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

By Mark Carnes | Go to book overview

Adolphus Washington Greely
[27 MARCH 1844–20 OCTOBER 1935]

Adolphus Washington Greely has been my personal American hero since I first discovered his remarkable life story, hidden away in a cabin trunk in his granddaughter's summer cottage in North Conway, New Hampshire, in 1973. I hope that by including this Giant among these Invisibles I will bring him entirely out of the shadows and bring Adolphus Washington Greely due regard for being one of the more extraordinary figures from recent American history that, for the past thirty years, I have steadfastly believed him to be.

The Greely girls used to babysit for my then very young children, when we were neighbors in Chevy Chase, Maryland; their mother kindly loaned us the family cottage; and one summer, while looking in the attic for yet more old copies of Life magazine, I found the longforgotten trunk. The story held in the papers and diaries piled haphazardly inside—and which began with a failed High Arctic expedition, its members marooned in desperate circumstances, ignored by officials, abandoned to their fate, and yet with some, Greely included, surviving against all odds—has captivated me ever since.

Adolphus Greely's is the kind of life by which I am endlessly fascinated: a man whose career followed a trajectory that was initially mired in tragedy and yet which eventually soared to the greatest peaks of achievement; a figure whose contribution to society is now regarded as inestimable; a man whose life is very little known to those outside his own specialization. In Greely's case, there were so many specializations—exploration, electronics, aerial warfare, languages, American Indians, military strategy, communications, publishing—that he is more widely known than some, and yet until now, not to the wider audience that I believe his life properly deserves.

SIMON WINCHESTER

-109-

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