He who criticizes should have constructive ideas of his own. In an earlier post, I scoffed at the results of a survey of school-age kids conducted by Sam Wineburg, which yielded a list of Americans that had as much to do with misplaced political correctness as actual fame. (To see that dubious list, see my post.)
But if the kids in Wineburg’s survey didn’t really select the ten most famous persons in American history, who should be on such a list?
In that survey, reported in the Smithsonian, American presidents and first ladies were ineligible. Let’s stick with that: no presidents, no first ladies. But let me propose two lists, one for men, one for women.
Their claims to fame?
Benjamin Franklin. Catalyst of the American Revolution; for a time during his lifetime, the most famous person in the world. Invented the Franklin stove, bifocals, the lightning rod. Printer, scientist, politician, diplomat, writer. Poor Richard’s Almanack. Ben Franklin impersonators. Picture on the hundred-dollar bill.
Martin Luther King Jr. Catalyst of the American civil rights movement, which led to lasting changes in laws and racial attitudes. Gave one of history’s best-known speeches (“I have a dream”). National holiday named after him.
Babe Ruth. The biggest name in America’s national game. Larger-than-life personality. Could pitch nearly as well as he could hit. A bigger sports figure even than Mohammed Ali or Joe DiMaggio. Candy bar named after him.
Albert Einstein. Physicist and discoverer of theory of relativity, supposed to be comprehensible by fewer than a dozen people. Looked the part of a mad scientist, though he wasn’t one. A name synonymous with genius.
Mark Twain. Our greatest writer, creator of Tom Sawyer. Has the strongest claim of any author to having written the great American novel (Huckleberry Finn). Steamboat operator, humorist, lecturer, literary critic. Immensely popular during his lifetime. Mark Twain imitators.
Billy Graham. America’s best-known religious figure. Brought millions to faith in Jesus Christ at crusades around the world. Best-selling books. Prayed with presidents. Modest lifestyle, scandal-free life.
Elvis Presley. The King of Rock and Roll. “Jailhouse Rock,” “Love Me Tender,” “Suspicious Minds,” “Burning Love.” Star of B-movies. Las Vegas nightclub star. Legend cemented by early death. Graceland. Elvis impersonators.
Lewis & Clark. Captain Meriwether Lewis, Lieutenant William Clark, America’s best-known explorers. Paddled up the Missouri River, crossed the Rockies, reached the Atlantic. Couldn’t have made it without Shoshone guide and translator Sacagawea (picture on dollar coin).
Louis Armstrong. America’s greatest jazz musician. Ebullient personality, unmistakable style on voice and trumpet. “Hello Dolly.” The ubiquitous “What a Wonderful World.”
Charles Lindbergh. “Lucky Lindy.” Unprecedented celebrity from solo flight across the Atlantic in 1927. Baby boy kidnapped and murdered in the crime of the century. “Spirit of St. Louis” in the Smithsonian.
If the list went up to 20 famous American men, it might include (11) Thomas Alva Edison (inventor), (12) the Wright brothers (aviators), (13) Walt Disney (moviemaker), (14) Frank Sinatra (singer), (15) Henry Ford (automobile tycoon), (16) Muhammed Ali (boxing champion), (17) Robert E. Lee (general), (18) Daniel Webster (statesman), (19) John D. Rockefeller (oil tycoon and philanthropist), and (20) Ralph Waldo Emerson (writer and philosopher).
Candidates for an even longer list of famous American men might include Nathan Hale (Revolutionary War hero), Daniel Boone (pioneer), Bill Gates (Microsoft billionaire and philanthropist), John Wayne (actor), Winslow Homer (painter), Alexander Graham Bell (inventor), Robert Frost (poet), Douglas MacArthur (general), John Glenn (astronaut), Norman Rockwell (painter and illustrator), Frederick Douglass (abolitionist and editor); Henry David Thoreau (writer and philosopher), Henry Clay (statesman), Jack London (writer), William Penn (Quaker founder of Pennsylvania), Howard Hughes (billionaire), Houdini (magician), Norman Vincent Peale (clergyman and author), Ernest Hemingway (writer), F. Scott Fitzgerald (writer), Andy Warhol (painter), Walt Whitman (poet), Horace Greeley (newspaper editor), Billy Sunday (Protestant evangelist), John C. Calhoun (statesman), Neil Armstrong (astronaut).
Ten famous women:
1. Oprah Winfrey
2. Marilyn Monroe
4. Helen Keller
5. Emily Dickinson
6. Harriet Beecher Stowe
7. Susan B. Anthony
8. Betsy Ross
9. Edith Wharton
10. Amelia Earhart
Their claims to fame:
Marilyn Monroe. Actress, model. Posed for Playboy. Married Joe DiMaggio. Classic movies The Seven-Year Itch and Some Like It Hot. Elton John’s “Candle in the Wind.”
Pocohontas. Daughter of Powhatan chieftain. Saved Virginia colonists from starving, risked her own life to save John Smith’s. Married John Rolfe, died in England. Disney animated movie.
Helen Keller. Overcame dual disability. Author, suffragette, political activist. Academy award-winning “The Miracle Worker.”
Emily Dickinson. Relusive New England spinster, first-rate poet.
Because I could not stop for Death
He kindly stopped for me —
The Carriage held but just Ourselves —
Harriet Beecher Stowe. America’s single most effective enemy of slavery. History’s most influential novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin.
Susan B. Anthony. Suffragette, orator, abolitionist, temperance advocate. Convicted in Rochester for voting illegally (and caught because she imprudently mentioned in a letter to a friend that she’d voted a straight Republican ticket!). American’s most influential proponent of legal rights for women; responsible for eventual enactment of the Nineteenth Amendment. New bridge over the Genesee River in Rochester named after her and fellow Republican Frederick Douglass (known locally as the “Freddie-Sue”). Picture on dollar coin.
Betsy Ross. Fighting Quaker, Revolutionary War patriot. Reputed to have designed and made the stars-and-stripes flag, though she probably didn’t.
Edith Wharton. First-rate American novelist, landscape architect, war reporter. Authored The House of Mirth, The Age of Innocence. For every tenth grader, Ethan Frome.
Amelia Earhart. Pioneer woman aviator, feminist icon. First woman to fly the Atlantic solo. Disappeared in the Pacific trying to fly around the world.
Other famous women: Madonna (singer), Rosa Parks (civil rights catalyst), Lucille Ball (actress), Georgia O’Keefe (painter), Flannery O’Connor (writer), Aretha Franklin (singer), Sacagawea (Indian guide), Sandra Day O’Connor (Supreme Court Justice); Willa Cather (writer), Billie Jean King (tennis champion), Ida Tarbell (investigative journalist); Katharine Hepburn (actress), Harriet Tubman (hero of Underground Railroad); Carrie Nation (temperance crusader), Dorothy Parker (writer), Margaret Mead (anthropologist), Gertrude Stein (writer). Still more possible candidates are in the National Women’s Hall of Fame, mostly non-entertainers. Famous American women ineligible for our list, because they were wives of Presidents: Eleanor Roosevelt, Hillary Clinton, Abigail Adams.
Of course, being famous and deserving fame are different matters. These are famous people. Lists of men and women based strictly on merit and historical importance would be quite different.