Wednesday, November 22, 2006

100 Most Influential Americans?

The Atlantic Monthly* has published a list of the 100 Most Influential Americans, as voted upon by a panel of historians. Editor James Bennet says that the list is intended to stimulate debate, not serve as some sort of etched-in-stone last word on the subject. That's good, because while this is better than most lists of the sort (remember how Princess Diana somehow ended up on the Discovery Channel's list of the greatest people of the Millennium?) there are still plenty of things I'd change. Otis Hart makes some good points; I agree that while writers like Walt Whitman or William Faulkner may certainly warrant inclusion on a list of "Greatest Americans," it's difficult to argue that they're more influential than, say, Willis Carrier, whose invention of air conditioning has certainly done a lot to change our lives. It's difficult to imagine the growth of the South over the past few decades without it, and impossible to imagine the growth of Phoenix or Las Vegas without it. Speaking of writers, if you're going to include eight of them, where is Edgar Allan Poe?

Carrier is in the position of being both an inventor and a business leader, so we can at least point to him and say, "this is the man who brought us air conditioning." But who's responsible for the rise of television? Philo T. Farnsworth, who invented it? Vladimir Zworykin, who developed it into a practical consumer product at RCA? Or was it Milton Berle, who gave people something worth watching?

Similar questions can be asked in other fields. Is John F. Kennedy responsible for the space program? Who gets credit for the internet? The list credits Louis Sullivan as "the father of architectural modernism" and "the defining American building, the skyscraper," but how can he be in without Daniel Burnham, and is the skyscraper any less a defining American building than the single-family detached tract house? Who invented that? They were around for half a century before William Levitt took them into high gear. If P.T. Barnum is in there for making money off of suckers, how about Ray Kroc?

Another quibble - James K. Polk is the only person associated with the annexation of Texas to make the list. How about Sam Houston or Stephen Austin? Were pre-Revolution colonists disqualified? What about Native Americans? You could make good cases for Sequoyah, Sitting Bull, and some others.

A few other ideas: Samuel Brannan, for starting the Gold Rush. Thomas Merton, monk. Dorothy Day, activist. Joseph Glidden, who patented barbed wire. D.W. Griffith, who invented the language of film as we know it today. Oliver Winchester, rifle maker. Levi Strauss, whose clothes and their imitators are worn by everybody. Phil Knight of Nike. Various aviators beyond the Wright Brothers. Milton Friedman. Jane Jacobs. Glenn Seaborg. Luis Alvarez. Robert Moog. Les Paul. OK, some of those are stretching it. But they're worth mentioning.

*What's the deal with them referring to themselves as just The Atlantic, anyway? Are we all supposed to pretend that the "Monthly" that appears in their masthead is just some sort of graphical flourish that isn't actually part of the name of the magazine?

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