Distinguished Americans, From A To Z

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There had been other problems, too. Allan Nevins’ essay on Warren G. Harding had been attacked because Nevins, urged on by Johnson, had mentioned Harding’s affair with Nan Britton and—more bitterly—because he had correctly pointed out that Harding “in every respect … fitted the small-town environment.” More recently a number of mossbacks had denounced the DAB for printing such a long sketch of F.D.R.; that “that man” should merit a longer biography than Washington or Lincoln horrified them. Both Johnson and his successor, Malone, had gotten into difficulties because they refused to capitalize the word “negro.” Johnson had decided at the start of the project to avoid capitals whenever possible, a laudable modern practice; but by the time the DAB volumes had begun to appear, most enlightened publishers, responding to pressure from Negro leaders, were capitalizing the word. When complaints began to flow in, both from readers and from the authors of articles whose N ’s had been changed to n ’s, Johnson dismissed them as foolish. To him it was a question of typographical usage and also a matter of consistency, once the decision had been made. J. Franklin Jameson backed him up. Popular practice had no influence with the omniscient Jameson. “Negro is an adjective meaning black,” he pontificated. So the editors stuck to their guns, though their persistence in what had so swiftly become an archaic practice led to much controversy. In the supplements, of course, “Negro” is uniformly capitalized. Currently the fashion is to substitute “black” for “Negro,” although at least one distinguished Negro historian has insisted on using “Negro” and even “colored” in a sketch, arguing that “black” is anachronistic in the context of the times in which his subject lived.

There were other fracases, the most unpleasant being a long controversy with the Mississippi historian Dunbar Rowland, who objected to Johnson’s assigning the sketch of Confederate President Jefferson Davis to a northern historian, Nathaniel W. Stephenson. The evidence suggests that Rowland was really annoyed because Johnson had heavily edited the twelve sketches he had written for the DAB, all of which had far exceeded the word lengths assigned. After Johnson’s death Rowland published their correspondence, and later his correspondence with Malone, a nasty if foolish project.

Such incidents gave me pause, as did the fact that I soon began to receive angry letters myself from contributors to Supplement IV who objected to things that my immediate predecessor, Edward T. James, had done to their prose. I was also put off a bit by what both Starr and Malone had written about other difficulties with contributors: their failure to respect deadlines; their carelessness about checking facts; their tendency on the one hand to glorify their subjects and on the other to refuse to make judgments; even an occasional case of plagiarism. I recalled that the father of us all, Sir Leslie Stephen, had been known to grumble about “the verbosity and blindness” of his biographers, and I began to fear that I would be spending long hours writing letters to lazy and forgetful “contributors,” paring the fat from overlong essays, untangling tortured syntax, and finally retreating (out of fear or discretion) before the blasts of oversensitive authors.

And then there would come the reviewers. Ever since Arthur M. Schlesinger, Sr., evaluating “Abbe to Barrymore” in the American Historical Review , listed twelve persons who should have been included but were not, reviewers of the DAB have played this game of one-upmanship. Would that they would be satisfied with being only one up …

Yet of course I shall persevere. For as another reviewer of the DAB wrote (after favoring readers with the inevitable list of well-known forgotten men), the Dictionary , with its eleven-million-plus words, has recorded “more of our history than has ever before been written.” It must continue to do so. And finally I have these words of Dumas Malone to sustain me. “It was a very great adventure,” he told an interviewer after the project was finished. “We didn’t think of ourselves as compiling a book of reference. … They were living people [and] … they became very, very real to us. You saw this procession going by every day. There would always be something fresh. … In spirit we associated with the greatest people of the American past, in all their variety. That’s a wonderful privilege.”