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A Nation of Individuals

A Conversation with John A. Garraty

HUMANITIES, January/February 1999 | Volume 20, Number 1

Endowment Chairman William R. Ferris talked recently with John A. Garraty about the soon-to-be-published American National Biography, ten years in the making. Garraty, the general editor along with Mark Carnes, discusses how the 17,500 entries were selected and the sometimes difficult decisions about what to include. He is the Gouverneur Morris Professor Emeritus of History at Columbia University and the author of a number of textbooks including The American Nation, now in its ninth edition.

William Ferris: You have been working for nearly a decade on putting together the American National Biography, and I would love to have you tell me a little about it.

John Garraty: Well, it's like a big telephone book of American history. ANB has almost seventeen thousand five hundred entries, and each of these is a biography of a particular person. In that sense, it's very much a matter of individuals.

It's also a cross section of the modern historical profession in the way the articles are written and therefore it shapes the way people will look at the history of the United States. There are over six thousand authors of the seventeen thousand-odd articles. Each one gives his or her own shape to the article.

Ferris: How did you decide who would write about whom?

Garraty: When there's a modern biography of a person that has been well received, the author of that book is very likely to be asked first. If you read the bibliography at the end of each article, there usually will be some work there, written by the author that reflects his knowledge and interest in the subject.

We also have almost two hundred associate editors who are specialists in various fields of American history. There are business historians and literary historians, as well as political and economic historians. Each article was edited by a specialist in the subject's field. If the author left something out that the associate editor thought was important, we would would require the author to revise the essay. Almost always they did so cheerfully. Out of seventeen thousand articles, I don't think there are more than twenty or thirty that had to be totally rewritten or rejected.

Ferris: Are there any scholars in particular you remember?

Garraty: Forrest McDonald wrote the essay on George Washington -- he's an expert on Washington. Stephen Ambrose, the military historian, wrote our biography of General Eisenhower. James McPherson wrote the biography of Abraham Lincoln, and so on.

Ferris: How did the project start, and how did you first become involved in it?

Garraty: I'm sort of the grandfather of the project. I was editing the supplementary volumes of the Dictionary of American Biography, which was written originally back in the 1920s and early thirties. Since then, ten supplements carrying the subjects beyond the original thirteen thousand-odd in the DAB were published.

Ferris: I wrote two articles in the 1970s on Leadbelly and John Lomax, so I was very, very impressed with the work then.

Garraty: I realized as I was editing the supplements that I often had to cross-check to see if somebody in an earlier volume had been mentioned or not. And I discovered quite quickly that, while the original DAB had many articles of high quality and prominent interest in themselves, they were all written in ancient times, from a historical point of view. The professions change, and all kinds of new subjects of interest had come to light. I realized that and persuaded the American Council of Learned Societies that we should prepare and do a completely new dictionary.

Ferris: Please tell me about that.

Garraty: First, we had to find a publisher that was willing to make a very large investment in money and time in the project. Oxford University Press was our choice. Oxford's reputation was outstanding in the field of reference works, including the great Oxford English Dictionary. And in the general field of American history, Oxford is one of the leading publishers of monographs and scholarly articles on aspects of American history, which explains why they were interested in it.

Of course, money had to be raised -- aside from the money invested by ACLS and Oxford University Press. The Rockefeller Foundation generously supplied critically needed funds at the start of the project. But the National Endowment of the Humanities and the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation were our major supporters. The six thousand authors had to be paid -- though you'd be amazed if I told you the rate at which they were paid, it was so low.

Once the money was available, we began sounding out experts in the different fields. We also began to collect a database of names to be included.

We started with the DAB itself. In general, the editors had cast a very wide net. But it's as if you picked up a novel written in the early 1920s -- you'd soon notice, no matter what the subject, that you were dealing with something from a previous period.

Ferris: Can you give me some examples of that?

Garraty: Take the biography of President William McKinley. The article was written by the DAB within twenty-five years of when he was killed. It deals mostly with his presidency, of course, but the author devoted a great deal of space in the essay to the names and background of all the members of McKinley's Cabinet. It went on until the author was running out of time and energy. The whole discussion of the Spanish-American War took up two paragraphs. That's not the way we write American political history today.

Let me give you an example of a small case. There was a man named Steven Jumel, a New York City merchant. In the DAB biography it says his main claim to distinction is that he was the husband of the notorious Madam Jumel. But there's no biography of Madam Jumel in the dictionary.

You can see the changes that have occurred in the way we look at historical movements and events. When the original DAB was published, the Reconstruction era after the Civil War was looked at from the point of view of the gradual restoring of ties between North and South, particularly during the period when the military controlled the Southern states. The authors of the articles of all the important figures from that period in the South reflect this. Take, for example, the governors of states in the fallen Confederacy. There are constant references to the Ku Klux Klan as a liberating force. They didn't think about the Klan in terms of lynching and intimidation, but in terms of freeing the states from the influence of the "ignorant and untrained" black voters. Almost any article on a Southern governor in the period of the late 1860s and early 1870s makes direct references to the heroic work of the Ku Klux Klan. Nowadays, of course, this seems totally wrong. That's why anything written in that period had to be done over.

