them socially and intellectually in context, while paying particular attention to the institutional forms of religious life and the transformations of the social structures which give rise to them. A fine example of this is the article on Dorothy Day of the Catholic Worker Movement. James Terence Fisher describes the tension between Day’s personal piety, which found redemptive power in a life of spirituality and voluntary poverty, and the demands laid upon her as the chief organizer and public symbol of a lay movement dedicated to succoring the jobless and the homeless.
Another subject which modern historians treat with a candor uncommon in the 1920s and 1930s is sexuality. The highly respectful profile of the poet Amy Lowell in the DAB, while discussing her personal life in some detail, states without further explanation that she dedicated her poems to A.D.R., identified as Mrs. Harold Russell, who served as her literary executor. The ANB has no difficulty in saying, “The friendship between the two women has been described as platonic by some, as lesbian by others; it was, in fact, a ‘Boston marriage.’ They lived together and were committed to each other until Lowell’s death.”
The ANB’s updating offers many contrasts to the DAB of this kind but not always so directly. The only other area we have found where the clash of interpretations figures so obviously is in the treatment of people involved in the Reconstruction governments of the South after the Civil War. The historians at work on the DAB were beneficiaries of many studies of Reconstruction, in particular studies done under the direction of William A. Dunning at Columbia University. In all of them the Radical Republicans who wrote new state constitutions and ran the governments under them before 1878 came in for denunciation, while the resumption of white dominance after that date was viewed as a restoration of order and decency. Studies completed since 1934, based on a wider range of sources, have emphasized the achievements of the Reconstruction governments and the overt racism of their successors. Biographies in the DAB and the ANB exhibit the differences. For example, the DAB, quoting Ulrich B. Phillips, sums up the career of Rufus Bullock, governor of Georgia, 1868-1871, with the blanket judgment that “Bullock and his crew instituted a carnival of public spoliation.” The ANB allows that there were numerous “allegations of fraud and malfeasance” but finds that “these charges obscured the unquestioned contributions of Bullock’s regime,” among them, albeit temporary, “the inclusion of blacks in Georgia politics.”
The changed view of Reconstruction represents a closer look at the evidence, but it is hard not to find something more than that behind it. The Dunning studies gave direct support to the efforts at North-South reunion carried out at the expense of blacks in the half-century and more that followed the Civil War. The newer studies came in the wake of the civil rights movement and the resumption of black militancy in the 1960s and 1970s. The change in race relations in America since the 1920s is undoubtedly the most spectacular social development of the last half-century, and along with the growth of the historical profession it has certainly affected the different ways the same people are treated in the two series. But it has affected more than that and is itself part of a larger development signaled in these volumes. The great achievement of the ANB does not lie merely in correcting old mistakes. The ANB delivers a message to Americans about themselves and what they have become, an announcement never stated as an argument, a prophecy, an analysis, or an interpretation, but incorporated inescapably in the record of lives lived.
A hint of what the editors have been up to lies in the different amount of space they allot to different kinds of people. The twenty-eight presidents of the United States who died before 1934 (the cut-off date for the DAB) occupy 213 pages of the DAB as against 116 in the ANB. On the other hand, Oliver Wolcott Gibbs, a nineteenth-century chemist, recognized among scientists for his pioneering studies of chemical bonding, wins only a single page in the DAB but three in the ANB. Sanford Gibbs, a minor landscape painter of the Hudson River School, with a little over a page in the DAB, gets twice that in the ANB. And a good many chemists and painters, not to mention physicians, musicians, clergy, politicians, and lawyers, who earned a page or two in the DAB, have disappeared altogether in the ANB.
The editors have started from scratch, taking their pick of people who have affected American life from Christopher Columbus to the present, restricting their choice only to those who died before the year 1996. They chose about half of those who had made it to the DAB, but also took a good many from the years before 1934 whom the DAB had not included, Grizzly Adams and Scott Joplin for example. They cut down on the space for the twenty-eight presidents in the DAB but made room for twenty-four of their “First Ladies,” only three of whom are in the DAB. And they made room for people who affected American life without becoming part of it, like Alexis de Tocqueville, whose analysis of us a hundred and fifty years ago retains an uncanny relevance today, and the Jamaican Bob Marley, whose tours of the country with the Wailers established reggae as a significant musical form. A few of these outsiders with inside influence never set foot in the country, like Charles Fourier, the nineteenth-century utopian theorist who inspired American communal experiments like Brook Farm, and the Marquis of Rockingham, the British minister who won fame in America by presiding over the repeal of the Stamp Act. (Incidentally neither George Grenville, the author of the offensive Act, nor King George III makes it.)
