Saturday, February 11, 2012

Pick a Year--Any Year

[Spoiler alert: you won't hear about baseball until a little paragraph near the end.]

This started as a passing discussion during the monthly card game last week. Ron posed the question: in what year were the largest number of influential history figures alive? The terms were defined loosely, i.e. the person didn't have to be at the peak of importance or even doing anything at all; he or she could be a baby or on his/her deathbed, as long as they were alive in that year. "Influential" was a catch-all word for any person who figured out something important, or the most famous, or big names in their specific fields, or anyone who presence on the list would instantly improve it.

Ron had a year in mind, and Mark and I jumped at the question. Mark thought it would have to be in the 1940s, and my quick response was 1869. That was the year War and Peace was published, so I could build my roster around Tolstoy if nobody else. We discussed it a little bit and said we'd investigate, come up with a definite year, and see whose list was better.

I found a couple of good sources: a wonderful book by Bernard Grun titled The Timetables of History, and an online listing of who was born and died in each year. I got about 150 names from the former, and 100 or so from the latter, and am presently armed with a list of 264 people who were alive in the year I chose. I didn't include many world leaders--no Popes, no royalty except Queen Victoria, and no presidents except those who were important in other areas, like Teddy Roosevelt and Ulysses Grant. Suffice it to say that everyone who was president from Andrew Johnson through Hoover was alive in my year.

I was hoping to have Abraham Lincoln on my list, but couldn't quite manage it. To roll back my year to 1865 would eliminate too many important people born between then and 1869, including Frank Lloyd Wright, Marie Curie, Mohandas Gandhi, and Henri Matisse. So I turned Lincoln loose and even a couple of other important people to settle on 1869. That was before I got online and found out how many really big names arrived on the scene in the early 1870s. Once I looked into that, 1869 was gone, and the only question was where I would draw the line. That turned out to be 1874, a year in which an extraordinary number of enduring figures were born: Churchill, Frost, Maugham, Marconi, Houdini, and Honus Wagner are only six of the 15 I found. There were some people I regretted losing along the way, including Dickens (died in 1870), John Stuart Mill (1873), Samuel Morse (1872), Robert E. Lee (1870), and Dr. Livingstone (1873), but for sheer volume I had to stake my claim with 1874.

Let's start with my Very Big 25, a difficult task of narrowing down greater possibilities. If I wanted to choose an important business tycoon who helped the U.S. expand and connect, should I go with Rockefeller, Carnegie, Vanderbilt, or J. P. Morgan? After much power-drilling and explosives work (a la Gutzon Borglum, who was alive that year), here is a 25-figure Mount Rushmore from 1874:

ORVILLE & WILBUR WRIGHT (counts as one)

As I throw more names at you, you'll see how tough it was to pick a featured 25. The other years in consideration also have formidable Top 25 contenders. Mark has worked his way backward from the 1940s and is leaning toward the early 1930s instead, giving up Elvis to add Edison and Curie. His big stars include Einstein, Freud, Jung, Heisenberg, Tesla, Stalin, Hitler, Mao, Gandhi, Picasso, Dali, Edmund Hillary, Martin Luther King, all the movie pioneers, and legendary athletes like Babe Ruth, Bobby Jones, and Joe Louis.

Ron went in the other direction, first naming 1777 as his year. He conceded that it was weak in some areas and might lack depth, but he liked his starting lineup: Washington, Jefferson, Franklin, and other founding fathers, Napoleon, Mozart, Beethoven, Goethe, Adam Smith, Samuel Johnson, Jenner, Austen, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Voltaire, Rousseau, Lavoisier, Watt, Kant, Gauss, and so on.

Those are worthy all-stars, but it's time to trot out the whole 1874 roster, like a college football squad at a big home game, with all the freshmen and red-shirts in uniform, even the youngest recruits. How can you possibly beat all of them?

