The Dictionary of National Biography, Encyclodepias of the Great Plains and of the Second City, Joy Williams

By Benjamin Schwarz

December 2004 ATLANTIC

the_ONB_295Three great university presses have each issued a long-awaited and immense reference work. The sixty-volume (!) Oxford Dictionary of National Biography is the most important of these. In fact it will surely be one of the great publishing achievements of this century. The original DNB, the first volume of which was published in 1884, was a monument to the scope, depth, and wit of late-Victorian learning, and (often) to English prose style. Its first editor, Leslie Stephen (the very model of the English man of letters, a self-described “considerate autocrat,” and the father of Virginia Woolf), injected an astringent tone into many of the DNB‘s often stylish histories of the significant or merely noteworthy figures—generals, admirals, statesmen, writers, artists, scientists, scholars, royalty, and (mostly) clergymen—in Britain’s past (he believed, he said, in the “real value of good, sweeping, outrageous cynicism”). The editors of this entirely new edition have retained the best features of the original, and they’ve accomplished the extraordinary: their work, on nearly every level, outshines its predecessor. All 38,600 persons covered in the original have kept their places (though 70 percent of their biographies were entirely rewritten, and the rest substantially revised and expanded). And the editors have added 16,300 new ones. These include Americans born before independence (the Founding Fathers among them) and foreigners who spent a significant period of time in, or made important observations on, Britain; Eric Hobsbawm’s 8,700-word article on Karl Marx is now by far the most incisive introduction to that gloomy revolutionary, “known from student days to his intimates as Mohr (the Moor).” The new DNB‘s temporal range goes back to Piltdown Man (whose entry begins, “Archaeological hoax, never really existed”); its imaginative sweep extends to John Bull and Britannia (and also to King Arthur and Robin Hood, who were included in the original). More important, it isn’t (in the words of one of its editors) “merely a roll-call of the great and the good” but also “a gallimaufry of the eccentric and the bad”—here are soothsayers, thieves, hangmen, and impostors. The tone is usually dry and often witty; I’ve had more fun with this book (I’ve read whatstephen_leslie-19780420016R.2_png_380x600_crop_q85 amounts to a minuscule sample, about 900 pages) than with almost any other I can remember. To be sure, the first aim of the DNB is to be authoritative, and it pays a price in fulfilling that purpose. The recognized (and predictable) experts on their subjects, mainly academics, have written most of the entries—which means, inevitably, a certain number of conventional and workmanlike biographies. But the writing is always clear, frequently graceful, and more than occasionally sharp. Of the tens of thousands of entries, hundreds are masterpieces of pen portraiture, a literary art at which the British since at least John Aubrey have excelled. Many of the often lengthy articles (the one devoted to J. S. Mill is more than 21,500 words, the great and sassy Foreign Secretary and Prime Minister Lord Salisbury’s 15,600, and George Eliot’s 13,800), which assess not only the career but also the private life, character, work, and posthumous reputation of a subject, resemble—in fact, are—gemlike biographies rather than dictionary entries. The best achieve complexity and nuance but utterly lack superfluity. Costing $13,000 and taking up twelve feet of shelf space, these volumes exceed the budgets and storage capacities of nearly all private book buyers. But a subscription to the online version costs $295 annually. It’s much easier to handle than the print version, allows readers to search in various imaginative ways, including by theme (every British saint, every Foreign Secretary), and—an important bonus—contains every article from the original edition. But you do lose one of the great pleasures of this work, which is the serendipitous discovery that comes from leisurely browsing. A publisher responsible for this tour de force and the Oxford English Dictionary is doing God’s work.