Ferris: I'm told that one of the requirements for someone getting featured in your book is to be dead. What were some of the other requirements?

Garraty: That's correct. First, let me tell you about the dead. The idea of limiting it to people who were dead was simply that if you include a live person in, it's hard to decide how important he or she is. The life is incomplete. Every once in a while we'd get a letter from someone, saying, "My friend is this and that and the other thing. I think you should put him in your dictionary." And I always wanted to respond those suggestions by saying, "Tell him to drop dead, and we'll look at him."

What we looked for, first of all, was fame or notoriety. But we also considered the subject's historical significance. For example, an inventor whose invention didn't have a big effect on society until a later time should be in. A novelist or any kind of writer whose work did not necessarily attract a popular audience, but who in modern times is considered to be aesthetically or intellectually important, would be put in, too.

So it's fame or significance, ideally both.

Ferris: When you had an argument over whether someone should be included or not, how did you resolve that?

Garraty: I don't think that was a problem. We had our big database, which consisted chiefly of all the people in the DAB and other major biographical reference works of the subjects of all recent biographies -- it contains about twenty-eight thousand names. We sent these names in groups to our associate editors and asked them to tell us who was important enough to put in the dictionary. We also asked them to suggest authors for these subjects.

For instance, a professor who was an associate editor might have had a graduate student who was working on a biography of a relatively important person. That younger scholar might be an ideal author for our biography of that subject.

The associate editors had the basic job of going through groups of names, telling us, "Don't worry about this person, he's not important. But we must have this person." Almost never did we have an argument about who should go in and who shouldn't.

On the other hand, say there was a seventeenth-century Puritan minister whose biography is in the original DAB. If modern historians of that period no longer consider him important they wouldn't recommend that we include him.

If I ask you or any group of well-known historians to make a list of the thousand most important people in United States history, there would be general agreement on many. Most of the historians would not be able to think of a thousand people. It's a big job. I don't think there are more than two thousand of our seventeen thousand subjects about whom we would say, "These people have to be in." But, you see, choosing subjects was even more complicated than that.

Scholars will be interested to see what Forrest McDonald thinks about Washington. Any serious historian knows when Washington was born, and when he died, and that he was president, and doesn't need to look up the details. On the other hand, an unlimited audience among the general public -- especially high school students or even grade school students -- may need a reliable place just to get the details of a person's life. In a way, it's almost more important to have the minor people, who the average person doesn't think about, than the presidents in the dictionary.

Ferris: Did you try to make a conscious effort to include groups of people that might have been ignored before?

Garraty: The obvious cases there were blacks and women. There is a huge amount of modern material about these subjects. But it was more a matter of revising earlier articles than it was a question of adding new ones. There are people who the DAB missed, such as Sojourner Truth. We have more blacks than the DAB had, and that is partly because, in the period since the DAB was written, blacks have claimed a much more visible role in American history.

I might give you a different example: Scott Joplin, the composer. He was left out of the DAB, I'm quite sure, not because he was black, but because ragtime music didn't seem important to the editors at that time.

The same is true with women. Women now have a much larger role to play in society, business, education, and so on, so more of them need to be included.

Ferris: As you did this amazing work, you had many, many people who were writing. You must have felt the need to have a consistency of style and format. Can you tell me about that? What does a typical entry consist of?

Garraty: There's a formal heading for each entry: the person's name, date of birth, date of death, and profession. We try to limit authors in this -- you wouldn't say a person was a member the House of Representatives, a senator, and then later, president of the United States. He would be listed as president of the United States. His biography itself describes other parts of his career. Many times, people have very complex careers, so we try to divide them up into political figures -- and those subdivided, of course, by period -- business leaders, art figures, social reform types, and so on. We created about twenty basic divisions.

Each biography also includes place of birth, parents' names, and highest educational level. In most cases nowadays, it is college. In the earlier period often it was just a school of some kind. Or like Abraham Lincoln, who didn't really have any education. Then it traces in rough chronological order how the person lived, what he or she did, and in most cases it ends with a statement about the persons place in history.

Within that frame, the individual authors could organize the material any way they wanted to, subject to review by the editors. Sometimes we tried to persuade a writer to look at the subject differently. Then all the articles or additions were gone over with a fine-tooth comb by our editors and fact checkers at Oxford to make sure they are accurate.

