In 17,453 Life Sketches, A Candid Portrait of Us

American National Biography , by John A. Garraty and Mark C. Carnes, general editors. Oxford University Press, 24 volumes, $2,500.

The American National Biography is a literary milestone, a kind of Human Genome Project for the advancement of historical understanding. Here, in 24 volumes and 17,453 life sketches, is the DNA of who and what we are as a nation–a candid, decoded mapping of traits that, for good and bad, have shaped the American character.

The ANB is a brand-new rival to the Dictionary of American Biography ( D.A.B. ), which for 72 years has dominated the field of retrospective research. Written by a small circle of historians for a slightly larger target audience of scholars, the D.A.B .’s original 20 volumes were weighted toward the origins and externals of notable lives. The old D.A.B. subordinated characterization to achievement and scrupulously avoided giving offense; touchy hall-of-records information like adoption or birth identity was seldom mentioned, let alone highlighted.

A fresh biographical enterprise prepared by a broader circle of authorities, the ANB is stunningly ambitious; since it was first published last year (with sizable quarterly updates that began appearing online in June at http://www.anb.org), it has added to our star-spangled Who’s Who the previously unmagnified truths of individual lives. Take, for instance, Horatio Alger, creator of an American type–the honest, hardworking boy hero who went “from rags to riches,” and who influenced generations of budding entrepreneurs in industrialized post-Civil War America. In the D.A.B. ‘s sanitized treatment of Alger’s personal life, Alger’s father, a “rather sanctimonious” Unitarian clergyman, interferes with Alger’s earliest plans to marry, although we are not told to whom. The Rev. Alger instead urges his son into the ministry, but not before Alger has spent a year in Paris pursuing “futile indiscretions and equally futile remorse.” Again we are kept in the dark, although the article’s nearly anonymous author (in the old D.A.B. , historians were known only by their initials) drops hints about Alger’s “sickly conscience.” Then, on Dec. 8, 1864, Alger gives up teaching and journalism to be ordained as a Unitarian minister. Two years later, he resigns (the tight-lipped D.A.B. notes only that Alger quit his church in Brewster, Mass., and moved to Manhattan)–no reason is given except Alger’s desire to “devote himself to literature.”

The ANB has no qualms about telling us straight out that Alger was forced to quit the pulpit after being accused of sexually molesting boys in his congregation–a charge Alger did not deny. “For the record,” adds Gary Scharnhorst (who happens to be the author of the most complete Alger biography), “there is no evidence Alger repeated his earlier mistakes. After the Brewster imbroglio he was never again publicly accused of pederasty or other sexual impropriety, though by his own admission he ‘made friends with hundreds of urchins’ over the years.”

The difference between the old D.A.B .’s genteel reserve and the ANB ‘s 21st-century candor is nowhere more obvious than with sexual issues. The ANB opens an entirely new realm of renown with its entry on Christine Jorgensen, whose sex-change operation in the 1950’s helped to popularize the word “transsexual” and open a national discussion on gender and sex roles. The closest the D.A.B .’s comprehensive index comes is “Transplants, gonadal”–which points the curious to a medical charlatan of the 1920’s who transplanted goat testes into aging farmers duped by the promise of sexual rejuvenation. In its 10 supplements, the last published as recently as 1995, the D.A.B . does give ground to the social upheavals of the sexual revolution. But where the D.A.B . leaves us guessing, the ANB fills in the blanks. For instance, the D.A.B . states that Cole Porter’s marriage was childless; the ANB gets to the point: The composer’s marriage to the beautiful and rich Linda Lee Thomas “incorporated Porter’s homosexuality.” The D.A.B. tells us that the personal life of international tennis star Bill Tilden was “complicated” by his sexual orientation; his arrest in November 1946 on charges of “contributing to the delinquency of a minor” emerges only in outline: We aren’t told who, where or what–not even the length of his prison sentence. The ANB spells it out: Tilden was found by police “obviously engaged in sexual activity with a 14-year-old boy.” The first American to win Wimbledon was then sentenced to a year in prison.

Originally written for a society inhospitable to women, gays, Catholics, Jews and every conceivable hyphenated American, the D.A.B. has remained insufficiently straightforward about delicate subjects like abortion and adoption. In 1917, Polly Adler, a 17-year-old Russian émigrée trying to escape poverty, was raped by her factory supervisor in Brooklyn. According to the ANB , the rape–which resulted in pregnancy, abortion and the loss of her job–proved to be a watershed event in the life of the future brothel-keeper and author. Rape is never mentioned in the D.A.B. ‘s cosmetic portrait of Ms. Adler. In the Library of Congress, papers from the American Council of Learned Societies, administrator of the original volumes, show that in the D.A.B. ‘s entry on Frank Buck (the infamous wild-game “explorer” of the 1920’s), the secret of Buck’s adoption was fudged in the text and kept hidden in the files. Look up a contemporary figure like 1960’s political activist Allard Lowenstein, and you learn in the ANB that Lowenstein, who was raised by his stepmother, did not learn the identity of his birth mother until he was 13. The phrase “birth mother” is simply not known in the white-shoe world of the D.A.B.

