| Turkish Delights
The Most Important Lists. Ever.
Pierre Tristam/Candide's Notebooks, December 6, 2006
I find immense pleasure in lists for two reasons. There’s the pleasure of a list in itself, of someone else’s hierarchy of rank judgments that scream subjectivity and irrelevance like no other combination in the genre: The one hundred greatest books, the ten worst presidents, the ten most important things to ignore today, the eighty-seven sexual positions best suited to fantasizing about in church or during meetings, to make the time pass faster (that one actually has redeeming values: it amplifies spirituality). Lists remind me of Turkish delights, or loukooms, we used to eat in Lebanon, those cubes of pure sugar and starch with negative nutritional value and overdrive lusciousness. Lists, A.S. Byatt wrote, “are a part of the way the human brain works, like floor-plans, and route-maps, like perhaps Euclidean figures. With lists we arrange both the past and the future in our minds. This is what I have read and remembered, these are the events in the mind which made me what I am. Also, this is what I need to know, and don’t know. This is what I intend to read, for pleasure or instruction. This is the order of importance of my intentions.” Then there’s the greater pleasure of demolishing the lists, finding fault, arguing why this over that, and — as always — debating over the merit and uselessness of lists. The last applies especially when I see Cheryl laboring, with such love and affection, over her daily list of tasks and goals, some of whose items are carry-overs from the last millennium and the Neolithic era of our relationship.
The end of the last millennium brought a flood of lists—the Modern Library’s top 100 non-fiction and fiction books of the century (Henry Adams’s “Education” and William James’s “Varieties of Religious Experiences” Were No. 1 and 2 in the first, “Ulysses” and “The Great Gatsby” topped the best novels list, unjustly to “Lolita,” which, in fourth place, should have switched place with Fitzgerald), Erica Jong did her women’s top 100 by way of survey (“Gone With the Wind” came in at No. 1, Anne Rice’s “Interview With the Vampire” at No. 2), the American Film Institute did the top 100 movies (“Citizen Kane,” “Casablanca,” “The Godfather”). There’s that perennial American favorite, the richest of all times. Kevin Phillips gave that one a try in his “Wealth and Democracy,” but the list was beyond ranking: There is no way to know whether the Inca emperor Atahualpa (1502-1533) was richer than Philip II (1527-1598) or John J. Astor (1763-1848) or Bill Gates, or that great French embezzler of the 17 th century, Nicholas Fouquet—only that they all belonged to that papal club of the obscenely rich. Then of course there are the mothers of all lists, Letterman’s nightly Top 10, with this gem from 1999: Top Ten Other Lists Kept by the FBI (including J. Edgar Hoover Dress and High-Heel Sizes, Guests Rosie O’Donnell Has Yelled At, and Mother-Daughter Stripper Guests Jerry Springer Has Slept With).
Ultimately lists in publishing are a marketing device, the cliché of grabbers. You won’t find any of those soft-porn slut-and-steak magazines for men and women (Cosmo, Men’s Health, GQ, Maxim, Men’s Journal, Vogue, Seventeen, Oprah’s O—oh yes it so is a slut mag, with a name like O—check the story) putting out a cover without whoring half gthe editorial content to lists. Seventeen’s hormones must be on Christmas break. It’s settling for 10 CDs to make you relax. But Cosmo has five of its “most creative sex positions ever” (“Kneel on the floor in front of an ottoman (or use a couple of cushions), then lean forward so your stomach is flat against it, palms on the floor. Have your guy kneel between your legs and hold on to your hips as he penetrates you.” Rinse. Repeat twice. Apply conditioner. Rinse) and “7 Scorching Sex Tips That’ll Send Him Through the Roof” (“As soon as Joanna starts flowing into that gentle rhythm of hers, it’s Erection City!”). Men’s Journal has the criminally dull Nine Most Important Cars of the Year (because without that Dodge Charger SRT8, no way NATO will stay together) and Oprah’s mag, that monthly Hajj to herself, has institutionalized “the O List,” whichever advertisers she sublets it to every month.
