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Dead White Guys, Make Some Room

June 19, 2003|Thomas P. Evans | Thomas P. Evans, a computer programmer, is author of "Home From the War" (IUniverse, 2000).

The biography section of libraries has changed. When I was a teenager, the biographies I read were mostly about white men who were athletes, authors, soldiers or presidents. There were exceptions, such as Amelia Earhart and Jackie Robinson. Recently, however, I noticed the selections under Jackson: Anne, Stonewall, Shoeless Joe, Michael, La Toya, Mahalia, Jesse, Scoop (Henry), Andrew, Reggie, Bo.

If a Martian landed in the United States to learn what made Americans tick, he could do worse than read the Jackson biographies. When I was young, Stonewall and Andrew would have been the only Jackson bios on the shelf.

Some people seem too young to have biographies written about them. Madonna's unauthorized biography was written when she was 36. Tiger Woods had two before he turned 26.

The number of biography volumes on the shelves is usually an indication of the effect their lives had or have on our society. For example, in my hometown library I recently found 57 biographies of the Kennedys, followed by the Roosevelts (44), Abraham Lincoln (32), George Washington (25), Dwight Eisenhower (21) and Winston Churchill (18).

Rounding out those with double-digit biographies on the shelves were Ernest Hemingway, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, Harry S. Truman, Shakespeare, Richard Nixon, Elvis Presley, Mark Twain, Charles Lindbergh, Princess Diana, the Bushes, Herbert Hoover, Thomas Merton, Jane Austen and Douglas MacArthur.

A person doesn't have to be a winner to rate a biography. Three who lost presidential elections -- Thomas E. Dewey, Michael Dukakis and Hubert Humphrey -- had at least as many biographies as Gerald Ford (2).

Among celebrities, talk-show hosts were well represented. Oprah, Larry King, Jay Leno and Johnny Carson. Second bananas also showed up. Carson's longtime sidekick, Ed McMahon, was there, as were former Vice President Dan Quayle and "Wheel of Fortune's" Vanna White.

In my unscientific sampling, Marilyn Monroe had five but James Monroe had none. Bette Davis (9) outnumbered Leonardo da Vinci (7), Michelangelo (6) and Thomas Edison (7) (maybe it's because Davis played Queen Elizabeth I twice). Shirley MacLaine (6) had as many bios as Christopher Columbus, more than Martin Luther King Jr. (5) and twice as many as Lyndon Johnson and Albert Einstein -- but someday she may be reincarnated and return as one of the most famous people in the biography section.

Finally, Britney Spears, zero, at least in my local library. Thank you. But just wait. After all, she's 21 years old.

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