February 7, 2008

Most important Americans

So, who should be the most famous Americans?

The most disinterested and careful attempt to measure the scholarly consensus regarding the most important individuals in history in the arts and sciences is Charles Murray's 2003 book Human Accomplishment. His methodology is described in my review in The American Conservative and in my interview with Murray, but basically he's measuring how much attention is paid each name in the leading scholarly reference works in each field.

There's an obvious high culture / academic orientation to the lists, but what scholars are basically interested in is how much somebody influenced subsequent major figures in his field.

To be eligible, you have to have been born by 1910 or died by 1950. Everybody is ranked relative to the immortal who ranks highest in his field. Murray stays away from ranking political and religious figures.

Murray kindly sent me a copy of his database. (And, no, I won't post it on the web without his permission.) I'll put up the most important Americans in science, math, and technology another day. (Briefly, the most impressive American figures in the lists are Thomas Edison, who ties with James Watt for the top ranking in Technology, and Benjamin Franklin, who is the only American on three lists: he's a major figure in Physics and Technology, and a minor eminence in Western Literature.)

I will start with the softer side and come back later to the sciences. Here are the top American names in each category:

Western Literature (Shakespeare = 100)

Name Birth Index
Poe, Edgar 1809 25
Whitman, Walt 1819 23
Faulkner, William 1897 15
Hemingway, Ernest 1898 15
Melville, Herman 1819 14
Twain, Mark (Clemens) 1835 12
Pound, Ezra 1885 12
Emerson, Ralph 1803 12
Hawthorne, Nathaniel 1804 10
Dreiser, Theodore 1871 10
Dos Passos, John 1896 8
Cooper, James 1789 8
O’Neill, Eugene 1888 8
Auden, W.H. 1907 6
Longfellow, Henry 1807 6
Irving, Washington 1783 6
Dickinson, Emily 1830 6
Steinbeck, John 1902 6
Thoreau, Henry 1817 6
Lewis, Sinclair 1885 6
Frost, Robert 1874 6

Americans account for 58 of the 835 writers who made the grade in Western Literature, or 7%.

Poe seems to be that rarity who reads better in translation (especially in French). Auden is classed as an American because he spent the majority of his career in America, while T.S. Eliot is grouped with the Brits.

Western Painting and Sculpture (Michelangelo = 100)

Name Birth Index
Rothko, Mark 1903 11
De Kooning, Willem 1904 10
Copley, John 1738 9
Newman, Barnett 1905 8
Ray, Man 1890 7
Calder, Alexander 1898 7
Smith, David 1906 7
Eakins, Thomas 1844 7
Gorky, Arshile 1904 6
Kline, Franz 1910 6
Cole, Thomas 1801 5
Bingham, George 1811 5
Homer, Winslow 1836 5
Muybridge, Eadweard 1830 5
Hopper, Edward 1882 5

Overall, Americans account for 29 of the 479 Western Artists, or 6%.

This list does not include architecture, so Louis Sullivan and Frank Lloyd Wright are not eligible, nor decorative arts, so Louis Comfort Tiffany isn't either.

I suspect, in the long run, that Eakins will emerge at the top of American painters.

Western Classical Composers: (Mozart and Beethoven tied at 100)

Ives, Charles 1874 8
Copland, Aaron 1900 7
Gershwin, George 1898 6
Sessions, Roger 1896 4
Carter, Elliott 1908 4
Barber, Samuel 1910 4
Cowell, Henry 1897 4

Americans account for 21 of 522 Western Music composers, or 4%. I would imagine Americans do better in Murray's lists of writers than composers because there's not as much of a classical-pop division among writers, so Edgar Allan Poe could do very well in Murray's system, but Cole Porter can't.

Gershwin would no doubt rank in the top 10 popular composers as well.

Western Philosophers (Aristotle = 100)

James, William 1842 10
Dewey, John 1859 10
Pierce, Charles 1839 8
Quine, Willard 1908 2
Emerson, Ralph 1803 2
Santayana, George 1863 2

Americans account for 6 out of 155 Western philosophers, or 4%.

Americans aren't terribly philosophically inclined, but that's not a bad little bunch.

