Distinguished Americans, From A To Z

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Jameson was a formidable man, enormously learned and with an extraordinary grasp of the needs and future prospects of the historical profession. Among his lesser accomplishments he could rattle off in chronological order the names of all the popes from Saint Peter to Pius XI and quote long passages from Shakespeare effortlessly. “He knew everything,” the second editor of the DAB , Dumas Malone, recalls, and although he was genuinely modest about his remarkable talents, “his external manner was terrifying.” Jameson was also, however, a very shrewd organizer and a person of wide acquaintance among the rich and powerful. The Council lacked even the funds to pay the expenses of his committee, so Jameson raised five hundred dollars from some of his businessmen friends, including John D. Rockefeller, Jr., who contributed fifty dollars. He then turned to the larger task of finding a sponsor for the dictionary. During the winter of 1923-24 he began to press Adolph S. Ochs, owner and publisher of the New York Times , to put up the money, reminding him that the London Times had financed the prestigious Encyclopedia Britannica . Ochs after some persuading agreed to meet with Jameson’s committee, which, as a way. of illustrating the virtues of the project, proceeded to oversee the drafting of sample biographies, choosing some of Ochs’s deceased friends as subjects and getting historians he was known to admire to write the sketches. (The group also considered suggesting John H. Finley, Ochs’s right-hand man at the Times , as editor of the dictionary but decided that Ochs would see through so transparent a proposal.) For whatever reasons, and his genuine interest in the project was surely one of them, Ochs quickly agreed to contribute fifty thousand dollars a year for ten years and to handle the financial details and the bookkeeping through his newspaper. The money was actually a loan, to be repaid with 4 per cent interest out of royalties. As finally planned the DAB was to contain twenty thousand names and be published in twenty volumes. Negotiations with publishers followed, and in 1927 a contract was signed with the firm of Charles Scribner’s Sons. Professor Alien Johnson of Yale, whose recent editorship of the fifty-volume Chronicles of America series seemed admirable preparation for the task, was appointed editor.

Considering the scope of the project it was carried to completion with remarkably few modifications and delays. The number of entries was somewhat reduced, and the cost amounted to $658,000 before it was finished, but the twenty volumes came out steadily between 1928 and 1936. From Cleveland Abbe (1838-1916), astronomer and meteorologist, to Eliakum Zunzer (1836-1913), Yiddish bard and poet, 13,633 Americans were immortalized in its pages. Since 1936 three supplementary volumes have been published, the first filling in gaps, the others extending the cutoff date for inclusion another ten years, to persons who died before January i, 1946. My assignment was first to oversee the completion of Supplement iv (covering persons who died in the 1946-50 period), which was already well along, and then to begin work on the next volume.

All this history I had known in broad outline before my conversation with Chandler, and soon thereafter (not being a Jameson) I refreshed my memory by rereading the “Brief History of the Enterprise” in Volume xx of my edition of the DAB . When I began my new duties, I learned a great deal more.