No wonder librarians are calling the ANB “a godsend.” Its well-made volumes are printed with easy-to-read type, and the number of individual biographies has increased by 40 percent over the D.A.B. –that’s 7,000 people. For pure entertainment value, the ANB is as absorbing as a complete set of the old Life magazine. Unlike the D.A.B. , it includes foreigners who left their imprint on American life–figures as various as Alexis de Tocqueville, Jean Renoir and Bob Marley. I enjoyed happening across the gritty, pre- Sopranos life of underworld figure Vito Genovese (described as a “criminal entrepreneur”), or discovering that Robert Carl Zuppke, a German-born football coach at the University of Illinois, had a lifelong ambition to be a painter but ended up as one of football’s great pioneers, developing such staples of the game as the spiral pass from center (1906), the screen pass (1910), the flea-flicker (1910), the onside kick (1917) and the offensive huddle (1921).

Another ANB innovation is collective biography: the Marx Brothers, the Four Horsemen of Notre Dame, the Challenger Shuttle Crew and so on. Thirty First Ladies, including Martha Washington, are at last given their due; only five were accounted for in the D.A.B. The presidential pantheon, meanwhile, contains a gem by Alan Brinkley; his biographical sketch of Franklin D. Roosevelt is a model of a life narrated and interpreted at the same time. And the ANB doesn’t just bring old faces to new light; it rounds up and holds the usual subjects–Revolutionary War heroes included–accountable.

John Paul Jones, the aggressive, often unlikable naval officer who never met a war he didn’t want to fight, accepted a rear admiral’s commission offered by Catherine II of Russia when she waged war on Ottoman Turkey. In St. Petersburg in April 1789, Jones was arrested for the alleged rape of a 10-year-old girl. The D.A.B. airbrushes Jones’ part in the incident: The admiral, we learn, was the victim of enemies who “circulated a story that he had violated the person of a young girl.” The ANB makes no bones about calling it an alleged rape. The article discusses the case plainly, concluding that history cannot say whether Jones was guilty or framed by his enemies.

When the D.A.B. was first published, unity was the moral of the national story. In our time, diversity has been recognized as America’s strength, and the ANB reflects this shift, with its sea-change representation of women and its diligent “all walks of life” panoply: Abolitionists, American Indian Leaders, Birth Control Advocates, Black Nationalists, Forgers, Gurus, Gynecologists, Hawaiian Leaders, Islamic Leaders, Surfers, Swindlers, Zionists, Zoologists. Midwives are included for the first time, mainly thanks to the gifted historian Laurel Thatcher Ulrich; and the D.A.B. ‘s sprinkling of bluestocking feminists and suffragists has been replaced by the ANB ‘s across-the-board interest in women’s lives, not just in its 130 Women’s Rights Advocates and 86 Suffragists.

The contrast between the D.A.B. and the ANB is starkest of all when it comes to popular culture. Back in the days when Cleveland Amory’s Celebrity Register was an indispensable reference work for the lives ( lifestyles had not yet been discovered) of the rich and famous, the new medium of television was to the movies what the movies had been to the stage a generation earlier. Crossover stars–and the speed with which they ascended–made life difficult for anyone writing about pop culture because even basic information about the screen work of a former “Goldwyn Girl” like Lucille Ball was scarce. D.A.B. could fit all its notable actors and actresses into two categories. Since 1980, however, an entertainment revolution has taken place (nowadays history itself isn’t history unless it’s entertainment, too), and even broadcast journalists and religious broadcasters and football coaches have become sub-segments in an ever-splitting amoeba of performers that in the ANB includes 624 Stage and Screen Actors, 92 Radio and Television Personalities, 59 Comedians, 11 Minstrel Show Performers, 2 Monologists, 57 Vaudeville Performers, 11 Cowboys, 4 Clowns, and 2 Ventriloquists, to say nothing of additional crossover worlds in music, dance and art. So far there are no overlaps with Presidents of the United States, but only because Ronald Reagan still lives.

The more consequential revolution–information–is reflected in ANB Online , a fully searchable Web site (when technical difficulties and slipshod technical support haven’t sabotaged your research); the site includes the text of the entire ANB , plus 500 new articles each year, for an annual subscriber fee of $250. The new articles, posted quarterly, include those figures missing from the original print edition, as well as notables who have died since the end of 1995 (which is as far as the original 24 volumes take you).

A cyber-speed pantheon will take some getting used to. I found it shocking, for example, to read Murray Kempton’s life when I feel as though I was just reading Kempton’s column the day before yesterday. Sonny Bono, almost forgotten, reborn as a popular Congressman, now also belongs to the ages. And Florence Griffith-Joyner–how can Flo-Jo be here with Jesse Owens and Jim Thorpe, already at the finish line? Illustrated in some cases with photographs (an invaluable innovation), hyperlinked, cross-referenced and searchable by theme, this up-to-the-minute national portrait gallery makes the old D.A.B. look as lifeless as Madame Tussaud’s.

The D.A.B. could be doomed. Its tendency to nod acceptance of received opinion, coupled with its embargo on the kind of human weakness that has often shaped great lives, makes its large, stately volumes seem smaller and less useful by the day. Its once-exemplary foreshortening of the merely personal in public lives ended up protecting only the profession it intended to serve. Society itself sooner or later always catches on to the real story.

What will make the ANB last? Permanence is not merely a function of candor, after all. In America, telling the truth is itself a fad. Our demand for honesty in national life varies from decade to decade–and now from poll to poll. At the moment, the ANB ‘s greatest achievement is the vitality and reach of its voice, a richness and accuracy of language that makes us want to know more about lives as they were really lived in their own time, before hindsight and history impose a false waxiness. As a credible expression of the multi-helix American genetic code, the ANB will find no equal in documentary prose for years to come. It reminds us what it means to have one life to live.