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Jul 16, 2004 3:41 pm

American National Biography, a Breakdown, and an Empty Bag ...

Five years ago, Oxford University Press published the multi-volume work, American National Biography (subscribers only). It replaced the old Dictionary of American Biography as the reference of first resort for biographical information in American history. It is more inclusive of women and minorities than the DAB and, even where it repeats biographical sketches of persons included in the DAB, it updates them with new information and insights.

I was one of many historians who wrote biographical sketches for the ANB. In fact, after writing 28 of them, I was one of its more prolific contributors. Just between us, some of them are quite forgettable. If you don't know who"Wallace Buttrick (1853-1926)" was, don't worry about it. Poor fellow had wrapped himself in bureaucratic obscurity so thick that I couldn't tease much out of him. In other cases, the authors of sketches in the DAB's supplementary volumes, to which I also contributed, had done such a fine job that it was difficult to match, much less surpass, them. So, if you want to learn about"Eugene William Lyman (1872-1948)," it won't bother me if you read William R. Hutchison's sketch in the DAB rather than to mine in ANB.

More commonly, however, writing for the ANB was a good opportunity to write a fresh word for a new generation about fairly important people. My essays on"Benjamin Orange Flower (1858-1918),""Alexander Palmer Haley (1921-1992),""Will Herberg (1901-1977),""Zora Neale Hurston (1891?-1960),""Vernon Johns (1892-1965)," and"Randy Shilts (1951-1994)" are evidence both of the ANB's greater diversity and the need of telling other stories anew for our time.

Benjamin Orange Flower is a good example of why historians must occasionally revisit and revise what had been known about some individual. Flower was the Progressive Era's pioneer muck-raking journalist. Yet, as I read the secondary literature about him, including the DAB's sketch, it was clear that something fairly dramatic had happened to him that previous authors either didn't know or had consciously ignored. A man who was for years a prudent Unitarian rationalist was, by the end of his life, given to tirades about the Catholic threat to American democracy and the Pope's effort to destroy civilization by starting World War I. It took some long-distance telephone calls and original research to discover that Flower had a mental breakdown in the mid-1890s and that his wife was diagnosed as" completely insane" near that time and was committed to a mental asylum for the rest of her life. It was the sort of thing that the DAB's mid-twentieth century prudence might not discuss. Yet, undoubtedly, it was crucial to understanding Benjamin Orange Flower.

Mental illness isn't the only thing that mid-twentieth century sensibilities glossed over. Age was more common. Advertising, education, and"wellness-mongers" prod us, initially, to appear more mature than we are and, when maturity overwhelms us, to appear more youthful than we are. Both Zora Neale Hurston and Will Herberg took that a step further by overt deception. I don't understand why someone more knowledgeable about American literature than me did not get to write about Hurston. She's a fixture in its new canon. I learned what those who knew already knew – that Hurston probably took ten years off the early end of her life and she could do it because, otherwise, we know very little about them. Herberg could do it because he was born in Russia and there was no official record of his birth. Because he didn't want to be forced to retire from teaching, he risked exposure by repeatedly advancing his birth date in his reports to Who's Who in America. Both Hurston and Herberg had more than age to hide, however. She had committed plagiarism in an early article and he had fabricated all three of the academic degrees he claimed. Neither of those things were known in their lifetimes.

There's even a part of me that is grateful for Herberg's fabrications. Without it, I might not have had the benefit of his teaching. He was my rabbi. In my senior year in seminary at Drew University, I was his chauffeur and regularly drove him from Madison, NJ, to Jersey City, where he taught a class at St. Peter's College. He obviously did not need the money because he lived frugally, but his passion for teaching was such that he voluntarily taught an overload at Drew and still took opportunities to teach elsewhere. Often, Herberg would get in the front seat of the car and doze off during the trip. But, when I was lucky, we'd talk. I was fresh from the civil rights movement in the South and, in his conservative old age, Herberg was quite critical of it. I recall one conversation when I was defending its leadership and pointed out that, after all, Martin Luther King had a doctorate from Boston University. Herberg said:"Harrumpf, I'll check on that with people on the BU faculty." You can imagine how delicious the memory of that moment was, when years later my task was to trace the plagiarism in Martin Luther King's seminary and graduate school work, including his dissertation. Knowing that the beloved old fraud sitting next to me in the car had rightly questioned King's academic entitlements is a treasured memory. I don't even put Herberg's"academic entitlements" in quotation marks. Here's to you, Dr. Will Herberg! (He was my rabbi, after all.)