All this to, finally, get to the point of these lists of futilities: The Atlantic, venerable, century-and-a-half-old journal (magazine sounds too glossily cheap for it, or did) of America’s literary and political sensibilities, that obsessively middle-of-the-road version of a New England after-dinner parlor, has gone Cosmo on America: Its cover is given over to “the 100 most influential Americans of all time”—a silly, out-of-nowhere concept, especially at a time like this, when the 100 most criminally liable Americans of all time would have made a little better sense, and the 100 most criminal acts of the Bush administration (for example) could not possibly have done history justice, unless you’d added another zero to the number. But The Atlantic must be hurting for attention. Or is this brand new editor James Bennet’s way of making his first, and the Atlantic’s only, post-Michael Kelly splash following the magazine’s ill-advised move to Washington from its 149-year-old home in Boston? Bennet was a reporter at the New York Times when he was hired in March. He’d covered Detroit and the White House, Jerusalem and (almost) Beijing, and now, The Atlantic as Cosmo.
And who’s at the top? The top 10 offer no surprises. Textbook founding fathers and Rushmorite stuff: Lincoln first, then Washington, Jefferson, FDR, Hamilton, Franklin, John Marshall, MLK, Thomas Edison, Woodrow Wilson. That last one is a bit of a surprise, considering the drubbing, unfair for the most part, his reputation has taken by association with neocons and Bush playing the mahjong version of Wilsonism. The surprises begin immediately with the next ten, in that order: J.D. Rockefeller, Ulysses Grant (the list’s top-most drunk), James Madison, Henry Ford, Theodore Roosevelt, Mark Twain, and… get ready for this… Ronald Reagan? At Number 17? Ahead of Andrew Jackson and Thomas Paine (18, 19)? Ahead of Walt Whiotman, who was ten times the man and a hundred times the democrat and a thousand times the American Ronald Reagan was? And John Adams, philosophical father to the Constitution, at No. 25? Just one notch ahead of Walt Disney? From there on the list is pure barroom brawl stuff. For the next black American you have to travel all the way to No. 43, at which point the judges must have realized, as they often belatedly do, that blacks were and are part of American history beyond the token bow that’s become MLK. At 43, then, W.E.B. Du Bois appears (but Booker T. Washington is at 98), Frederick Douglass is at 47, Bill Gates at 54, and so on. As always, Richard Nixon had to make an appearance. At 99, above Herman Melville.
The full list is below. Time to brawl.
1 Abraham Lincoln
He saved the Union, freed the slaves, and presided over America’s second founding.
2 George Washington
He made the United States possible—not only by defeating a king, but by declining to become one himself.
3 Thomas Jefferson
The author of the five most important words in American history: “All men are created equal.”
4 Franklin Delano Roosevelt
He said, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself,” and then he proved it.
5 Alexander Hamilton
Soldier, banker, and political scientist, he set in motion an agrarian nation’s transformation into an industrial power.
6 Benjamin Franklin
The Founder-of-all-trades— scientist, printer, writer, diplomat, inventor, and more; like his country, he contained multitudes.
7 John Marshall
The defining chief justice, he established the Supreme Court as the equal of the other two federal branches.
8 Martin Luther King Jr.
His dream of racial equality is still elusive, but no one did more to make it real.
9 Thomas Edison
It wasn’t just the lightbulb; the Wizard of Menlo Park was the most prolific inventor in American history.
10 Woodrow Wilson
He made the world safe for U.S. interventionism, if not for democracy.
11 John D. Rockefeller
The man behind Standard Oil set the mold for our tycoons—first by making money, then by giving it away.
12 Ulysses S. Grant
He was a poor president, but he was the general Lincoln needed; he also wrote the greatest political memoir in American history.
13 James Madison
He fathered the Constitution and wrote the Bill of Rights.
14 Henry Ford
He gave us the assembly line and the Model T, and sparked America’s love affair with the automobile.
15 Theodore Roosevelt
Whether busting trusts or building canals, he embodied the “strenuous life” and blazed a trail for twentieth-century America.
16 Mark Twain
Author of our national epic, he was the most unsentimental observer of our national life.
