Dictionary of Virginia Biography

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Dictionary of Virginia Biography, Volume Two (Bland-Cannon). Edited by SARA B. BEARSS, JOHN T. KNEEBONE, J. JEFFERSON LOONEY, BRENT TARTER, and SANDRA GIOIA TREADWAY. Richmond: Library of Virginia, 2001. xix, 592 pp. $49.95.

THE Library of Virginia has released the second volume of its monumental Dictionary of Virginia Biography. The DVB is a major publishing event, projected to include some 6,000 biographies covering many facets of Virginia history and to serve as a research tool for scholars, librarians, teachers, students, and genealogists. The biographies are substantial articles, generally in excess of 800 words, and contain bibliographic references. As befits a dictionary, the articles are concise, straightforward, and primarily chronological in organization, though the individual voice of the author often comes through and many of the articles make for enjoyable reading.

As research editor for the Texas State Historical Association's New Handbook of Texas, I was asked to review the book from the vantage point of a public historian with extensive experience with a similar state history reference work. Since the individual volumes of the DVB are not really meant to stand on their own, I have chosen to include volume one in this review, as the 929 biographies the two volumes contain together amount to a significant sample, perhaps one-sixth, of the final product. In any work of this sort, the stated inclusion criteria and the actual mix of individuals reveal the historical conceptions underlying the work. In their general introduction to the project in volume one, the editors lay out a number of groups, primarily political, that will automatically be included in the DVB. They also present a more general category of individuals "whose lives and careers made them exceptional in their communities and professions" (l:vii). In line with recent trends in historiography, the editors stress that this work will attempt to remedy past neglect by including significant numbers of women, African Americans, and Native Americans. A final category includes the notorious, the legendary, and those connected with particular events. In a decision that has some serious consequences for the project, the editors have also chosen to exclude those born in Virginia who flourished outside the state.

How well do they meet their stated criteria? In some areas the DVB has done an outstanding job. For students of politics, business, religion, and Virginia's military contributions to the Revolution and the Civil War, this is a superb reference work. The history of Virginia women is well served by biographies of civic leaders, social reformers, clubwomen, and suffragettes. Black Reconstruction figures, clergy, businessmen, and civil rights leaders figure prominently in the work. Other groups receive less attention. Among the 929 biographies, I found only five Native Americans. It could be that most of them will pop up later in the alphabet, but given the length of contact between Native Americans and the greater geographical Virginia (including Kentucky until 1792 and West Virginia until 1863), this seems rather skimpy.

There is also the problem of what the editors have chosen not to include. One disturbing consequence of the decision to omit Virginians who left the state is that this work is almost devoid of popular culture. There is only one sports figure, Arthur Ashe, very few musicians, and no one from the film industry. …