kansas-prairie_1030_990x742The Encyclopedia of the Great Plains, edited by David J. Wishart (Nebraska), dissects nearly every aspect of the region but is especially strong on Native American history and warfare (refreshingly, stressing competition and conflict among the tribes) and on perhaps the Plains’ most characteristic features: weather and physical environment (Wishart is a geographer). But the 919-page book suffers from a clumsy and somewhat PC organizational scheme. In an effort to “emphasize the contributions” of hitherto “overlooked” groups, the editor has eschewed a straight A-to-Z structure in favor of thematic chapters containing alphabetically arranged entries (the same choppy organization mars the otherwise excellent 1989 Encyclopedia of Southern Culture). The result is that Langston Hughes and Gwendolyn Brooks are discussed in the “African Americans” chapter, but Ralph Ellison is covered in “Literary Traditions.” (I was happy to see that Willa Cather also made it into “Literary Traditions,” but I first looked for her, as probably the finest lesbian American novelist, in the “Gender” chapter, where her fellow Nebraskan novelist Kate M. Cleary ismap10 listed.) Charlie Parker’s entry is in “Music,” but two other black jazz saxophonists, Ornette Coleman and King Curtis, are in “African Americans” (the need for this chapter is itself somewhat unclear, since the encyclopedia notes that “viewed at the national scale, the Great Plains, along with the intermontane West, have the lowest populations of African Americans”; the same is true for Asian-Americans, another group granted its own chapter). And what’s Charlie Parker doing here at all? He was born in Kansas City, Kansas, which according to the encyclopedia’s criteria is (just barely) in the region, but he moved at seven to Kansas City, Missouri, which the encyclopedia excludes from the Great Plains. Place of birth, it seems, is sometimes enough to be given an entry: what else could explain Demi Moore’s inclusion? She was born in Roswell, New Mexico, but moved more than thirty times before settling in West Hollywood at age thirteen. (There’s no excuse for including Moore in the “Film” chapter but omitting James Garner, an actor who has always identified himself as an Oklahoman—he was born in Norman—and who is the embodiment of the decent, easygoing plainsman. On the other hand, that chapter correctly avers that Terrence Malick’s Days of Heaven “is perhaps the most … beautiful depiction of the Great Plains ever created on film.”)

The weather on the Great Plains is probably the most violent and extreme on earth. It shapes the lives and outlook of the region’s inhabitants in myriad and subtle ways, and the disasters it has spawned have entered folk memory. The most haunting weather-related event remains the “School Children’s Storm” of 1888, which David Laskin recounts in The Children’s Blizzard (HarperCollins), a terrifying and often vivid if somewhat padded chronicle. The morning of January 12, 1888, was unusually warm on the Plains, and children across the region went off to their rural schoolhouses without coats and gloves. But later that day one of the most devastating blizzards in history struck the region without warning. The temperature fell schoolhouse-blizzard-thumb-420x240eighteen degrees in three minutes and kept dropping, quickly reaching 40˚ below zero. Sixty-mile-an-hour winds carrying pulverized snow as fine as confectioner’s sugar blinded every creature on the prairie. Teachers and their charges faced a terrible choice: remain indefinitely in the schoolhouses (many of which had their doors and roofs blown off), with insufficient fuel, or try to get home. Most chose the latter course. Many became lost as they struggled over often astonishingly short distances to safety. By the following morning thousands of farm animals and 250 to 500 people, mostly children, were dead—many of them literally yards from shelter. Laskin skillfully weaves together a clear report and explanation of the meteorological event (the word “blizzard,” by the way, originated on the Plains) with harrowing accounts of slow death, loss, and survival—which contain the usual mixture of heroism and cowardice, altruism and selfishness, fecklessness and pluck. This book and O. E. Rolvaag’s Giants in the Earthshould be read by anyone wishing to fathom the terrible cost of settling that desolate, dangerous, and beautiful land.

