In 1986 R. M. Lumiansky, my predecessor as president of the American Council of Learned Societies (ACLS), discussed with me the need to replace the Dictionary of American Biography (DAB), one of the first projects that the ACLS had undertaken after its creation in 1919. The DAB was fifty years old, its original twenty volumes having been published between 1926 and 1937. Lumiansky told me that Columbia University professor John A. Garraty, the editor of supplements 4-8 of the DAB, felt strongly that the ACLS should sponsor an entirely new biographical work. Garraty argued that because the supplements covered more recent periods of American history they could not serve to update the roughly fifteen thousand articles in the original, nor could they conveniently include the many important figures such as Sojourner Truth, Scott Joplin, Charles Guiteau, and Martha Washington who had been left out of the original.
Since my own field is American history, I needed no convincing. Furthermore, I did not have to think twice about finding a general editor for the new work, so great was my respect for Professor Garraty both as a historian and as the person responsible for the DAB supplements from the early 1970s onward. After becoming ACLS president in July 1986, I began to consult with him about the possibilities for a new biographical dictionary, and our plans fell into place quickly. All that remained was the search for a publisher and for the funding necessary to underwrite the costs of the project.
The search for a publisher was more complicated than we had anticipated. The original publisher of the DAB, Charles Scribner's Sons, had been taken over by a larger firm, which at the time was not interested in producing a new biographical dictionary. So we began to seek a publisher with the capacity to take on such a big project, to carry it off with the requisite professional standards, and to deal with the potential for an electronic edition. The quest ended, happily, in a contract with Oxford University Press, Inc. We anticipated that Oxford, with its long history of academic publishing and with its exceptionally strong list of authors in American history, would be an unusually congenial partner in publishing a reference work of so vast a scope as the American National Biography (ANB). And indeed that has been the case.
But the project would not have been realized without substantial investment. For its part, Oxford was to invest several million dollars and many years of labor by a sizable staff. And the ACLS had to raise more than three million dollars in order to pay the authors and editors of the ANB. We could not have done so without a grant from the Rockefeller Foundation and without a continuing series of sizable grants from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and the National Endowment for the Humanities. The ANB would not now be in your hands except for the generosity of these funders and the confident support of Oxford University Press. The entire project is a wonderful example of the potential of public-private collaboration in major humanities efforts.
It also goes without saying that the ANB would not have come into existence but for the expertise, dedication, and professionalism of John A. Garraty and his fellow general editor, Mark C. Carnes, professor of history at Barnard College. Garraty, the obvious choice to direct the project, did his work brilliantly. It will be hard for readers to imagine the challenges and frustrations of putting together twenty-four volumes comprising nearly 17,500 biographies. Carnes has worked on the ANB with Garraty from the first day and has been equally essential to the project.
The ACLS owes a similar debt of gratitude to our publishers. Edward Barry, president of Oxford University Press, Inc., took a personal interest in every aspect of the project and was unwavering in his determination that it be successfully completed. Claude Conyers, editorial director of Oxford's Scholarly and Professional Reference Division, brought to bear exceptional experience in the publication of reference works and marshaled the forces needed to sustain years of effort. Michael Kornegay, project manager of the ANB, supervised the administration of the project from the Oxford University Press offices in Cary, North Carolina, during the first five years of its development. Subsequently, Paul Betz, as managing editor, directed the day-to-day editing and production of the work, surmounting the stresses and details of a very complicated process with professionalism, dignity, and expertise.
Even with the contributions of those I have already mentioned, the ANB would not have come to pass if it were not for the skill and dedication of my ACLS colleagues Douglas Greenberg and Steven Wheatley. Greenberg was there from the start, helping to negotiate the publishing contract and arranging the operational details of ACLS participation. Wheatley took over when Greenberg moved on to the presidency of the Chicago Historical Society and has brought the project to completion. Greenberg and then Wheatley chaired our management committee meetings, which regularly addressed questions of format, organization, and other publishing issues.
Finally, let me note that the ANB represents a collective effort of enormous magnitude by the often invoked, but rarely manifest, scholarly community. This work is spectacular evidence of that community. The editorial advisory board helped develop the basic design of the project. The senior editors identified and shaped the substantive areas to be covered. Our associate editors were essential in the recruitment of authors and the review of their manuscripts. Most important were the thousands of historians and other scholars who contributed their research and analysis to what is, I am sure, this generation's major reference work in American biography.
Stanley N. Katz
President Emeritus, ACLS
The publication of the American National Biography powerfully demonstrates the close connection between historical and humanistic scholarship and our larger public life. Sponsoring the publication of major scholarly reference works, conspicuously useful to a wide readership, is one important way in which the ACLS fulfills its mission of advancing humanistic scholarship. It is a pleasure to recognize my predecessors, R. M. Lumiansky and Stanley N. Katz, for the vision and commitment that led to the development of the ANB; and to pay tribute to Stan Katz for his leadership in seeing this extraordinary collaborative project to completion. The ACLS looks forward to working with Oxford University Press in the future to keep the ANB, in both print and electronic editions, the most current and comprehensive work of American biography.
John H. D'Arms
The American National Biography was conceived as the successor to the Dictionary of American Biography, first published between 1926 and 1937. The editors of the DAB saw no reason to defend its focus on great and significant persons or to justify the American nation as the context for the undertaking. In recent decades, however, historians intent on examining the past "from the bottom up" have emphasized the experiences of ordinary men and women, often members of ethnic groups or racial minorities that were neglected by previous scholars. As such people and their particular communities have come into clearer focus, the national frame of reference has often slipped from view. Some have argued that the "nation" is an artificial construct that inhibits understanding the past. To such scholars, the need for a biographical collection of the American nation is no longer self-evident.
