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Nonfiction Matters
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30 Greatest Americans?

Cobblestone’s Picks — and Ours

For their 30th anniversary, Cobblestone magazine decided to select its pick of the "30 greatest Americans" — defined as no longer living, and people whose most significant accomplishments took place here (in other words immigrant is fine, but Einstein becomes an also ran since he published his special and general theories of relativity when he was still living in Europe). Having recently worked on the Viking Up Close series of biographies which had a related focus — great Americans who kids would want to read about and are neither in the gossip headlines now nor so familiar they appear as sidebars in every textbook — I know how hard it is to make these selections — and how much fun. 
     I gnashed my teeth at some of the Cobblestone worthies, and had my own nominees to take their place. I won’t say which choices until some of you read the issue and weigh in. But in general I found their art, media, culture, sports choices odd. And I find it interesting that they did not include a single military figure other than Washington — who doesn’t really count — while they emphasized those who stood up for one kind of civil or human right or the other. All of those figures are certainly admirable — but I can’t help seeing that as a slant that is more purposeful than honest. And I think we turn off boys when we act as if people they look up to, and who embodied traits they admire, were not among the greatest Americans. 
  Of course they invite you to email your comments to them at but I’d like your thoughts here — if you had to pick 30 Greatest Americans — and using their rules — not alive, and best known for work done while being an American — whom would you pick, and why?


  1. Thirty is extremely difficult! I think one would run into the problem of finding a person to represent each great moment in history–I think that would be tempting. In fact, I find myself thinking “wait, so who am I going to choose for black civil rights; I only have thirty so I can’t choose MLK Jr AND Rosa Parks AND Malcolm X”. And then presidents… oh, presidents. I’m going to try to choose five from the arts area–that feels a little more do-able to me. How about this: Alfred Hitchcock, Cole Porter, Emily Dickinson, Mark Rothko, Hemingway.

    Even there, see what I’ve done there?–found myself choosing people to represent categories in the arts. And I’ve chosen four white men and one white woman, which doesn’t feel right to me. But neither would searching my mind for just the “right” people of color and women to include. (And I tried to put in Bob Dylan and then Pete Seeger, realizing each time that both men are still alive, but surely belong on this list.)

  2. as you see, it is hard — and leaving out living people cuts out, say, Toni Morrison, or, for that matter, Oprah. But soldier on, it is a fun excercise.

  3. When we were planning the issue at Cobblestone, everyone in the company was encouraged to submit a list of their own. I thought it might be interesting to see one Cobblestone person’s original list – mine.

    The rules hadn’t quite been worked out at the time, so a couple of my original suggestions are still alive. And it’s amazing how in looking back, how many disagreements I have with my *own* choices, both those I picked (James Brown?) and those I omitted (how can Orson Welles not be here!). But that’s what made it so fun.

    Anyway, for what it’s worth, my original 30 Greatest Americans:

    James Brown
    Andrew Carnegie
    Rachel Carson
    Cesar Chavez
    Emily Dickinson
    Thomas Edison
    Ella Fitzgerald
    Benjamin Franklin
    Bill Gates
    Thomas Jefferson
    Michael Jordan
    Martin Luther King, Jr.
    Abraham Lincoln
    Samuel Morse
    Jesse Owens
    Rosa Parks
    Edgar Alan Poe
    Jackson Pollack
    Cole Porter
    Elvis Presley
    Jackie Robinson
    Franklin Delano Roosevelt
    Jonas Salk
    Nikola Tesla
    Harriet Tubman
    Mark Twain
    George Washington
    Walt Whitman
    Frank Lloyd Wright

  4. that is a challenge — not fussing about your list, but coming up with our own. One obvious name who fits your bill but is missing is Walt Disney.