17 Ronald Reagan
The amiable architect of both the conservative realignment and the Cold War’s end.
18 Andrew Jackson
The first great populist: he found America a republic and left it a democracy.
19 Thomas Paine
The voice of the American Revolution, and our first great radical.
20 Andrew Carnegie
The original self-made man forged America’s industrial might and became one of the nation’s greatest philanthropists.
21 Harry Truman
An accidental president, this machine politician ushered in the Atomic Age and then the Cold War.
22 Walt Whitman
He sang of America and shaped the country’s conception of itself.
23 Wright Brothers
They got us all off the ground.
24 Alexander Graham Bell
By inventing the telephone, he opened the age of telecommunications and shrank the world.
25 John Adams
His leadership made the American Revolution possible; his devotion to republicanism made it succeed.
26 Walt Disney
The quintessential entertainer-entrepreneur, he wielded unmatched influence over our childhood.
27 Eli Whitney
His gin made cotton king and sustained an empire for slavery.
28 Dwight Eisenhower
He won a war and two elections, and made everybody like Ike.
29 Earl Warren
His Supreme Court transformed American society and bequeathed to us the culture wars.
30 Elizabeth Cady Stanton
One of the first great American feminists, she fought for social reform and women’s right to vote.
31 Henry Clay
One of America’s greatest legislators and orators, he forged compromises that held off civil war for decades.
32 Albert Einstein
His greatest scientific work was done in Europe, but his humanity earned him undying fame in America.
33 Ralph Waldo Emerson
The bard of individualism, he relied on himself—and told us all to do the same.
34 Jonas Salk
His vaccine for polio eradicated one of the world’s worst plagues.
35 Jackie Robinson
He broke baseball’s color barrier and embodied integration’s promise.
36 William Jennings Bryan
“The Great Commoner” lost three presidential elections, but his populism transformed the country.
37 J. P. Morgan
The great financier and banker was the prototype for all the Wall Street barons who followed.
38 Susan B. Anthony
She was the country’s most eloquent voice for women’s equality under the law.
39 Rachel Carson
The author of Silent Spring was godmother to the environmental movement.
40 John Dewey
He sought to make the public school a training ground for democratic life.
41 Harriet Beecher Stowe
Her Uncle Tom’s Cabin inspired a generation of abolitionists and set the stage for civil war.
42 Eleanor Roosevelt
She used the first lady’s office and the mass media to become “first lady of the world.”
43 W. E. B. DuBois
One of America’s great intellectuals, he made the “problem of the color line” his life’s work.
44 Lyndon Baines Johnson
His brilliance gave us civil-rights laws; his stubbornness gave us Vietnam.
45 Samuel F. B. Morse
Before the Internet, there was Morse code.
46 William Lloyd Garrison
Through his newspaper, The Liberator, he became the voice of abolition.
47 Frederick Douglass
After escaping from slavery, he pricked the nation’s conscience with an eloquent accounting of its crimes.
48 Robert Oppenheimer
The father of the atomic bomb and the regretful midwife of the nuclear era.
49 Frederick Law Olmsted
The genius behind New York’s Central Park, he inspired the greening of America’s cities.
50 James K. Polk
This one-term president’s Mexican War landgrab gave us California, Texas, and the Southwest.
51 Margaret Sanger
The ardent champion of birth control—and of the sexual freedom that came with it.
52 Joseph Smith
The founder of Mormonism, America’s most famous homegrown faith.
53 Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr.
Known as “The Great Dissenter,” he wrote Supreme Court opinions that continue to shape American jurisprudence.
54 Bill Gates
The Rockefeller of the Information Age, in business and philanthropy alike.
55 John Quincy Adams
The Monroe Doctrine’s real author, he set nineteenth-century America’s diplomatic course.
56 Horace Mann
His tireless advocacy of universal public schooling earned him the title “The Father of American Education.”
57 Robert E. Lee
He was a good general but a better symbol, embodying conciliation in defeat.
58 John C. Calhoun
The voice of the antebellum South, he was slavery’s most ardent defender.
59 Louis Sullivan
The father of architectural modernism, he shaped the defining American building: the skyscraper.