Rockingham’s name nestling next to Knute Rockne’s is another of those intriguing juxtapositions that make the volumes so engrossing. And it can serve to remind us that this assemblage of names in effortless, alphabetical order conceals the imaginative taste and judgment behind what amounts to an extended manifesto of American civilization as it has become in the twentieth century. This is what we are and what we have been, the editors are saying, and it is a long way from what we were sixty years ago or perhaps from what other people may think we are now. We are not what we were before the Great Depression of the Thirties, before the New Deal, the Second World War, the atomic bomb, rock and roll, the Vietnam War, the civil rights movement, the modern feminist movement. But these highly visible events and developments, bearing heavily and immediately on the lives of everyone who lived through them, coincided with an explosion of artistic creativity, technical innovation, and scientific discovery, whose full impact has yet to be felt.
Recognition has had a large part in the achievements of the people whose lives are celebrated in these volumes. It has been particularly powerful in art and music, where many major figures would never have created the works that command our admiration and respect without earlier recognition of their talent by people who mattered, by critics and patrons, by producers and impresarios and showmen, by galleries and collectors and connoisseurs. The artists recognized here—artists in the largest sense of the word—are dead, their work done and already noticed by someone who mattered, or at least mattered to the editors. But their inclusion in the ANB and its evaluation of their work means a much larger kind of recognition, not only of their particular talents but of the genres in which they worked, not all of which have hitherto enjoyed the status that the ANB will confer.
Recognition can come at many levels and usually has to begin with someone’s furnishing the wherewithal for a person to do what his or her talents make possible and still eat. Many great artists, as the biographies in the ANB make clear, had to scrounge for a living before, and often after, someone recognized what they were capable of. Jackson Pollock’s first job after finishing art school was as a janitor, a not uncommon choice for people of talent. Mark Rothko worked as a garment cutter. Big Bill Broonzy, king of the blues in Chicago in the 1940s, had to keep a day job to stay alive. Louis Armstrong delivered coal. Charlie Parker washed dishes. Muddy Waters picked cotton. Billie Holiday was a prostitute.
Pollock and the other Abstract Expressionists who moved the center of modern art from Paris to New York in the 1950s were already well established when they did it, but only the Federal Arts Project made it possible for many of them to develop their talents during the Depression years. The “Pop” artists who seized leadership of American and world art from them almost all owed their success to recognition by a single gallery owner, Leo Castelli, who died in August. Many of his now famous protégés are still alive, but the stature of the Pop movement is suggested by the four and a half pages devoted to Andy Warhol in the ANB (about the same as for Thomas Eakins and Winslow Homer and a bit more than for Pollock).
As Castelli’s influence attests, recognition in painting and sculpture, even when it is called “Pop,” is not necessarily popular. But the evaluations applied in the ANB to popular culture as well as to high culture demonstrate a mingling of the two still underway. The whole Pop Art movement can be seen as a bid by high art for association with popular culture. From the other direction popular culture, at least in some kinds of music, has been winning a place in high culture. The person who, more than any other, effected that penetration of class, race, and artistic barriers was John Hammond, playing a role analogous in some ways to Castelli’s. Hammond, working for Columbia Records, introduced the respectable white world to jazz and blues. He “discovered” Billie Holiday in a Harlem after-hours night club, as he also discovered Count Basie and untold others. Hammond, an ardent enemy of segregation, won respect for black musicians long before the civil rights movement won them recognition as human beings. (Billie Holiday, singing for Artie Shaw’s band in the 1930s, had to enter a hotel’s ballroom through the kitchen.)
Hammond’s most spectacular success was in two concerts, titled “From Spirituals to Swing” at Carnegie Hall in 1938 and 1939, in which he introduced artists whose work had previously been known only on the “race” records sold by companies that targeted black buyers. Artists like Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Sonny Terry, and Big Bill Broonzy had already been discovered by scouts for a number of rival record companies that bargained in pennies for their services; the boogie-woogie trio of pianists Meade Lux Lewis, Albert Ammons, and Pete Johnson brought additional luster to the scene. Hammond won them recognition not only for their talents but for blues and jazz music, and prepared the way for the host of other musical genres that continue to multiply and mutate in popular culture. In a sense he helped to win the recognition of popular culture itself that the ANB now makes formal.