But the author had the last word. Let me give you an example. Stephen Ambrose wrote our excellent entry on Eisenhower. But when I read his article, I noticed that he had not mentioned Kay Summersby, who was rumored to have been Eisenhower's mistress during World War II. So I wrote to Ambrose, "You left Kay Summersby out of your article." He wrote back, "It's not true - - I've checked as far as I could -- that Eisenhower had any kind of sexual relationship with her. So I'm not going to mention it." I tried again. I wrote, "It's not a question of whether you have to say he had an affair with her, but people who think they know about it are going to want to have your opinion. You could at least say, no." But Ambrose insisted. "I just don't want to do it," he said. If somebody reads the article and wonders, "Why didn't he mention Kay Summersby?" they will know which scholar to blame for the omission.

Ferris: Who do you think will use the American National Biography?

Garraty: If you look at volume of use, I think it will be school children and researchers. It's a work for libraries. Not too many individuals will have it in their own libraries. Eventually the whole encyclopedia will be more generally available online.

Scholars will certainly make great use of it. I have a set of the DAB that I bought the first time I earned any money at all from writing.

Ferris: Why is it important to have a resource like this?

Garraty: People want to know about individuals in the past, whether it's George Washington or some minor person. It's very hard to get at that information in a hurry.

Take the biography of Franklin Roosevelt. In the DAB, the biography of Roosevelt is about twenty thousand words long. My reaction is that's wrong. Frank Friedel wrote the article, and it is excellent, but there are many biographies in any local library that would have that kind of information -- without the DAB. On the other hand, if you want to know where Roosevelt was on a particular year or a particular time, it's hard to find the answer in a twenty-thousand word article.

So we set up one thousand words as a minimum, which is four double-spaced typed pages. And we also set a maximum, which varied a lot, but I don't think I gave anybody more than seven thousand words.

Ferris: Are there any plans to put the American National Biography online?

Garraty: Yes, there are. That's going to happen -- partly because it opens up a way of keeping the whole dictionary up to date. Our current book is the way American history looks today. In the year 2020 or 2030, there will be different ways of looking at the past. And we can at least keep the book up to date by adding names as people die.

That is important for so many reasons. It's hard to know how important a person was right after death. What I was saying about Reconstruction is just the most extreme case of that. So when the dictionary is online, it will be possible to integrate names into the biography without having an actual supplement.

Ferris: There's a phrase for this project: "The life of a nation is told by the lives of its people." The emphasis that the American National Biography puts on individuals comes at a time when many historians are turning away from writing biographies. What is the relationship you see between history and biography?

Garraty: A biography is the history of a person. Social history is the history of a society in the larger sense, but the larger society is made up of individuals. There are many professional historians who don't want to write biographies because they're more interested in the larger picture. That doesn't apply to the individual reader -- in general, biographies are very popular, and deservedly so. It's really not possible to have a social history of something without talking about individuals, so we need the biographies. Even the people who are not interested in writing biographies still need biographical sources to say what they want to say about the society.

Ferris: What is the America that we see through the American National Biography?

Garraty: We gave it basically a geographical limit. In other words, you didn't have to be a citizen of the United States. You didn't even have to be born or die in the United States, but in some way your life had to intersect with the larger American world.

For example, British generals in the Revolution, like Lord Cornwallis, were not in the DAB. It's very interesting. In the DAB, included British generals before the Revolution who fought in the French and Indian War and earlier military conflicts. Important British colonial governors who were here were all include. But when it got to the Revolution, only the American generals were considered important enough.

We took a broader view. Alexis de Tocqueville is in the ANB. He was a French critic who wrote about America, but he was only here for a couple of years. Einstein is in the ANB, not because of his work as a physicist, but mostly because he became a figure in American public life. Pancho Villa, the Mexican rebel -- he's part of the story of the events leading up to America's entry into World War. So he is in the dictionary even though he was Mexican. Columbus is another example. He never laid foot or touched down on what's now part of the United States. Important figures in the history of Hawai'i before Hawai'i became part of the United States are in our dictionary now.

Finally, we see that America is still a very young country. When one looks at American history through the lens of individual lives we often find bridges between eras we think of as mutually remote. The life of Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. an example. Ralph Waldo Emerson was a great figure of Oliver Wendall Holmes's youth, Holmes stated that Emerson had passed on to him the "ferment" of philosophical inquiry, and Holmes Jr. lived to see the New Deal. The whole of American history, including the colonial period, is not more than the span of six long lives - a short period as human history goes.

Ferris: Tell me, how are you feeling -- happy or sad -- to see this all coming to conclusion? It's a magnificent achievement.

Garraty: I'm happy to get it out. I don't know how I'll feel when I actually see the book -- twenty-four volumes -- and my name on the title page along with Mark Carnes.

Ferris: What's your next project now that you've finished this?

Garraty: I've been thinking about a lot of little things that I'd like to do. I have to keep my college textbook up to date. I also have an eighth grade textbook that requires a lot of work. I don't think I'm ready to take on major projects any more. I'm enjoying myself.

Ferris: I think every American is indebted to you, Professor Garraty, for what you've done, and we will be singing your praises for many years to come. Everyone here joins me in congratulating you, and I want to thank you for taking time to talk with me.

Garraty: Always glad to do it.