Overall, of the 115 Americans in these four categories, seven are women, with Emily Dickinson highest ranked. There are two blacks, Richard Wright and Duke Ellington.

My published articles are archived at iSteve.com -- Steve Sailer


dearieme said...

I wonder. A compiler decides to mention lots of Americans, say, because he is an American, or because he wants to sell lots of his books in the US. (Perhaps we'll soon see a China effect?) Or perhaps he's lothe to miss out some small country so Sibelius gets rated disproportionately because surely the Finns deserve a mention. And some classifications are just a bit silly: in Philosophy why bother with anyone after the Greeks and David Hume? My own view is that it is stunning that America has never produced anyone who is anywhere near the top flight of genius, unless you count popular music (Gershwin, Ellington, Porter et al) and spin-doctoring (Jefferson). Perhaps inventing (Edison), but then Americans routinely cite Edison's light bulb, on which he lost his patent case. Hey ho, it hasn't stopped you all becoming very rich, and you can always hire a genius like Einstein.

RobertHume said...

Certainly Linus Pauling who created modern quantum chemistry was an American genius of that era. Murray rates him very high. Also another chemist, J. Willard Gibbs.

Marc said...

I think Emily Dickinson's star will rise with time also. Putting her on the same tier as Auden hardly seems right to me.

M. A said...

artists and sculptures..mr murray loves his numbers a little too much

No Sargent? No Sait.-Gaudens? no Frederick Hart (who Tom Wolfe called one of the greatest sculptors of the 20th Century? No Norman Rockwell?

Then a dope like Dekooning..what next pollack?

D. Charles said...

You've missed one big area: science. The US has contributed greatly to the list of Nobel laureates in physics, chemistry and medicine over the last century. In fact, some of the greatest discoveries (quantum electrodynamics for one) are due to the efforts of American researchers.

D. Charles said...

Whoops, missed the first part of Steve's entry, where the candidates had to be born by 1910 or dies by 1950. That kind of eliminates US contribution, since the bulk of American contribution came during the mid to late 20th century. One should be cautious to dismiss the Americans out of hand, however. Eli Whitney, anyone? Let's also not forget the American contribution to political science, and the philosophy of government that came from the writings of men like Thomas Jefferson, Alexander Hamilton, and Thomas Paine.

dearieme said...

Hang on. I've just re-read the post lower down: "Starting from Columbus to the present day, jot down the names of the most famous Americans in history." Columbus an American? You'll be claiming Attila the Hun next. Though I suppose if he were an American it explains why he was so certain that if sailed west he'd find land before he starved.

Ron Guhname said...

dierieme: Murray used compilations from several different countries, and rankings were highly intercorrelated, so there goes your American bias idea.

jan said...

The genius of America is in the economic, political and social system we created. America has become the overwhelmingly dominate incubator of most successful progress in politics, finance, science, technology, and entertainment (whatever you think of that).

It’s not that America creates the world dominate intellectuals. Many German Jewish intellectual immigrants between the wars and many Europeans today criticize America’s anti-intellectual culture. Nonetheless, many intellectuals worldwide come here for the freedom, acceptance and support to innovate, develop and promote their genius.

Also, I would not dismiss America’s homegrown intellectual achievements post WWII. I think it would be hard to find another country that has contributed as much by unbiased metrics such as noble prizes. On a population adjusted basis, I would be curious who is even in the competition? England, Germany and Israel are the only one that come to mind as possible contenders.

jan said...

One more point, it's much harder in the 21st century to make ground breaking intellectual discoveries as virtually all established fields like philosophy and physics are necessarily very broad and deep.

In the fields that are fundamentally changing human existence post WWII like computing, genetics, entertainment and modern finance, I feel pretty confident without much research that American is more than carrying her fair share.

educated hunchback said...

True genius flowers under tyrannical regimes, a la Lime's cuckoo clock speech. As a democracy, America must settle for its usual soft power mediocrity. White European males created almost all of the truly great stuff, so don't blame political correctness--an American invention.

Anonymous said...

Poe is ranked higher than Hemingway or Twain? Balderdash!

Michael said...

Fun, as ever.