The line between art and entertainment can be a thin one, but the ANB has had to give far more attention to entertainment as such than the DAB had to, before television, computers, and other electronic media took over our daily lives and placed entertainment at the center of them. Entertainment has always had a place in American life, but before the Second World War it never occupied the position it has since taken. The DAB did not ignore entertainers, but the ANB has to weigh them in the context of a world that finds entertainment in anything that can be broadcast. Professional athletes are now as much entertainers as athletes. Because television has expanded exponentially the number of spectators for sports, the players who please the public earn a standing in popular culture that most former athletes could never enjoy in their lifetime and are not likely to achieve posthumously. Journalism and radio gave many boxers and a few other athletes, especially baseball players, a popular standing before 1934. But team sports and team fans have become the big thing they now are only in the past sixty years, and the timing makes for a difference in kind between choices for the DAB and for the ANB. Most of baseball’s great players, including those in the Negro Leagues, lived beyond the 1934 terminus of the DAB. Josh Gibson died in 1947, and Satchel Paige lived until 1982. We have been able to find only eight baseball players in the DAB. The ANB has 171. The numbers for football and basketball, sixty-one football players and twelve basketball players in the ANB, none in the DAB, are smaller because more of their great players are still alive. There are no soccer players in either.
A similar difference in both timing and taste affects the choice of musicians. The DAB included opera singers, popular singers, and the composers who made up Tin Pan Alley. But while jazz and the collection of musical genres then called “race music” were going strong by the 1920s, many of their practitioners died too late for consideration in the DAB, though the great blues singers Bessie Smith and Ma Rainey were included in Supplement Two, published in 1958. The ANB had to search much more widely for those who deserved a place for their technical and creative talent and for popular recognition of it. The DAB lists fifty-four musicians, 108 composers, and twenty-three singers. The ANB has had to divide the profession into many more categories, among them 341 jazz musicians, 325 composers and arrangers, 125 songwriters, and 118 bandleaders, not to mention the numbers of swing, blues, rhythm and blues, country and western, gospel, ragtime, soul, reggae, rock, and not least opera (62) singers and musicians. In choosing its 194 actors and actresses the DAB was confined mainly to the stage, again because most of the people in film were still alive, with the notable exception of Rudolph Valentino, who died in 1926 but was not deemed worthy of inclusion. The ANB lists 624 from stage and screen, in addition to ninety-four radio and TV personalities (there is some overlap here).
Obviously, with its recognition of popular culture, the ANB has had to give a person’s mass appeal greater weight than was the case with the DAB. In both there is care to distinguish fact from fiction, but the ANB shows more interest in a person’s popular image as itself worth recording. Jane McCrea, allegedly murdered by the Mohawks accompanying the British General Burgoyne in the Revolutionary War, became a martyred heroine in popular legend. June Namias, in a lengthy account of the numerous depictions of her martyrdom by painters and poets, can assure us of only one fact: “There is no doubt that Jane McCrea lived and died.” But she manages to draw a (somewhat strained) lesson in feminist history from McCrea’s supposed intention to marry a loyalist at the time of her demise. The facts about Barbara Frietschie are equally scanty. She owes her place in the ANB to Mrs. E.D.E.N. Southworth and John Greenleaf Whittier for portraying her wholly imaginary confrontation with Stonewall Jackson. (“Shoot, if you must, this old gray head,/But spare your country’s flag she said.”) Nina Silber, after an extensive inquiry into the facts of Frietschie’s life, insists that the two never met, much less bandied words about flying the Stars and Stripes, but Silber does not discount the effectiveness of the legend as a symbol for both North and South.
The DAB left out both these figures of popular culture, presumably because their actual achievements were nonexistent. Where popular icons were able to manufacture legendary images of themselves that left the facts behind, the DAB tends to stick to the facts, while the ANB gives equal credit to the showmanship. Parker Willis, writing about Buffalo Bill Cody in the DAB, gives a full report of Cody’s achievements as a tracker and scout but only mentions his Wild West Show in a single sentence and warns the reader at length of the “gross indulgence in fiction” of his publicity agents. Rick Ewig in the ANB gives two appreciative paragraphs to the show and adds without disparagement that Cody’s accounts of himself in dime novels “did not document his actual adventures.” Davy Crockett’s political career and death at the Alamo are covered in both profiles of him, but Michael Lofaro in the ANB relishes the myth-making, delighting in the “outrageous stories” and “thrilling fictions” perpetuated in the movie portrayals by Fess Parker and John Wayne. Mike Fink, the keelboat hero and champion liar, is celebrated as such in the ANB but is left out altogether in the DAB.
