Distinguished Americans, From A To Z

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In the files I found a much longer manuscript history written by Harris E. Starr, one of Alien Johnson’s assistants and editor in chief of the first supplement, and also, an oral history memoir dictated by Johnson’s successor, Dumas Malone. From these documents and other records I developed a still greater respect for the Dictionary and its creators. Johnson was a most remarkable person. Before beginning his task he went to England to consult with Sir Sidney Lee, who after finishing the DNB had produced a supplementary volume extending the coverage to persons who died in the first decade of the twentieth century. (There have been altogether six supplements to the DNB , the most recent covering the period 1951-60.) He returned to recruit his staff and develop editorial procedures. The DAB headquarters was established in Washington in order to make use of the resources of the Library of Congress. Originally Johnson planned to have most of the biographies prepared by salaried researchers—three quarters of the thirty-thousand-odd sketches in Britain’s DNB were the work of only a hundred authors—but this scheme soon proved impracticable, partly because the researchers’ essays were at best uninspired and partly because it proved too expensive. Better sketches could be obtained at far less cost by farming the assignments out to large numbers of scholars, who were paid at the princely rate of two cents a word. (The rate is currently four cents but will rise to five for the next supplement.) Although several members of the staff did write large numbers of the sketches—Associate Editor Harris E. Starr holds the record, 342 articles —most contributors wrote no more than one or two. In the end 2,243 different persons wrote the 13,633 DAB entries. The bulk of the staff work, therefore, involved checking and editing the essays as they came in from the authors, a time-consuming but as it turned out essential assignment.

The most intellectually challenging task was deciding who should be included in the Dictionary . Johnson conducted an enormous correspondence with libraries, scholarly societies, and individuals; he prepared lists and sent these to other experts for evaluation and emendation. Many hundreds of persons participated in the selection process. The planning committee had decided that living persons should be excluded but that any citizen of the United States or colonist in the prerevolutionary period should be eligible. Johnson soon extended the net to include anyone of importance who had lived in America, without regard to citizenship. (The only exceptions were British officers serving in America after July 4, 1776; thus General Braddock made the DAB but not General Cornwallis.)

Johnson took a very broad view of what constituted historical importance. Although the DAB has been criticized for having too many establishment types such as politicians and clergymen and minor writers and not enough important women and blacks, he was actually far ahead of his time in his standards of selection. He tried to make sure that scientists, athletes, entertainers, and even gamblers and desperadoes were properly represented in the Dictionary . Those who complained about such choices (one correspondent objected to the inclusion of Jesse James because—he said— James had once shot him in the shoulder while robbing a bank) received short shrift. Johnson rightly saw the project as a great national enterprise covering every aspect of American life.

With his co-editor Malone and Harris Starr he worked out a rough division of labor in paring down the lists. Malone was responsible for political figures and the military; Starr handled clergymen, educators, and some writers; Johnson, with his concern for wide coverage, selected all the rest. Making these decisions was by far the most interesting editorial labor; in his recollections Malone waxed almost poetic over the charms of the letter L —“Lincoln, Lee, Longfellow, Lowell, various Lawrences and Livingstons”—whereas S, because so many names were involved, left him “completely and utterly discouraged.”

Since the series took ten years to edit and publish and since Johnson wisely decided to add the names of important persons who had died while it was in progress, the cutoff date for inclusion differed in each volume. Some months before the first volume, “Abbe to Barrymore,” was ready to go to the printer, Johnson tried the idea of publishing a list of the names to be included in it. He was deluged with suggested additions, nearly all of them of trivial importance, mostly from descendants of this or that worthy. One correspondent, looking ahead, sent in a list of thirty-nine persons whose names began with D. The editors soon abandoned the practice of announcing their choices in advance.