The Cyclopædia of American Biography/Introduction

The Cyclopædia of American Biography
James E. Homans, editor
Introduction to the Eighth Volume


When The Cyclopædia of American Biography was completed by the publication of the sixth volume, it was the most extended and most perfect work of its kind that ever had been made in America. It was the product of expert editors with a specially chosen and carefully trained staff of writers, backed by one of the oldest and most liberal publishing-houses in the country. Every source of authentic information — printed, manuscript, or oral — was laid under contribution. Every subject treated was shown at his best, with mention of his most interesting and most significant work, but with no taint of fulsome eulogy — nothing extenuated, nothing set down in malice. Every page was made up of honest work; every square inch was carefully edited.

But any book of reference is impaired by age — not because it becomes untrue, but because the world moves continually. The schoolboy of yesterday is the vigorous man of to-day, and may be the gray-haired sage of to-morrow. The youth who drives a team on the towpath may become President, and the newsboy in the train may turn out to be the greatest inventor of the age. One man passes into history, and another springs into prominence. There comes a time when it seems as if art, literature, statesmanship and economic invention had arrived at their zenith, and there is nothing to do but close the record and bind up the work. Then pessimistic critics talk complacently about degeneracy and the “twilight of the gods.” But suddenly a new genius arises, and creates a new school; or there is a scientific or economic development that calls for new energies, and the new energies are forthcoming, and it seems as if a greater sun had risen upon the earth. The electric telegraph appeared to be the ultimate thing for transmission of intelligence, until the telephone came, and after that the wireless. Tennyson's vision of “the nations' airy navies grappling in the central blue” was only a poet's dream till the astronomer Langley and the Wright brothers made it a possibility, and the great war in Europe made it a reality.

The cardinal principles of any science remain unchanged, while the discoveries and materials with which it must work are new. As with the original volumes, so in preparing the new volumes of this work the same general course has been followed — the same careful choice of writers, the same wide but discriminating search for subjects, the same nice scrutiny of all the work. One strong feature of the original volumes was recognition of the fact that the Americans are the most inventive people that ever lived, and their notable and successful inventions outnumber those of all other nations together. In view of this, the editors of that work took especial pains to record the lives and achievements of American inventors. In all earlier works of the kind, while statesmen, clergymen, authors and artists had been looked after, inventors had been neglected.

Similarly to that, the editors of the Seventh and Eighth volumes have recognized the fact that ours is the richest and most powerful nation on the globe, and have also recognized the fact that it has been made so largely by our oaptains of industry and other foremost men of business. These, therefore, are well represented; so that when one looks upon our evidences of prosperity and asks: “Who brought this about?” these volumes will answer his question. How much and how rapidly events have moved may be comprehended if but a few names are recalled of men and women who were not mentioned in the six volumes, but have since risen to such eminence that no such work can now omit them. These include: Presidents and vice-presidents of the United States; numerous governors of states who have risen to national prominence; several now noted statesmen and former candidates for the Presidency; numerous army and navy officers, whose names are now constantly before the public; several prelates already historic for their good works; great scientists, inventors, captains of industry, authors, artists and men of affairs.

These later volumes are enriched with an unusual number of excellent portraits; so that the reader may not only learn of a distinguished man's achievements but meet him face-to-face and exercise whatever he possesses of the art of physiognomy.