Distinguished Americans, From A To Z


Finding the proper authors for the biographies was also a huge and difficult task. Johnson was so convinced of the importance of the project that he expected scholars to contribute to it selflessly, regardless of the two-centsper-word rate of payment. When anyone complained, he became furious. It was “a great honor” to write for the DAB, he insisted. Before he became Johnson’s co-editor, Dumas Malone, then a professor at the University of Virginia, was offered ten dollars for a five-hundred-word sketch of the Federalist newspaper editor John Fenno. After figuring out what it would cost to get from Charlottesville to Washington and to support himself while doing the necessary research in the Library of Congress, Malone politely begged off, and Johnson did not disguise his irritation. But it was typical of the man that soon thereafter he offered Malone the co-editorship; he was tough on the prima donnas and stuffed shirts of the academic world but kindly and helpful to young scholars.

In general, it was easy to find authors for the sketches of major figures. Acknowledged experts were plentiful and well-known, sources were readily available, and since the essays were longer, the payments offered were more attractive. For minor characters the work involved was all out of proportion to the labor, and more often than not, no specialist existed. Especially in technical fields it was sometimes very difficult to find a properly qualified author. As in choosing the subjects, Johnson and his colleagues consulted hundreds of scholars, scoured the professional journals, thumbed through library card catalogues and other sources.

The results, everyone connected with the project agreed, were mixed; no matter how carefully the authors were chosen, how they would perform was hard to predict. Sometimes scholars of the highest reputation turned in careless and badly written essays, while a number of obscure writers produced work of the finest quality. Taken all in all the Dictionary provided a cross section of American scholarship in the 1920’s and 1930’s, as well as of the totality of American achievement up to that time. Scholars and journalists from every state and from many foreign nations contributed. The completion of the project within months of the original deadline and at a cost only marginally above what had been anticipated was a remarkable accomplishment.

For this the major credit belongs to Alien Johnson. When he was run down and killed by an automobile in Washington in January, 1931, Malone took over a smoothly operating machine and kept it running efficiently, but as he himself acknowledged, the basic system was Johnson’s. Johnson was a man of infinite pains but also daring and imaginative—a rare combination. He had many other qualities of the ideal editor, most notably a willingness to do the most difficult jobs himself. When the touchy subject came up of who should write the biography of Mary Baker Eddy, founder of Christian Science and a most controversial person in the igao’s, Johnson decided to write it himself. He devoted an inordinate amount of effort to the sketch, which is one of the finest in the entire Dictionary . But he pulled no punches. Mrs. Eddy, he wrote, was “subject to hysterical seizures” and was disposed “to see things through the prism of her emotions and to embroider the humdrum facts of everyday life.” He pointed out that she made a great deal of money from Christian Science, implied that she was addicted to morphine in her later years, and stated flatly that she had an “overwrought imagination” and that she “crushed possible rivals ruthlessly.” When the biography was finished, Johnson asked every member of his advisory board to read it; he was not going to publish it until he had unanimous approval. After it appeared in Volume vi, partisans of Mrs. Eddy raised a storm. “Articles in reference works are nearly always from writers who have an appreciation and regard for their subjects,” Clifford P. Smith, an official of the Boston church, complained. The Christian Scientists even offered to pay for a new edition of the volume if a sketch of Mrs. Eddy satisfactory to them were substituted for Johnson’s.

The force of the Christian Scientist attack was muted by the unfortunate death of Johnson shortly before Volume vi was published. But the incident reveals how successful he had been in launching the DAB . Clifford Smith’s statement that biographical sketches in encyclopedias were usually written by partisans had been true enough in the past but was no longer. And the intensity of the Christian Scientists’ concern was proof of the new dictionary’s prestige.

But my study of the development of the Dictionary also gave me some misgivings, for I discovered that the “history of the enterprise” had been less smooth and uneventful than the printed account revealed. The controversy roused by the Eddy article was far from unique. The lives of a number of other religious leaders caused trouble: Bernard De Vote’s sketch of Joseph Smith, the founder of Mormonism, for example, and the life of the theosophist Katherine Tingley by Ernest Sutherland Bates. (The editors had less difficulty with Catholics, Malone wryly recalled, primarily because “we didn’t have to consider any of the founders.”)