Yet biography remains indispensable to historical understanding. The ANB is not a history, but the basic materials of historical inquiry tend to collect around prominent people, whose lives illuminate the human dimensions of the past and reveal its larger processes. For that reason a biographical dictionary can be a valuable source for almost any work of history. The American nation, moreover, constitutes an essential structure for understanding this vast and diverse material. Many people who did not think of themselves as "Americans" have nevertheless left their imprint on its history. The American nation is thus a product of its many pasts. The ANB brings together the diverse voices of the past without claiming that they blend harmoniously.
But while the value of a national biographical reference work has endured, the character of such an undertaking has changed considerably since the DAB was published. The number of professional historians has increased dramatically, and the discipline has expanded its horizons with the development of new research methods, the discovery of new primary sources, and the growth of new fields of study, such as the history of African Americans, women, immigrants, workers, and others. Virtually all aspects of the past are now seen from a different perspective. Today, historians do not regard the slave-plantation South with nostalgia or dismiss women's participation in politics as quaint or deride the doctrinal views of small religious sects or deny the cultural importance of dolls or pop music. Nor do most historians assume a proprietary omniscience in regard to their subjects or believe that history is merely a collection of facts. Nearly all acknowledge that history consists of many different stories and interpretations.
Compared to the DAB, the ANB has substantially broadened the criteria for the inclusion of subjects. An "American" is loosely defined as someone whose significant actions occurred during his or her residence within what is now the United States or whose life or career directly influenced the course of American history. "Significance" includes achievement (superior accomplishment as judged by contemporaries), fame (celebrity or notoriety), or influence (effect on one's own time despite lack of public notice). Even some "ordinary" persons have been included if they left autobiographies, diaries, or other artifacts that attracted posthumous attention. An example is Martha Ballard, an eighteenth-century midwife whose diary has proven invaluable to scholars. The only invariant rule is that all subjects must have died prior to 1996. To apply these criteria, we made utility our fundamental principle: would readers and researchers want to know something more about a particular figure? At the margins, priority was given to persons, especially women and minorities, about whom new information or new ways of interpreting old data had become available.
To create the database from which ANB subjects were selected, scores of reference works were examined. Also included were the subjects of books, dissertations, and essays of a biographical character that have appeared in recent decades. The directors of every state historical society were asked for suggestions, as were the presidents of all of the nation's scholarly societies. In addition, individual scholars nominated thousands of possible subjects of entries.
All potential subjects were placed in categories, mostly occupational (politics, the military, and diplomacy; art and architecture; the performing arts; business; journalism and literature; law; medicine; science and technology; religion; education; the social sciences; social reform; and sports). Native Americans, whose study requires archaeological, anthropological, and linguistic skills, were put into a single category and reviewed by specialists in the field. Otherwise, the ANB did not group potential subjects in ethnic or racial groups or by cultural or social affiliations. For example, the ANB did not establish a category for gays and lesbians. Harvey Milk was included in "politics" not for his local standing as a member of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors but because his advocacy of gay rights had national significance. In all, nearly thirty thousand people from all walks of life eventually were considered.
The task of selecting from among all these potential subjects was the work of nearly two hundred associate editors, each assigned to a topical category. For persons selected, the associate editors recommended a length ranging from 750 to 7,500 words and proposed several biographers. When completed, each essay was reviewed by the associate editor who made the assignment and then by the ANB staff at Columbia University. If substantial revision was required, the manuscript was returned to the author with suggestions and queries. After the staff at Columbia University had approved an essay, it was factchecked under the supervision of the ANB staff of Oxford University Press in Cary, North Carolina. (The Oxford factcheckers generated well over a hundred thousand queries, and their work has immeasurably strengthened the factual foundation of our understanding of the American past.) The Oxford staff also supervised the copyediting of manuscripts to ensure uniformity of style and format, and they sent manuscripts back to authors for a final check.
This complicated procedure was time-consuming and expensive, but necessary. Its chief purpose, aside from promoting factual accuracy, was to ensure that the ANB reflected a national breadth of judgment and opinion. The simplest measure of this is statistical. While the original DAB was written by 2,243 authors, the ANB is the work of almost 6,100, drawn from nearly every discipline and located throughout the nation. By virtue of its decentralized editorial structure and the diversity of its editors and authors, the American National Biography has earned its name.
In summing up the contribution of the DAB in his introduction to volume 20 of that work, Dumas Malone stressed the effort of the editors to consider American life and culture broadly, covering "all sects and sections, races, classes, and parties." The editors of the ANB have pursued this goal with, we trust, equal determination. But just as the authors and editors of the 1920s and 1930s wrote from the perspective of their times, we write and edit from ours. These volumes contain and reflect current knowledge and views about the significant figures of our national past. With time, what is known of these and other figures will expand and be modified, but here is the record as the twentieth century ends.
The American Council of Learned Societies and Oxford University Press are nevertheless committed to ensuring that the ANB will remain a vital reference well into the next century. They have established a Center for American Biography, whose charge is to update and enlarge the ANB so that generations ahead can continue to turn to a standard, reliable source of biographical information.
We would like to express our heartfelt gratitude to the staff that assisted us in our project office at Columbia University. Patrick G. Williams, Sandra Opdycke, Steven West, Charles Forcey, and Walter Friedman were stalwart reviewers of manuscripts on our behalf. The mainstay in the management of our office was Dorothy McCann. We also benefited from research conducted by Susanne Pichler and Jennifer Sharpe.
John A. Garraty
Mark C. Carnes