Publication Date

March 1, 1999

Perspectives Section


More than a decade in the making, the 24-volume American National Biography (ANB) has just been published by Oxford University Press under the auspices of the American Council of Learned Societies (ACLS). In its 23,000 pages and 20 million words, this encyclopaedic, definitive reference work contains 17,450 signed biographies by 6,143 contributors.

Under the general editorship of John A. Garraty, Gouverneur Morris Professor Emeritus of history at Columbia University, and Mark C. Carnes, professor of history at Barnard College, Columbia University, a 13-member editorial board worked with 17 senior editors and nearly 200 associate editors, as well as a small army of copyeditors, proofreaders, factcheckers, and interns, to produce the ANB.

The ANB had its origins in the decision by the ACLS—following proposals from Stanley N. Katz and John A. Garraty—in the early 1980s to publish a new biographical dictionary to replace the 20-volume Dictionary of American Biography that had been published between 1927 and 1936 (with supplemental volumes to 1980) but never revised.

The 24 volumes contain illuminating biographies not only of the famous but also of lesser-known but nevertheless significant individuals. Moving away from the traditional views of history as being political, diplomatic, and military history, and embracing perspectives provided by new social history, the ANB captures a wide range of lives—abolitionists, capitalists, cartoonists, suffragettes, scientists, and vaudeville artists.

The biographies were designed to be read for pleasure as well as information, and contributors were encouraged to bring their own points of view to the portraits. Thus, the biographer—whether Eric Foner on Thomas Paine, Nell Irvin Painter on Sojourner Truth, Arthur Schlesinger Jr. on Adlai Stevenson, James McPherson on Lincoln, or John Hope Franklin on George Washington Williams—all bring their scholarship and erudition into the making of illuminating portraits of their subjects.

The reader, researcher, or those merely browsing are helped by bibliographies at the end of each entry and five comprehensive indexes that categorize the contents by occupations and realms of renown, by place of birth in the United States, by place of birth outside the United States, by subject entry, and by contributor.

John H. D'Arms, president of the ACLS, stated in the foreword to the ANB that “the publication of the American National Biography powerfully demonstrates the close connection between historical and humanistic scholarship and our larger public life.”

The ANB was prepared with funding from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the Rockefeller Foundation.

Center for American Biography Established

In connection with the ANB project, and to continue its work, the ACLS and OUP have established a Center for American Biography. The center, which will have an editor and advisers, will enable continuing revisions to the ANB.

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