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

By Mark Carnes | Go to book overview

Major figures in the ANB receive extended essays, many written by the finest historians in the nation—and beyond. But the unique value of the ANB lies in its wealth of information and contemporary perspective on historical figures about whom most scholars may know little. A random sorting of any fifty ANB subjects would provide plenty of food for thought— and a chance to sample the fascinating diversity that has made this nation. Another way of browsing the ANB is to use its index of “occupations” and “realms of renown. ” The list begins, alphabetically, with “abolitionists, ” “abortionists, ” “accordionists, ” and “accountants” and closes with “yachtsmen, ” “zionists, ” “zoo curators, ” and “zoologists. ” In between are “bobsledders, ” “comb players, ” “insect pathologists, ” “outlaws, ” “weavers, ” and hundreds of other fields.

This book presents an alternative culling of these less famous subjects, one that illuminates the connections between past and present. All works of history do this, if only because good historians search for contemporary relevance amidst the rubble of the historical record. But this book further underscores the dialogue between past and present by relying on contemporary figures to select its contents. Those making the nominations are themselves important in American life; many will likely be included as subjects in the American National Biography in what we hope to be the distant future. Their pleas for remembering an “invisible” person constitute an implicit indictment of our having forgotten him or her. Moreover, the selectors may be sending signals to future historians about themselves. If so, some of their messages are surprising.

Harold Bloom, for example, one of the nation's foremost literary critics, might have chosen his “invisible giant” from among the eight hundred novelists whose biographies appear in the ANB, including many worthies tottering on the edge of obliv-

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