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Distinguished Americans, From A To Z

July 2024
16min read

In recent years professional historians have been turning more and more to the study of society and the forces that shape it rather than to the study of individuals. Demographers and econometricians are in great demand in university history departments, and the computer has become the “in” tool of researchers. People are of concern to these historians only in the mass. When they examine census data, for example, they are looking for information about geographical and economic mobility, ethnic origins, the size of families, and the ages at which people marry—almost everything, it seems, except the specific persons that the data actually represent. Put differently, they are interested in people but not in unusual people. They seek to describe the “underside” of history, to analyze the behavior and influence of crowds, to re-create the life patterns of the inarticulate millions of ordinary persons who, unaware of their future importance, left no self-conscious records of their existence: black slaves, poor immigrants, dirt farmers, and industrial workers. Stephan Thernstrom, in his prize-winning investigation of geographical and social mobility, The Other Bostonians (1973), studies the lives of thousands of people (and argues plausibly that his conclusions apply to millions more) without mentioning a single one of them by name. The Great Man theory of history seems hopelessly old-fashioned and romantic—one associates it with Emerson and Carlyle—and also, today, elitist in every sense of the word. The Great Man theory of history?

The development of computers has been the direct cause of the recent explosion of interest in this kind of history because computers make it possible for historians to manipulate with relative ease enormous masses of information that their predecessors could not conceivably have assimilated. But this new history is also a reflection of a broad change that has been going on for a century or more in every aspect of life: the shift from the self-reliant individual who sees himself as more or less capable of determining his own fate to our present emphasis on organizations and cooperative activity. In business the small operator has given way to the giant corporation, and within the corporation, the Robber Baron to the Organization Man. In science the lone investigator with his Bunsen burner and his test tubes has been replaced by the research team. Explorers like Columbus with his three tiny caravels and Lewis and Clark with their handful of companions have been superseded by NASA . In politics the charismatic statesman moving the electorate with colorful oratory has died out, his place occupied by the careful political manager with his private pollsters and his crew of speech writers. We speak less and less of the President, more and more of the White House.

Thoughts such as these passed through my mind one afternoon in the spring of 1973 after I had received a telephone call from Professor Alfred D. Chandler, Jr., asking me if I would allow him to suggest my name as editor of the Dictionary of American Biography . Chandler, a professor at the Harvard Business School, is a member of the American Council of Learned Societies’ advisory board supervising the Dictionary , which is known throughout the profession as the DAB . Although Chandler has written biographies of the pioneer business analyst Henry Varnum Poor and of the industrialist Pierre S. Du Pont, the major thrust of his research has been the study of the organizational structure of big business. I had not known of his connection with the DAB , and as I thought about our conversation I realized that I had been somewhat surprised by his interest in it. My mind having turned in this direction, it also occurred to me that my own historical work had been influenced by the trend I have just described. Although I had written several biographies and even a book about biography (which I presume was the reason Chandler had thought of me as a possible DAB editor), I had more recently done a book on the United States in the 1880’s, the chief theme of which was the development in that period of large organizations and of group activities in nearly every walk of life; and I was currently engaged in a rather ambitious effort to examine the Great Depression of the 1930’s from the comparative point of view, a project that had little to do with individuals. Nevertheless I quickly decided that I was indeed interested. After a series of talks with Frederick Burkhardt, who is currently the president of the ACLS , and with both Walter Muir Whitehall, chairman of the advisory board, and Charles Scribner, who publishes the DAB , I was offered the editorship and accepted it eagerly.

The DAB is a great cooperative scholarly enterprise itself. Up to the present time twenty-three volumes have been published containing over fifteen thousand biographies, ranging in length from five or six hundred words to well over ten thousand. The longest— Franklin D. Roosevelt’s by Frank Freidel—is about twenty thousand words long. All kinds of scholars Use the DAB constantly; my own set, purchased with the first money I ever earned writing history, rests on a shelf at elbow level next to my desk, and the volumes have that frayed and comfortably battered look that comes from repeated use. Sometimes I pull one down to check a date, or to find out where a person was at a certain time or what position he had taken on some issue; other times to identify a name that has come up in connection with my work. Sometimes, when I have a few minutes to spare, I open a volume at random and simply read. The DAB , in other words, is an invaluable reference work and a treasure-house of information. Sociologists and psychologists use it in studying such matters as class structure and mobility and the influence of birth order on personality, and the number of school and college students who have mined its pages for themes and term papers is beyond counting.

The DAB is also in its way an institution, and despite its prestige a relatively youthful institution. Biographical encyclopedias have been with us for a long time, but most of the early ones were meretricious projects developed by promoters who sold local notables the proposition that their achievements could be recorded and preserved for posterity in return for subscriptions to the published work, and often for payments in cash to boot, or, like the Reverend Francis L. Hawks’s Pictorial Cyclopaedia of Biography (1856), were mere routine summaries devoid of serious scholarship. The biography of Jefferson in Hawks’s work, for example, said of his Presidency: “Jefferson filled the office for eight years,” and not a word more. More respectable was Appletons’ Cyclopaedia of American Biography , published in the 1880’s, but many of its articles were written by hacks and were full of inaccuracies and undeserved praise. The subjects covered in Appletons’ Cyclopaedia were chosen in the most haphazard fashion; indeed, it contained accounts of the careers of at least forty-seven persons who never existed, invented by some unscrupulous author to increase his income.

Then, between 1885 and 1900, the great British Dictionary of National Biography ( DNB ) was published. This immense work of twenty-two volumes included over thirty thousand biographies. Its editors, first Sir Leslie Stephen and then Sir Sidney Lee, set high standards of scholarship; and although wits insisted that the DNB had added “a new terror to death,” the project was widely praised and swiftly proved its value to scholars and students.

The DNB was the model to which American scholars turned when the DAB was conceived shortly after World War i. Two of the most distinguished historians of the early twentieth century played the key roles in developing it: Frederick Jackson Turner, originator of the famous frontier thesis, and J. Franklin Jameson, the first editor of the American Historical Review and later head of the Manuscripts Division of the Library of Congress.

Both in personality and in professional aptitudes Turner and Jameson complemented each other perfectly. As collaborators they made a magnificent team, Turner being the idea man, Jameson the organizer and administrator. Already they had been responsible for the creation of the Carnegie Institution’s Bureau of Historical Research and a number of other admirable projects. In this case again the idea, or at least the specific proposal for bringing the idea to fruition, was Turner’s, and his conception was grandiose. At the first meeting of the American Council of Learned Societies in 1920, to which he and Jameson were delegates, he urged the Council to undertake the project on a scale comparable to that of the British dictionary. The Council did not act because of the enormous cost anticipated —at least a half million dollars. But Turner persisted at future meetings, and in 1922 the Council appointed a committee, chaired by Jameson, to investigate the possibilities.

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.

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.

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.”)

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.”

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