For some of us, what's to hide was family. It might be an ethnicity the family abandoned years ago or a horse thief hanging out somewhere on the family tree. In Vernon Johns's case, it was an odd combination of both. His slave-owning white grandfather's only progeny were with his oldest female slave. When she sought to re-unite with her black lover after emancipation, Vernon Johns's white grandfather jealously murdered her in a terribly brutal way. Only later, when he murdered a white field hand was Vernon Johns's white grandfather sentenced to death by hanging. All of that was a source of embarrassment in the family and, although it was a childhood memory for Vernon Johns, he never mentioned his white grandfather in a long career of public speech. Whenever he said"At the gallows, John Brown, ...," as he often did, however, the timbre of his voice carried the suggestion of a suppressed and transfigured family memory.

For others of us, what might have remained private became very public in our lifetimes or shortly thereafter. Despite the enormous commercial success of his books and articles, the last years of Alex Haley's life were a legal nightmare. It climaxed in the posthumous resolution of his estate in bankruptcy. Repeated charges of plagiarism had led to some expensive settlements and three marriages were resolved by only one divorce. Thus, Alex Haley's estate was dispersed at public auction after his death and his valuable manuscripts scattered in private hands to satisfy the claimants to his legacy.

It was Garry Wills's review for the New York Review of Books of Edmund Morgan's new collection of essays, The Genuine Article: A Historian Looks at Early America that prompted me to post about writing for American National Biography. The last essay in Morgan's book is about ANB and three sentences in Wills's review caught my eye."Morgan does not advert to the gay rights movement – perhaps because the new volumes are still only guardedly frank about the sexuality of people like James Baldwin, Leonard Bernstein, Gertrude Stein, Bayard Rustin, and Walt Whitman," says Wills."Only the Randy Shilts entry is fully candid. The DAB would not have brought up the subject at all.""Hey, Garry; hey, World!" I thought, when I read those words."Guess who wrote the ‘fully candid' biographical sketch of Randy Shilts!" I had barely missed my moment of fame in the NYRB.

Why do I write of it now? I suppose you can write about Baldwin, Bernstein, Stein, Whitman, and Rustin without being candid about their sexuality, but it wasn't possible to write about Shilts without confronting, as he did, his own sexuality. He was out of the closet when the DAB was still publishing its supplemental volumes. For that reason, perhaps, he might never have been included in them. He made his career doing what was quaintly called"gay journalism." But"gay journalism" was simply"journalism" about issues with which mainstream journalism was deeply uncomfortable and it wasn't possible to write about the life of Randy Shilts without being"fully candid," as he was, about his sexuality. Barring that, there would have been nothing to write about. And it is interesting. Read about Harvey Milk and Randy Shilts and you'll learn about the conservative/libertarian/Republican roots of gay liberation. Andrew Sullivan may know about that already. If not, he should. And so should John Derbyshire and many other people to whom it will come as strange news.

You may have sensed that there is a subjective factor that led me to write about these people. Will Herberg was my rabbi. Alex Haley, Zora Neale Hurston, and Vernon Johns represent what Carl Van Vechten once called the"opugnant" tradition among black Southerners. Writing about them left me in awe of their remarkable flaws and their remarkable accomplishments. Writing about them and Shilts could not but underscore my own identity with a flawed and accomplished humanity, a" crooked timber," if you will.

In three decades as a historian and a teacher, I was repeatedly denied job security and, whenever it happened, there was winking innuendo about my own sexuality. My former colleagues and employers were not bothered by the damage done to me, my family, my wife, or my children. But Flower, Haley, Hurston, and Johns all grappled, in different ways, with damaged family. My colleagues and employers cared only that it be done in such a way that I was left with no legal recourse. It didn't matter to them, then or now, whether I was gay or not. I was dismissed, whether or no. It did teach me about the insidiousness of sexual innuendo. The point was only to cast a dark cloud over my career and leave me holding an empty bag. And, so I do. So empty has it been, at times, that, like B. O. Flower, I even had a breakdown. But the question always is: what do you do with a breakdown and an empty bag? I hope not to end my career railing about the Pope's attempt to loose world war on civilization. Instead, I chose to be"fully candid" about these people and, indirectly at least, about myself.

