Invisible Giants: Fifty Americans Who Shaped the Nation but Missed the History Books

Invisible Giants: Fifty Americans Who Shaped the Nation but Missed the History Books

Invisible Giants: Fifty Americans Who Shaped the Nation but Missed the History Books

Invisible Giants: Fifty Americans Who Shaped the Nation but Missed the History Books

Synopsis

Because history is as fallible as the people who record it, many of the figures who have shaped our country have receded from public memory. In order to celebrate and call attention to these lives, Oxford University Press asked fifty accomplished personalities from a diverse range of interests to each select a person from the 24-volume American National Biography that they felt deserved more attention. In Invisible Giants, the biographies of these forgotten figures appear alongside the often-personal comments of their selectors. We discover the man who inspired Sherwin Nuland to become a doctor, the writer Jacques Barzun considers America's first cultural critic, and the woman who taught Tina Brown to bare her teeth. We learn of the poetry recited to Henry Louis Gates, Jr., as a boy, the magazine Helen Gurley Brown required every one of her editors to subscribe to, and the book Andy Rooney deems "better than the Bible and easier to understand." Edited by Mark C. Carnes and published with the American Council of Learned Societies, Invisible Giants presents the architects of our country's past through the eyes of the architects of its future.

Excerpt

This book consists of biographical essays on fifty “invisible giants” of the American past, each selected by a prominent person in contemporary America. The “invisible giants” were chosen from among the 18,000 historical figures contained in the American National Biography (ANB). Those who selected a subject explained their reasons in a brief introduction; in return, they received the satisfaction of rendering their “invisible giant” less so in consequence of being included in this book. We chose selectors whose interests were wide-ranging. Because their judgments were to be expressed in writing, we particularly sought accomplished writers. Although we made no systematic attempt to define “invisible giant, ” we explained that we were looking for the type of figure who, though often overlooked in history books, warranted special consideration.

The American National Biography, published by the American Council of Learned Societies and Oxford University Press, consists of twenty-five million words and twenty-five volumes, including a recent supplement. It begins, alphabetically, with an essay on Alexander Aarons, producer of Lady, Be Good!, and ends with one on Vladimir Zworykin, inventor of the picture tube and, in the minds of many, the “father of television. ” (Zworykin, no fan of his invention, contended that his greatest contribution to television was the “off” switch.) In between are people, all dead, who have shaped the nation in countless ways. The ANB includes every prominent American most people can think of and many thousands most have never heard of. (A parlor game: find an American who died sometime ago, has some claim to national significance in any field of endeavor, and is not in the ANB. If you “win” [few do], please send me a short note or e-mail, and we shall consider including your person in the on-line version of the ANB in the next published supplement.) . . .

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