I approached The Encyclopedia of Chicago, edited by James R. Grossman, Ann Durkin Keating, and Janice L. Reiff (Chicago), with trepidation. Urban history has for some time been in academic vogue, and although this has produced a number of important books, some of which have examined Chicago (William Cronon’s Nature’s Metropolis foremost among them), it has alsoMonadnock Building engendered more than its share of silly, trendy, and jargon-clotted scholarship with a flair for the obvious. I was further put off by the introduction, in which—in that self-conscious combination of academese and the colloquial of which professors are now so fond—the editors explain that the book “is a mapping of Chicago’s geographic turf, complemented by a comparable cartography of boundaries that are more conceptual and topical than spatial.” But the writing in this unusually handsome and functional 1,104-page volume ranges from clear if pedestrian to pithy and clever, and in fact the editors have brilliantly met the greatest challenge that such a project presents: reconciling depth and breadth. The span of subjects—from Uruguayans in Chicago to crime to the deep tunnel system—is nearly comprehensive (I wish, though, that the entry on clubs had included, along with ethnic clubs and the Odd Fellows, the elites’ Chicago, Standard, and Union League Clubs—in which, after all, many of the decisions that have affected the city’s and the country’s economy were made). More important, the editors smartly chose “‘forests’ over ‘trees'” for entries: the encyclopedia contains dozens of uniformly concise, intelligent, analytical essays (from 1,000 to 4,000 words) on subjects ranging from commercial banking to architecture (there are also separate essays on city planning, housing types, and the “built environment”), along with twenty-one interpretive essays that synthesize and explicate the current state of scholarship in such narrow but fecund areas as environmental politics and the history of Chicago-based sociology. Some entries, like that for the University of Chicago, fail to put their subjects in a sufficient national and international context. And although the encyclopedia covers all seventy-seven Chicago community areas (in addition to thirty-three neighborhoods), and all 298 incorporated municipalities in the greater metropolitan area, too many of these entries lack subjective description and sociological background; readers will learn that Hinsdale is a commuter town, for instance, but not what sort of commuters it has attracted over time, or the ways in which it differs from such municipalities as Marshall_Field_Warehouse_StoreWestern Springs and Morris. (The editors note the anemic state of scholarship on the suburbs from which contributors could draw; most of these entries required research in primary sources.) But despite the editors’ opaque declaration that “the maps … seek to communicate vital features of the urban community’s embeddedness in physical space and the unique configurations of place that this has produced over time,” the many maps here (most of which were created for the encyclopedia) enormously widen and deepen the discussion presented in the text. At once highly analytical and exceptionally comprehensible, they’re the most illuminating and provocative that I’ve encountered in a single book.

Although hardly a boosterish celebration (academics never boost), the encyclopedia reveals Chicago to be a rich, fascinating, and economically, culturally, and intellectually vibrant city. Readers wouldn’t suspect that from the recent re-issue of Chicago, by A. J. Liebling (Nebraska). Liebling wrote many fine pieces, but this thin (in both senses of the word) and angry book (one suspects he suffered some awful humiliation in the Second City), taken from a series of articles he wrote for The New Yorker during his nearly year-long stay in the city in 1949 and 1950, exemplifies the worst kind of Manhattanite’s sneering parochialism and willful ignorance of the lands beyond the Hudson.


Honored Guest, by Joy Williams (Knopf). This beautiful but unsettling book is Williams’s first collection of stories in fourteen years. Set from Maine to Arizona to Guatemala, these tales of broken, sometimes stoic, often erratic people almost all circle around loss. (In the bleak and touching title piece, among the best American short stories of the past two decades, a mother and her precocious, devoted teenage daughter vacillate between terror and annoyance, tenderness and fury, as they wait for the mother slowly to die.) On various levels Williams jolts and jars the reader. She punctuates her stark, sad tales with a sly, mordant wit. Death visits without forewarning, violence erupts without provocation (that violence is often directed at animals; Williams is exquisitely sensitive to the casual cruelty as well as the premeditated savagery that human beings inflict on them). A supremely controlled writer, she narrates her off-kilter stories (one of which appeared in this magazine) in a flat, perfectly modulated voice, deploying startling yet precise diction and smoothly rapid, almost cinematic transitions. Williams is, as her champions claim, the heir to Flannery O’Connor—but she’s also among the most original fiction writers at work today.


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