Let's start with writers--with American novelists: in addition to Twain, we have (most of the following lists will be in alphabetical order) Louisa May Alcott, Horatio Alger, Willa Cather, Stephen Crane, Theodore Dreiser, Henry James, Herman Melville, Gertrude Stein, and Harriet Beecher Stowe. How about some American poets? There are Whitman and Frost, along with William Cullen Bryant, Emily Dickinson, Emma Lazarus, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, and John Greenleaf Whittier. Oh yeah--don't leave out O'Henry and Ambrose Bierce.

I've only mentioned Maugham in passing, but there's an impressive portrait gallery of fiction writers from the United Kingdom: Lewis Carroll, Joseph Conrad, George Eliot, Thomas Hardy, Rudyard, Kipling, Robert Louis Stephenson, Bram Stoker, and H. G. Wells. Other British literary figures alive in 1874 included Arthur Conan Doyle, Thomas Carlyle, Lord Tennyson, Matthew Arnold, Beatrix Potter, William Butler Yeats, and Robert Browning.

With Yeats, we move over to Ireland, which contributes an impressive quartet to the squad: George Bernard Shaw, Oscar Wilde, J. M. Synge, and Charles Stewart Parnell. Now we have playwrights involved, which adds Henrik Ibsen, August Strindberg, and Anton Chekhov, the landmark theater figures in their respective countries. Other theater biggies include Sarah Bernhardt, Luigi Pirandello, and Konstantin Stanislavsky, the man who wrote the book on acting.

We're not even done with literature yet. We can't omit the other European literary giants from 1874, especially the French sextet: Gustave Flaubert, Victor Hugo, Marcel Proust, George Sand, Jules Verne, and Emil Zola. For Russians besides Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, and Chekhov, we have Ivan Turgenev and Maxim Gorky. To finish off literature, we turn to Hans Christian Andersen.

Next up: art. The Impressionist movement was just starting in 1874, so we have a pantheon of big names there: Van Gogh, Renoir, Claude Monet, Edgar Degas, Edouard Manet, Paul Gaughin, Georges Seurat, Auguste Rodin, and Paul Cezanne. For Americans, try Mary Cassatt, Winslow Homer, James Whistler, Frederic Remington, Charles M. Russell, and Grandma Moses. Other notable artists alive in 1874 were Piet Mondrian, Gustave Courbet, Edvard Munch, Vassili Kandinsky, and Antoni Gaudi, the weird genius of Barcelona.

If music be the food of love, list on. Or at least start with Franz Liszt. In addition to Tchaikovsky and Wagner, this rich ensemble includes Johann Strauss, Johannes Brahms, Anton Dvorak, Edvard Grieg, Harold Schonberg, Gustave Mahler, Ignace Paderewski, Claude Debussy, Arturo Toscanini, Jean Sibelius, Giuseppi Verdi, Giacomo Puccini, Alexander Scriabin, Modest Mussorgsky, and last but certainly not least, Sergei Rachmaninoff. Care for more popular, less classical music? Okay, you can listen to Enrico Caruso or Jenny Lind, go to a show by Gilbert and Sullivan, march to a John Philip Sousa tune, or sample the innovative styles of Scott Joplin and W. C. Handy.

Science is a huge category. Any year from the first half of the 20th century will be loaded with scientists, but for my money most of them built on the discoveries made by the people on my 1874 list. These were the guys who have units of scientific measure named after them, like Lord Kelvin, James Joule, Anders Angstrom, and Heinrich Hertz. Robert Bunsen and Alfred Nobel were still around, and literally dozens of people were alive who would later win a Nobel Prize for scientific work. We'll skip that whole list (along with Pulitzer Prize winners, noting merely that Pulitzer was alive), and stick to the most important scientists who were alive in 1874: besides Darwin, Freud, Pasteur, and Rutherford, I give you Max Planck, Nicola Tesla, Robert Millikan, Joseph Lister, Robert Maxwell, Gregor Mendel, Dmitri Mendeleyev, Henri Poincare, Pierre Curie, Alfred Adler, Luther Burbank, George Washington Carver, Paul Ehrlich, Robert Koch, George Cantor, John Venn (Venn diagrams!), William James, and, finally, lest you find your appetite waning, Ivan Pavlov.

