The New York Times/Our Men of Note

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Our Men of Note
From The New York Times of April 3, 1887.
OUR MEN OF NOTE.

APPLETON'S CYCLOPÆDIA OF AMERICAN BIOGRAPHY. Edited by James Grant Wilson and John Fiske. Vol. I. Aaron—Crandall. New-York: D. Appleton & Co. 1887.

This enterprise aims to do for America the service that Mr. Leslie Stephen's enterprise is doing for England, and the present volume is the first of six in which it is hoped that the lives of all our worthies, as well as of our people of distinction who were not exactly entitled to that name, will be adequately related. Unlike Mr. Stephen, the editors of the work have determined to include not only the eminent dead but the eminent living. Furthermore, they have not confined themselves to the United States, but have included within their province the entire area of America — north, south, east, and west. Thus we have a not inconsiderable addition to the bulk of names usually referred to among English-speaking peoples as Americans, for here are to be found distinguished Brazilians, Mexicans, Peruvians, Chilians, Bolivians, Canadians, and even Russians. The scope of the work embraces also native savage races, so that we have biographies of Black Hawk, Chialiquichiama, Chignavitcelut, Canonicus, and Atahualpa, and it is alike broad in including eminent foreigners who have been connected in some memorable way with the history and fortunes of America. Several thousand names not strictly belonging to a work of this character, if prepared on a narrow and exclusive basis, are thus added to the list, and along with the 15,010 native and adopted citizens of the United States they serve to make up a truly formidable array.

Of course the work cannot approach in copiousness Mr. Stephen's undertaking. This however is not the fault of the editors or the publishers. America is some centuries younger than the land of the Angles, Scots, Picts, and Celts, and after it had been put on the maps it was some centuries waiting to begin the work of making noteworthy history and leaving convenient records of it. Already the English dictionary has proceeded down to the tenth volume, but only to the letters “Chal,” while the American work in one volume, though of somewhat larger size, has gone still further and reached “Cran.” These are facts from which, by a simple rule of proportion, one could deduce the conclusion that, as against six American volumes, there will be about fifty English ones, while, at the same time, it remains to be added that Mr. Stephen has confined himself exclusively to Englishmen of the past. All this shows not only how rich England has been in men, but how studiously she has accumulated and preserved her records of “the great of old.” To an extent, the same is true of our own people and the people of those other American lands which share with us that immeasurable and inextinguishable debt to the heroic sailor of Genoa, for who shall say what devotion to high causes, what courage, industry, fortitude, genius, self-abnegation, and large capacity for great affairs are not here made permanent record of?

For the execution of this plan distinct praise is to be recorded, because the undertaking is so far in advance of anything before attempted. It would be almost idle to say that it will be found indispensable to every well regulated library. When these six volumes shall all be in print they will have become as essential as any general cyclopedia, dictionary, or gazetteer to every working man of letters, every working man of affairs, every lawyer, every clergyman, every man who has need of information not contained in shops, counting rooms, parlors, and the corridors of clubs and hotels.

One can see where the work might have been made even better — a remark that is true, however, of every enterprise under heaven. Thus, men have been in Congress and yet they are not here. We look often times for description, criticism, and original comments, finding only the barest, baldest facts, which, though useful and orderly enough, are as uninteresting as baskets of chips. There is also a frequent disproportion in the space allotted to different individuals, and while this is a feature of such works always liable to engender dispute, it seems scarcely open to prolonged debate that John Jacob Astor and his descendants possess as strong claims to human interest as Audubon; that more than two actors named Booth should have been included; that if George W. Blunt was entitled to 28 lines, Alexander Baranoff deserved more than 24; that if Gail Borden was to receive 63 lines, more than 39 should have been accorded to Thomas Blanchard; that 8 lines for Richard J. Cleveland, who before he was 30 and before this century was five years old, had twice carried the American flag around the globe, and 26 lines for Claudius Berard, a Frenchman who was for 30 years Professor of French at West Point, constitute something like an absurdity. What is a more serious matter, however, is the fact, already pointed out in these columns, that in the field of recent politics some articles have been written in a partisan spirit and are wanting in simple truthfulness.

Curious also are the foreign names that are found here and the reasons for their appearance. Thus we have Marshal Bazaine, because he commanded for five years in Mexico; William Beckford, the father of “England's wealthiest son,” because he was born in Jamaica and fell heir to vast possessions in that island; the sculptor Bartholdi, for reasons that are sufficiently obvious; Jerome Bonaparte, because he married and deserted Miss Patterson, of Baltimore; (Lord Randolph Churchill married an American wife, by the way, and yet he is not here;) Joseph Bonaparte, because he spent several years in Philadelphia and Bordentown; Chauteaubriand, because he traveled in this country during the French Revolution; Chatham and Burke, because they were our friends, and John Byron, the grandfather of the poet, whose misfortunes the poet has celebrated in two well known couplets, because he was wrecked on Cape Horn and became Governor of Newfoundland.

Among the sketches of famous persons in the volume and among the leading contributors may be named the following: “George Bancroft,” by S. Austin Allibone; “Chester A. Arthur,” by William E. Chandler; “James Buchanan,” by George Ticknor Curtis; “John Adams,” “John Quincy Adams,” and “Benedict Arnold,” by John Fiske; “John Brown,” by T. W. Higginson; “Thomas Crawford,” by Julia Ward Howe; “Henry Clay,” by Carl Schurz; “James G. Blaine,” by Charles Emory Smith; “William Cullen Bryant,” by R. H. Stoddard; “Joel Barlow,” by Charles Burr Todd; “John C. Calhoun,” by J. Randolph Tucker; “James A. Bayard” and “Christopher Columbus,” by James Grant Wilson; “Edwin Booth,” “John Brougham,” and “William E. Burton,” by William Winter, and articles on South and Central Americans by Dr. Juan G. Puron, to whom much of the satisfactory work in that department is doubtlessly to be attributed. None of the articles are signed either with names or with initials. The clue to authorship is obtained, when obtained at all, through a list of contributors, and their contributions arranged alphabetically as to contributors, a rather inconvenient method, it is to be said, since the finding of the author of a particular sketch often involves a voyage of discovery through the entire list. This list will be searched in vain, however, for the authors of many sketches, including the one of President Cleveland. Mr. Smith's biography of Blaine is a skillful production, and likely to prove satisfactory to the followers of the gentleman from Maine. The Mulligan letters episode is managed with considerable discretion. It is introduced as an event of the Spring and Summer of 1876, and is allowed no place in the more weighty proceedings of the Summer and Fall of 1884. After giving the facts of the nomination in 1884 the writer says:

The canvass that followed was one of peculiar bitterness. Mr. Blaine took the stump in Ohio, Indiana, New-York, and other States, and in a series of remarkable speeches, chiefly devoted to the policy of protection to American industry, deepened the popular impression of his intellectual power. The election turned upon the result in New-York, which was lost to Mr. Blaine by 1,047 votes, whereupon he promptly resumed the work upon his history, which had been interrupted by the canvass.”

Can the reader of this paragraph deny to Mr. Smith the possession of an astute mind? How well he knows what to say and what not to say — especially what not to say. There is nothing here about the Mulligan letters, nothing about the mugwumps, nothing about the temperance vote, nothing about the majority against Blaine of 37 in the Electoral College and of 62,000 in the popular vote. The canvass was simply one of “peculiar bitterness,” and the result simply “turned upon the result in New-York,” and it is also to be noted how carefully it is stated that work on the history was “promptly resumed” after it had been “interrupted.”


This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published before January 1, 1923. It may be copyrighted outside the U.S. (see Help:Public domain).