A Nation of Individuals

Humanities, January/February 1999 | Go to article overview

A Nation of Individuals


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 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.

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