I'm partial to explorers, and there are several kinds represented here. First are the archeologists, with two huge names alive in 1874: Howard Carter, who found King Tut, and Heinrich Schliemann, who may have found Troy. Though Africa explorer Dr. Livingstone died in 1873, his follower, Henry Stanley, was still alive. So were all the big polar explorers: Robert Peary, Robert Scott, Ernest Shackleton, Roald Amundsen, and Matthew Henson. Throw in John Wesley Powell, the great explorer of the Colorado River, John C. Fremont, who did the same for California, and John Muir, the champion of the national park system, and you have the greatest group of explorers since the 1700s. Ferdinand de Lesseps made it easier for them by designing the building the Suez Canal, and Thomas Cook came along to offer the package deals that created the tourism industry.

That brings up a world of its own that was in its heyday in 1874: the Wild West. I have 18 legendary names under that heading, grouped as outlaws, lawmen, and Indian chiefs. Can any group of chiefs top this quintet: Geronimo, Cochise, Chief Joseph, Sitting Bull, and Crazy Horse? It's a wonder that George Custer lasted until 1876! Lawmen include Wyatt and Virgil Earp, Doc Holliday, and Bat Masterson (who later wound up as a boxing writer in New York). They chased after the likes of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Jesse James, Wild Bill Hickok, and Billy the Kid. Also adding flavor to those parts in those times were Lillian Russell, Calamity Jane, Buffalo Bill Cody, and Annie Oakley.

Of course, 1874 was a time when the United States was growing exponentially in all directions. Most of all, as the nation recovered from the Civil War, railroads were the first step in stretching the limits of American adventure and enterprise. Business and industry boomed over the next several decades, and many of the people who pioneered and fostered areas of growth were alive in that year. I've already mentioned some of the big money people--Rockefeller, Carnegie, Morgan, and Vanderbilt--but left out Rockefeller Jr., William Randolph Hearst, and Andrew Mellon, among others.

Next up are the men who created companies which are still around and which define their products, including Levi Strauss, F. W. Woolworth, Oscar Meyer, Louis Vuitton, Louis Tiffany, Domenico Ghirardelli, John Cadbury, George Pullman, Karl Faberge, Isaac Singer, John Deere, Milton Bradley, George Westinghouse, Karl Benz, and F.A.O. Schwartz. The inventors belong in here, too, like Henry Bessemer, George Eastman, Guglielmo Marconi, Louis Lumiere, and Cyrus McCormick. Where would we be without them?

True to form, I have avoided politics and world events, but now it's time to acknowledge the other significant historical figures besides Gandhi, Lenin, and Churchill who were alive in 1874: Benjamin Disraeli, William Gladstone, Otto von Bismarck, Sun Yat-Sen, Cecil Rhodes, Jefferson Davis, Cordell Hull, Elihu Root, Lloyd George, Mikael Bakunin, Giuseppe Garibaldi, William Jennings Bryan, Rasputin, Chaim Weizmann, and William Howard Taft. Two other Supreme Court justices of note were Oliver Wendell Holmes and Louis Brandeis. Facing them would be the ubiquitous Clarence Darrow.

We need to have a worthy list of the famous women who were alive in 1874, and there is no difficulty in assembling such a list. In addition to Marie Curie,writers, and other women already named, it includes Susan B. Anthony, Florence Nightingale, Harriet Tubman, Julia Ward Howe, Jane Addams, Mother Jones, Lucretia Mott, Carrie Nation, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Clara Barton, and Sojourner Truth. Note the common theme: people who dedicated themselves to improving the lives of others.