In the cases where a person’s popularity was not a kind of talent in itself, but a reward for supposed musical or artistic achievement, the ANB undertakes to pass judgment on the match, as in the assessment of Ziggy Elman, a jazz musician, as “a talented technician” with “greater fame than his gift for invention warranted.” Hawkshaw Hawkins, who lived and worked in the orbit of other, truly great, artists like Hank Williams, wins admission but with the reservation by his biographer that there was nothing distinctive or innovative about his music. Such judgments are valuable in all the accounts of musicians because they generally rest on actual recordings of their work. (The role of records and of the changing modes of recording in the development of modern music is a story in itself, parts of which can be read in the ANB’s biographies listed in its index under “Recording Industry Leaders.”)
The same considerations of timing and the same weighing of popular reputation and talent in art and music reach into every field of endeavor, though in different degrees, to literature, science, engineering, politics, religion, law, and even crime. The ANB gives Wyatt Earp the space his notoriety warrants, but with a soberly factual recounting of his poor marksmanship and menial positions and the conclusion that his “only real genius was in self-promotion.” In the article on Bat Masterson (the famous gunfighter) we learn that he did eventually become a deputy United States marshal. But it is a bit deflating to be told that his territory was the southern district of New York, where he died, seated at his desk, working up an article on boxing for a newspaper. On the other hand, Pat Garrett, the sheriff who shot Billy the Kid and earned a popular reputation as a “black-hearted villain” for doing so, gets credit as a “cool-headed, reflective lawman who kept his gun in his pants and tried to practice his trade in an efficient, businesslike manner.” Billy the Kid himself gets fair treatment, but with the conclusion that in history he “rates hardly a footnote,” his importance resting only in the legendary stature he had acquired even before his death.
What gives the ANB the authority that adheres to it is its treatment of the artifacts and artisans of popular culture as no less worthy of respect and analysis than those of high culture and high science. In the catholic appreciation of every kind of creative achievement, the editors have made their work a kind of Who’s Who of American history and culture. Inclusion in the ANB will come to constitute formal recognition of a person’s national significance. Many of the major figures of this century in every field are still alive, or were in 1996: George Kennan, Edward Teller, Murray Gell-Mann, Michael Jordan, Mohammed Ali, Ronald Reagan, Ella Fitzgerald, to name a few. That their absence seems conspicuous points to the position the ANB immediately assumes as an almost official arbiter of what place anyone should occupy in the national memory.
It is hard to stand back from so monumental a work and see it as a product of the 1990s that may need redoing fifty years from now. Part of its monumental quality is physical. The production of the volumes by Oxford University Press, at a time when electronic publishing clouds the future of the printed word, is a model of good bookmaking. The design is excellent. The type is easy to read, with plenty of leading and adequate margins. Despite the size, the heavy volumes can be handled again and again, and inevitably dropped from time to time, without any signs of wear and tear. They won’t have to be handled as much as other compilations of this kind, because readers will not have to shuttle back and forth from popular names to formal given names. If you want to look up Billy the Kid, find him under that name, not under “Bonney, William,” which you are not likely to know was one of his real names. Each entry is followed by an extensive bibliography and by the full name of the author, instead of the DAB’s coy use of initials. The last volume contains an index of the people included by name, by occupation, and by place of birth, as well as a list of the authors and the persons each of them has written about. Finally, and not least important, when you open a volume anywhere it will open easily and stay open (a test that Alfred Knopf used to apply to his books as the ultimate criterion of good production). Will there be publishers sixty years from now who can do this kind of job?
Another feature that will be hard to duplicate is the style that the editors have somehow cultivated in their authors. The historical profession is not known for the readability of its members’ prose, but the editors have extracted extraordinarily lively writing, in a genre, morever, that generally encourages blandness and pomposity. One of the distinct pleasures of foraging in the ANB comes from seeing how much many authors have been able to do with the space allotted them. In many instances, the authors have published full-length lives of their subjects and in this, the short form, select those qualities or quirks that made the subjects attractive to them in the first place. Dwight Macdonald, we are told by Stephen J. Whitfield, “had a flair for seizing a bone of contention and classifying it in a paleontology of nonsense, for piecing together seemingly disparate parts into the looming presence of a dinosaur with a disproportionately small brain.” James I. Robertson Jr., describing the short-lived and gallant Stonewall Jackson, says of him: “He walked with long, ungraceful strides, enormous feet adding to the spectacle, and he sat a horse as if leaning into a strong wind.”
