Distinguished Americans, From A To Z

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The DAB is a great cooperative scholarly enterprise itself. Up to the present time twenty-three volumes have been published containing over fifteen thousand biographies, ranging in length from five or six hundred words to well over ten thousand. The longest— Franklin D. Roosevelt’s by Frank Freidel—is about twenty thousand words long. All kinds of scholars Use the DAB constantly; my own set, purchased with the first money I ever earned writing history, rests on a shelf at elbow level next to my desk, and the volumes have that frayed and comfortably battered look that comes from repeated use. Sometimes I pull one down to check a date, or to find out where a person was at a certain time or what position he had taken on some issue; other times to identify a name that has come up in connection with my work. Sometimes, when I have a few minutes to spare, I open a volume at random and simply read. The DAB , in other words, is an invaluable reference work and a treasure-house of information. Sociologists and psychologists use it in studying such matters as class structure and mobility and the influence of birth order on personality, and the number of school and college students who have mined its pages for themes and term papers is beyond counting.

The DAB is also in its way an institution, and despite its prestige a relatively youthful institution. Biographical encyclopedias have been with us for a long time, but most of the early ones were meretricious projects developed by promoters who sold local notables the proposition that their achievements could be recorded and preserved for posterity in return for subscriptions to the published work, and often for payments in cash to boot, or, like the Reverend Francis L. Hawks’s Pictorial Cyclopaedia of Biography (1856), were mere routine summaries devoid of serious scholarship. The biography of Jefferson in Hawks’s work, for example, said of his Presidency: “Jefferson filled the office for eight years,” and not a word more. More respectable was Appletons’ Cyclopaedia of American Biography , published in the 1880’s, but many of its articles were written by hacks and were full of inaccuracies and undeserved praise. The subjects covered in Appletons’ Cyclopaedia were chosen in the most haphazard fashion; indeed, it contained accounts of the careers of at least forty-seven persons who never existed, invented by some unscrupulous author to increase his income.

Then, between 1885 and 1900, the great British Dictionary of National Biography ( DNB ) was published. This immense work of twenty-two volumes included over thirty thousand biographies. Its editors, first Sir Leslie Stephen and then Sir Sidney Lee, set high standards of scholarship; and although wits insisted that the DNB had added “a new terror to death,” the project was widely praised and swiftly proved its value to scholars and students.

The DNB was the model to which American scholars turned when the DAB was conceived shortly after World War i. Two of the most distinguished historians of the early twentieth century played the key roles in developing it: Frederick Jackson Turner, originator of the famous frontier thesis, and J. Franklin Jameson, the first editor of the American Historical Review and later head of the Manuscripts Division of the Library of Congress.

Both in personality and in professional aptitudes Turner and Jameson complemented each other perfectly. As collaborators they made a magnificent team, Turner being the idea man, Jameson the organizer and administrator. Already they had been responsible for the creation of the Carnegie Institution’s Bureau of Historical Research and a number of other admirable projects. In this case again the idea, or at least the specific proposal for bringing the idea to fruition, was Turner’s, and his conception was grandiose. At the first meeting of the American Council of Learned Societies in 1920, to which he and Jameson were delegates, he urged the Council to undertake the project on a scale comparable to that of the British dictionary. The Council did not act because of the enormous cost anticipated —at least a half million dollars. But Turner persisted at future meetings, and in 1922 the Council appointed a committee, chaired by Jameson, to investigate the possibilities.