Extraordinary Lives

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Put not your trust in princes,” said King David some three thousand years ago, and he knew what he was talking about. But if biographers were to take his admonition to heart, they would go broke—and we would be the worse for it. So long as humans measure their own lives by those of the extraordinary, so long will they find the stories of the great in every field worthy of contemplation. Historians of late have made much of the oppressive shadow cast by the giants of the ages; the “new” historians prefer to focus on the multitude of obscure lives that make up a total picture of historical times. In viewing history from the bottom up, they have done innovative and useful work by illuminating the lives of women, minorities, workers, farmers, and others. But if you asked those neglected groups themselves, they would probably say it was the extraordinary among them who are of the most interest.

It is both difficult and presumptuous to generalize about human nature, but it seems certain that people will never tire of hearing about the exceptional, the outstanding—in all their glory, with all their warts. Such exceptions become, in Emerson’s paradoxical word, representative . Although they are greater than we are, we nevertheless choose them to stand for us.

This magazine explores the lives of the famous and powerful as well as the obscure and powerless. Recently we published a book of essays by eminent biographers telling how they went about choosing their subjects and bringing them to life. In that book, based on a series of lectures, David McCullough writes about Harry Truman, Richard B. Sewall about Emily Dickinson, Paul C. Nagel about the women of the Adams family, Ronald Steel about Walter Lippmann, Jean Strouse about Alice James, and Robert A. Caro about Lyndon Johnson. The book is aptly titled Extraordinary Lives .

Which might be a title for at least three of the pieces in this issue too. “Citizen Ford,” by David Halberstam, traces the career of Henry Ford from farm boy to maker of the modern world. In “A Sargent Portrait” Louis Auchincloss draws a picture of John Singer Sargent, who gave us an incomparable record of the mighty men and women of his time. The historian John Demos, in “The Maypole of Merry Mount,” tells everything that is known about a dimly lit figure from the earliest days of our settlement. His subject is Thomas Morton, a reprobate who drove the Puritan fathers wild. For all his faults, Morton can be seen as an extraordinary representative of those who made it impossible for America ever to have been dominated by one particular brand of authority—political or theological.

Over the years, this magazine not only has given space to extraordinary people but also has always been fascinated by the stage on which they have played out their lives. Starting in this issue is a new column by the editors, “History Happened Here,” about the great places you can visit around the country where people of all kinds spoke their lines. We’ll see you there.