Again and again the language has the ring of everyday speech. Since popular language evolves rapidly, it may be that the free use of vernacular expressions will date the writing, but it could hardly get more dated than the stilted avoidance of any kind of flair in the old DAB. The expressions that give life to the writing are not slang, which dates quickly, but colloquial and forceful. “Kept his gun in his pants” is a typical one. Sixty years ago—no, ten years ago—some editor would have transformed that into something like “was loath to resort to firearms.” If anyone can produce a more readable encyclopedia sixty years hence, the written word will be in better shape than there is any reason to expect.
Still, we have to assume the mantle of objectivity to ask how much the editors’ choice of names has been affected by passing fashions and how much by enduring values. About half of their selections, in a sampling of several volumes, lived and died between 1934 and 1996, suggesting that recent memories affected their choice, as was the case also with the editors of the DAB, where people who had died in the preceding sixty-two years constituted a bit more than half. (Most of those omitted from the ANB came from this group.) So there has been a certain presentism involved.
Since the contributors are almost all historians, most of them young, the current cult of social history, and particularly of racial, ethnic, and gender studies in the profession, along with the political correctness prevailing in academia, may have dictated the selection and treatment of some women, some blacks, some American Indians, who might not otherwise have made it, a kind of historical affirmative action. This is most evident in the choice of women, like many of the first ladies, whose principal claim to attention is their marriage. Lady Frances Berkeley, wife of the seventeenth-century governor of Virginia, scarcely deserves more space than her husband, when her reputed influence on him is the only apparent reason for including her. First ladies should, possibly, be given automatic entry to the ANB, but in most instances the historians and biographers assigned to write about them are hard pressed to make them interesting in their own right. Not so, of course, with Eleanor Roosevelt or Jacqueline Kennedy, whose quite different lives may one day rank at least as high in interest as those of their quite different husbands. Both get the respect they deserve in these pages, as does Charlotte Masaryk, the American-born first lady of Czechoslovakia.
The inclusion of minority figures seems generally to rest on more substantial ground, even though the surviving records for slaves and for American Indians are thin. The ANB lists 113 slaves and former slaves, only a few of whom, like Amos Fortune and Jack Sisson, seem to have been selected simply because it is possible to document events in their lives. Fortune ran a successful tanning and bookbinding business in New Hampshire in the 1780s and 1790s. Sisson allegedly assisted in the capture of British General Richard Prescott in Newport in 1777 and otherwise left scarcely a trace of his existence. As with slaves, the principal surviving documentation for the lives of American Indians derives from their interaction with whites, but the ANB has made full use of what there is to sketch the lives of 166 “American Indian Leaders,” as against 55 “Indian Chiefs” in the DAB.
Before dismissing any of these choices as aberrant or “unfair” to the deserving dead white males excluded from so authoritative a work, we have to ask of this history, as of any, what people may want to learn from it that they did not know before. The people to whom it is addressed have watched the status of women and minorities in American society change radically in recent decades, and the change can scarcely be regarded as complete or likely to be reversed. Both the ANB’s recognition of popular culture and its attention to women and minorities reflect ongoing developments that require a new usable past, a past encompassing areas of experience that left only faint traces in the records that sustain historical research. Extracting the history of the inarticulate from documents that make only incidental reference to them has occupied a generation of historians. Much has been learned about the lives, as a group, of slaves, of seamen, of artisans, of housewives, of American Indians, but to pluck individuals from anonymity and place them beside the likes of John Adams or Margaret Fuller may have benefits for national memory comparable to those that affirmative action has demonstrably had in American society at large. There may not be much to say about an Amos Fortune, but it fills a blank space in the national memory to place in it a person with a name and not simply a generalized group.
The American Council of Learned Societies kept the DAB alive for sixty years after its completion with a staff that produced ten supplementary volumes covering people who lived through 1980. The ANB will enjoy a more rapid continuation in electronic form through a Center for American Biography, sponsored jointly by Oxford Press and the ACLS. We are promised “ongoing revisions and additions” on line, which will doubtless incorporate more discoveries of complexity behind suppositions we are not even aware of. But the present volumes set a standard in style, scope, and judgment that the profession will be challenged to sustain. American National Biography is not just a reference work. It is itself a defining artifact, at the end of the twentieth century, for a culture that could exist “only in America.”
March 9, 2000