Time out on the field to fill out a roster of baseball pioneers and early great players who were alive in 1874. Buck Ewing can catch, with Cap Anson at first base, Nap Lajoie at second, George Wright at shortstop, and John McGraw at third. Honus Wagner can cover half the outfield, with King Kelly and Harry Wright covering the other half. Albert Spalding and Cy Young would head the pitching staff, the impressive squad would be managed by Connie Mack, and we'd have daily reports and analysis in the newspaper by Henry Chadwick.

If you think I've been piling it on, complain to the football guys: Pop Warner and Amos Alonzo Stagg. As for laying it on a bit thick, I've been saving Phineas Taylor Barnum for you, the man who can keep you interested in the sideshow of remaining 1874 figures. Over in the corner, where they won't bother anybody, are a few philosophers: Emerson, Friedrich Nietzsche, Henri Bergson, and Bertrand Russell. Nearby are abolitionists William Lloyd Garrison and Frederick Douglass. Seeing how things work are Henry Ford and Thomas Watson (IBM founder). The trio with the baffled expressions are French: Frederic Bartholdi, who gave us the Statue of Liberty; Gustave Eiffel, who gave us the idea for the erector set; and Georges Escoffier, who gave us modern French cooking. Wandering the Pacific Ocean are Father Damien and Admiral Dewey, on quite different missions. Lurking somewhere is Brigham Young.

I think that's all of them. As I noted at the outset, the majority of these people were not in their "prime" in 1874. What were the most important things that actually happened that year? There was the first exhibit of Impressionist paintings; Disraeli became Prime Minister; the Paris Opera house was completed; Hardy's Far From the Madding Crowd was published; streptococci and staphylococci were discovered; and that's about it. The year itself was fairly uneventful, but it marked the crossroads of an extraordinarily diverse deluge of people who influenced not only their own time but also our enduring understanding of the world around us.

Maybe there's another year out there that is more prolific. I'm curious about the early 1820s, before Beethoven and the Romantic poets exited the scene. It would stand to reason that a more current year might be a candidate, since there are so many more people, innovations appear almost continuously, and the whole world knows what is going on. Perhaps the all-time year is 2012 but we won't live long enough to appreciate it. (I'm betting the "don't" on that proposition.) Try to beat 1874 if you can. Even if you can't, it will be fun to see which people were alive at the same time. Woody Allen built a charming film on that premise in "Midnight in Paris," and we can learn from the lesson that every time has its own appealing array of famous figures.


R. J. Lesch, Ames IA said...

Interesting and thought-provoking. Initially provoked thoughts follow:

1. There should be some clarification of what is meant by "important". By a narrow definition, one could exclude sports and arts figures, for example, and limit the list to people whose lives truly impacted millions. That would leave us with the Hitlers and Stalins of the world, which would be pretty sad. By too wide a definition of "impact", though, we'd have to include the Kardashians.

2. More recent years (the past century and a half) are going to have more names than earlier years, for three reasons. A) World population is much larger in later years. B) Communications improved to the point where a person's impact can be felt over a wider sphere -- not just one's town or country, but worldwide. C) As human knowledge and achievement has grown and subdivided into more and more specialties, there are more opportunities for an individual to be considered "important". A polymath like Franklin or Goethe is harder to find in the 19th century, and still rarer in the 20th. Had they been alive today, each might have specialized in one area, leaving three or four more spots open to additional important figures.

3. Having said that, it's hard to evaluate really recent years (the past four or five decades, say) because the histories of this time are not yet completely played out. I'd consider James Polk, for example, to be one of the five most influential U.S. Presidents ever, but I doubt anyone would have thought that in 1859. If the United States had not become a world power a century later, based in large part on the activities of the Polk administration, Polk would probably just be a curiosity today. Pick your own examples.

Thank you for the thought and effort you put into this exercise. I'm sure I'll be turning it around in my head for some time now, and I look forward to that pleasure.

cheeseblab said...

Great exercise, and a great list, if perhaps a little too orderly; I'd add a little anarchy w/ Emma Goldman (b. 1869). Also: glad to see John Wesley "Not Boog" Powell on the list.