60 William Faulkner
The most gifted chronicler of America’s tormented and fascinating South.
61 Samuel Gompers
The country’s greatest labor organizer, he made the golden age of unions possible.
62 William James
The mind behind Pragmatism, America’s most important philosophical school.
63 George Marshall
As a general, he organized the American effort in World War II; as a statesman, he rebuilt Western Europe.
64 Jane Addams
The founder of Hull House, she became the secular saint of social work.
65 Henry David Thoreau
The original American dropout, he has inspired seekers of authenticity for 150 years.
66 Elvis Presley
The king of rock and roll. Enough said.
67 P. T. Barnum
The circus impresario’s taste for spectacle paved the way for blockbuster movies and reality TV.
68 James D. Watson
He codiscovered DNA’s double helix, revealing the code of life to scientists and entrepreneurs alike.
69 James Gordon Bennett
As the founding publisher of The New York Herald, he invented the modern American newspaper.
70 Lewis and Clark
They went west to explore, and millions followed in their wake.
71 Noah Webster
He didn’t create American English, but his dictionary defined it.
72 Sam Walton
He promised us “Every Day Low Prices,” and we took him up on the offer.
73 Cyrus McCormick
His mechanical reaper spelled the end of traditional farming, and the beginning of industrial agriculture.
74 Brigham Young
What Joseph Smith founded, Young preserved, leading the Mormons to their promised land.
75 George Herman “Babe” Ruth
He saved the national pastime in the wake of the Black Sox scandal—and permanently linked sports and celebrity.
76 Frank Lloyd Wright
America’s most significant architect, he was the archetype of the visionary artist at odds with capitalism.
77 Betty Friedan
She spoke to the discontent of housewives everywhere—and inspired a revolution in gender roles.
78 John Brown
Whether a hero, a fanatic, or both, he provided the spark for the Civil War.
79 Louis Armstrong
His talent and charisma took jazz from the cathouses of Storyville to Broadway, television, and beyond.
80 William Randolph Hearst
The press baron who perfected yellow journalism and helped start the Spanish-American War.
81 Margaret Mead
With Coming of Age in Samoa, she made anthropology relevant—and controversial.
82 George Gallup
He asked Americans what they thought, and the politicians listened.
83 James Fenimore Cooper
The novels are unreadable, but he was the first great mythologizer of the frontier.
84 Thurgood Marshall
As a lawyer and a Supreme Court justice, he was the legal architect of the civil-rights revolution.
85 Ernest Hemingway
His spare style defined American modernism, and his life made machismo a cliché.
86 Mary Baker Eddy
She got off her sickbed and founded Christian Science, which promised spiritual healing to all.
87 Benjamin Spock
With a single book—and a singular approach—he changed American parenting.
88 Enrico Fermi
A giant of physics, he helped develop quantum theory and was instrumental in building the atomic bomb.
89 Walter Lippmann
The last man who could swing an election with a newspaper column.
90 Jonathan Edwards
Forget the fire and brimstone: his subtle eloquence made him the country’s most influential theologian.
91 Lyman Beecher
Harriet Beecher Stowe’s clergyman father earned fame as an abolitionist and an evangelist.
92 John Steinbeck
As the creator of Tom Joad, he chronicled Depression-era misery.
93 Nat Turner
He was the most successful rebel slave; his specter would stalk the white South for a century.
94 George Eastman
The founder of Kodak democratized photography with his handy rolls of film.
95 Sam Goldwyn
A producer for forty years, he was the first great Hollywood mogul.
96 Ralph Nader
He made the cars we drive safer; thirty years later, he made George W. Bush the president.
97 Stephen Foster
America’s first great songwriter, he brought us “O! Susanna” and “My Old Kentucky Home.”
98 Booker T. Washington
As an educator and a champion of self-help, he tried to lead black America up from slavery.
99 Richard Nixon
He broke the New Deal majority, and then broke his presidency on a scandal that still haunts America.
100 Herman Melville
Moby Dick was a flop at the time, but Melville is remembered as the American Shakespeare.
The URL for The Atlantic's list.