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Jonathan Dresner - 7/5/2004

I have friends who are doing research which covers a lot of what I know about the subject, and more. But one of the comments on the paper has always remained with me: an advisor commented that there might be something interesting in doing biographical studies of a number of the second-tier leadership to see if there was some kind of interesting connection/commonality/characteristic which joined them together; I've always thought a study which contrasted the second-tier leadership that became the next generations of first-line leaders with the second-tier leadership that faded, as did Tanaka Fujimaro, into obscurity, could be quite revealing.

Ralph E. Luker - 7/3/2004

Right, Jonathan, there's some illusion in the notion of "fully candid," in the first place, as if we could not beyond any shadow of doubt what that is.
Are you curious enough about the person you wrote about to go back and see if you can't find out what more there is that you think may not have been yet known?

Jonathan Dresner - 7/2/2004

I wonder what level of disclosure and focus is required to meet the "fully candid" test?

We are indeed drawn to historical figures for our own reasons. One of my first truly original history papers was on a second-tier functionary in the Meiji government whose main claim to fame was his authorship (with significant interference from first-tier leadership) of an educational law that turned out so badly it was revised again a year later, and he never held a position of significance again. Something about his earnest attempt, his failure and his quiet retirement still makes me think that there is more there than has been written.

Richard Henry Morgan - 7/2/2004

Seems he was originally named Shaya Berlin, and originally took a "course" in humane letters at Corpus Christi (he was denied admission to Balliol because of his mediocre grades at St. Paul's). He then switched to philosophy, and took a good first. But his writings betray not much evidence of a training in technical philosophy, as they seem pretty much restricted to the much more fuzzy history of ideas. In fact, it's not immediately clear that his writings fall under philosophy at all. I'm not sure exactly what humane letters comprehends, but it might have had more of an influence on his work than any education in philosophy.

Ralph E. Luker - 7/2/2004

In off-line e-mail exchanges, Scott describes Margaret Soltan's entry at University Diaries as a parody of such stories in the _Chronicle of Higher Education_. That may well be so. It was not immediately evident to me when I read it what it was. If there were elements of truth in it, then it seemed to me worthy of further attention, so I posted a link at Cliopatria and called Crooked Timber's Kieran Healy's attention to it. It took some discussion over there, however, for people to decide that Soltan's post was not just straight-forward reporting of fact.

Scott McLemee - 7/2/2004

Uh, folks, I'm no fan of Berlin, but the thing about him getting his degree from a diploma mill is pretty clearly a joke.

Richard Henry Morgan - 7/2/2004

Seems that in 1965 Herberg wrote an article in National Review essentially blaming MLK for the Watts riots. I wonder when your conversation with him fits into the chronology.

I also seem to remember a passing comment from Isaiah Berlin, somewhere in his works (or perhaps it was somebody quoting his conversation) that he had abandoned analytic philosophy when Sheffer told him you couldn't do analytic philosophy without a grasp of symbolic logic. Sheffer had famously demonstrated that one could construct an expressively complete system of logic using the single connective known as the Sheffer stroke -- previously it had been thought that it required at least two connectives for an expressively complete system.

It struck me as strange at the time that somebody (Berlin) with (presumably) an Oxford undegraduate degree in philosophy would be daunted by symbolic logic -- or even unfamiliar with it. I merely assumed that he had taken a famous PPE, which had perhaps sidestepped symbolic logic, and that he had somehow translated that into a readership. Still, it seemed strange. Now I know why.

BTW, Berlin was so sensitive about being an outsider, and never fitting in, I can only imagine what the corrosive effect of his educational background must have been on his psyche -- and that of Herberg and King, for that matter. Imagine living in constant fear of exposure (something like an intelligence agent).