Who doesn’t love a list? From the “begat” lists of the Bible to the autobiographical lists of modern memoirist Joe Brainard, from the cuneiform inventory tablets of Babylon to a January full of “ten bests,” the list is a venerable, flexible, intriguing literary form. It immediately poses questions: Who or what’s on and off? Does the order matter? What’s the significance of this grouping? And those questions provoke debate.
Peter Dreier, the E.P. Clapp Distinguished Professor of Politics at Occidental College and an equally distinguished policy wonk, journalist, and activist, has produced a list that is guaranteed to agitate many potential readers: The 100 Greatest Americans of the 20th Century. The book has been greatly expanded from an earlier article in the Nation.
To give a clue about who qualifies as a “great American,” Dreier’s catalogue of 100 outstanding figures does not include John Wayne or Ronald Reagan, not even Dwight Eisenhower. But it does include some widely recognized names—such as Walter Reuther, both Theodore and Franklin Roosevelt, Helen Keller, and Ralph Nader—and some more obscure—such as Myles Horton, Rose Schneiderman, Virginia Durr, Harry Hay, and Victor Berger (respectively, the founder of the Highlander School that trained civil rights and other movement organizers; an immigrant socialist organizer of garment workers; an influential southern white advocate of civil rights; the founder of the modern gay rights movement; and the first socialist elected to Congress).
If Dreier had titled his book “100 of the Most Influential or Noteworthy Progressive Voices of the 20th Century,” he would have been accurate but less provocative. But he wants to make a point: much of what we now take for granted as common sense was once espoused by people who were widely considered left-wing radicals. And their greatness—as Americans, among other identities—consists in large part of how they helped change this country and the world for the better.
Much of what we now take for granted as common sense was once espoused by people who were widely considered left-wing radicals.
It’s a theme recently developed, over a longer time span, by historian Michael Kazin (American Dreamers: How the Left Changed a Nation) and journalist John Nichols (The “S” Word: A Short History of an American Tradition…Socialism). Dreier’s compendium of short, sprightly, and informative biographies would be a valuable complement to either book (or any American history of the last century). But it stands on its own as a book that is both highly readable and scholarly in its careful use of primarily an abundance of biographies and other secondary sources. Even though Dreier has not written a conventional historical narrative, his list is chronological, and he links varied individuals and movements in ways that add a narrative flow. It’s a pleasure to read front to back, or to dip in for individual biographies of special interest.
One advantage—and disadvantage—of the list of biographies is that it develops personal stories, such as how Eugene V. Debs gradually became a socialist as a result of the efforts he made to organize railroad workers. But a focus on the individual tips the balance somewhat away from the influence of social circumstances and popular movements. These larger social forces can make the great man or woman, just as leaders can play a significant role in the development of movements—but Dreier takes pains to avoid the old “great man” explanation of history.
Indirectly, the list does reveal some important characteristics of the Left over the course of the twentieth century. For example, for roughly the first two-thirds of the list and the century, men and women associated with the labor movement in some way dominate. I include in this not only union organizers and leaders, like Big Bill Haywood or John L. Lewis, but also a wide range of politicians, intellectuals, and reformers who identified closely with the labor movement—Florence Kelley of Hull House, Roger Baldwin of the ACLU, muckraker Upton Sinclair, community organizer Saul Alinsky, and Dorothy Day of the Catholic Worker movement, to name a few.
But many of the more recent figures—Bruce Springsteen, Billie Jean King, Harvey Milk, or even Noam Chomsky—seem more distant from the union movement than non-union progressives earlier in the century, even if their hearts are with workers. This trend reflects the emergence of a more diverse and fragmented radicalism, some of it based in the “middle class,” as well as a decline in both the size and vitality of organized labor. But surprisingly, a very large share of the most important new campaigns and organizers of the early twenty-first century, in Dreier’s judgment, focus on labor issues and organizing, even if sometimes apart from unions. Could that be a harbinger of a labor-left revival?
One big question is whether Dreier made bad choices for his list, which seems less dependable the closer he gets to the present day and lacks the hindsight of history. Any other compiler would have a slightly different list, but with large overlap: I might have had fewer athletes than Dreier, but his call is perfectly defensible.
Although he personally leans towards the politics of European social democracy, Dreier uses a definition of “progressive” broad enough to include anarchists like Emma Goldman; communists like W.E.B. DuBois (at the end of his life); and black nationalists like Malcolm X. But he includes as well a president with a very mixed record—Lyndon Johnson, responsible for a big expansion of the New Deal at home and a big expansion of imperial war in Vietnam. The list includes political enemies or rivals, like Teddy Roosevelt, who ran against Debs for president. And like most people, his great Americans often had their political lapses (like Theodore Geisel, or Dr. Seuss, drawing unpleasant caricatures of Japanese during the Second World War) or may make the list mainly for one part of their career (as with Bob Dylan). While Dreier wants to make the case for the greatness of his selections, he draws generally balanced, unvarnished pictures of them.
Many teachers will find The 100 Greatest Americans of the 20th Century a great choice for both high school and college course reading lists. And even well-informed Dissent readers will enjoy arguing privately with Dreier about his choices while learning much about progressive figures of the past century, familiar and unfamiliar. But I hope the book also gets in the hands of many Americans with ill-defined or even conservative leanings. It could change the way they think about the country’s past and future.