Still, this phrase -- "There's an obvious high culture / academic orientation to the lists" -- makes me want to say, "Hell, yeah. And that's a major problem, particularly where the American arts go."

Look (I'm addressing myself to Charles Murray, I guess, or to scholars, or something): America has *seldom* been fabulously strong where high culture is concerned.

We've had a few moments and a few peaks. But our high culture has mostly been strained and tight -- it has mostly represented a striving in the direction of Euro ideals. And since we seldom feel as entitled to "culture" in the way that Euros do, we seldom enter into and flourish there in similar ways. Our "market," if you will, for high culture has always been a skimpy and beleaguered one, and the art we've produced for it has almost always reflected that fact. In fact, we often seem to spend more time complaining about how Americans don't care about fine art than we do actually creating and enjoying the stuff.

On the other hand, where the popular, commercial and folk arts go (as well as homegrown eccentrics and one-of-a-kinds and make-it-up-as-they-go types go), we're perfectly amazing.

The two biggest triumphs of 20th century art? In terms of oomph, scale, reach, and popularity, how can you beat Hollywood-style movies and African-American (and Af-Am-influenced) music? And it's (IMHO) quite something to open up a discussion of American culture while overlooking sitcoms, the blues, popular dancing, acting, commercial fiction ...

(Incidentally, I'm obvoiusly ranting here, not addressing anyone in particular, aside from some academically-oriented snobs ...)

But that's always a problem when you let academics and intellectuals define what's meant by culture. They're going to tend to treat as "culture" what their idea of "culture" is.

Which means that if they're intellectually-inclined (and what intellectual isn't?) they're going to show a preference for more-rather-than-less intellectual art. And if they're Euro-academically inclined, they're going to think of "culture" as something that's kinda-sorta French, or maybe German.

Which results in the tangle we have: a class of gatekeeper-types who insist on applying Euro-intellectual standards to a culture-verse that doesn't actually have a whole lot to do with Euro-intellectual standards. And mostly finding us lacking.

Like it or not, we aren't a second-rate Euro-culture. We're our own kooky scene. Or bundle of scenes.

An example: Someone with a strong conviction that lyric poetry is the truest-purest kind of art there is could look at Ancient Rome and say, "Well, they were kind of weak, weren't they?" And then list some Roman lyric poets who were pretty good as the cream of Roman art. This person, in other words, could conclude that Ancient Rome was culturally pretty weak.

It seems to me far more reasonable to look at Roman culture and say, "Whoa, take a look at those acqueducts! Would you get a gander at that Colisseum!" To accept Roman culture for what it was, on its own terms.

Ancient Roman culture wasn't much about individual expression or lyric poetry, in other words, where it had mucho to do with brawny engineering projects.

Similarly, American culture doesn't really have all that much to do with Euro-intellectual-style high art. We often pretend we do; we often discuss Am-cult in those terms. (Hence the NYTimes' obsession with "literary fiction.")

But where commercial and folk art and entertainment go -- well, we rock. Muddy Waters, Louis Armstrong, Aretha Franklin, John Huston, The Marvelettes, James M. Cain, Bette Davis, Townes Van Zandt, the Nicholas Brothers, R.L. Burnside ... That's a heckuva list of individual creators.

And how about Motown, zydeco, Gold Medal Books, Mad magazine, Warner Brothers cartoons, the Austin alt-country world, L.A.-style "cool" jazz, skateboard-punk style ... That's a heckuva list of group creations.

FWIW, my list of "great" and influential American artists and culture-achievements would be huuuuuuuugely different from the list critics and academics tend to come up with. I think it'd be a whole lot more fun, a whole lot more true to the nature of American culture, and a whole lot more accurate about what we've produced that has shown influence and "legs."

So far as literature goes? Well, the people making the lists are just people who read and have English degrees. It's fine to disagree with them. In many cases they were the people in your English class who were kinda boring and dull.

Truth said...

"in Philosophy why bother with anyone after the Greeks and David Hume?"

You mean Britt Hume.

Anonymous said...

Nietzsche said that the higher the general level of man in a society, the fewer geniuses will appear. This is because true geniuses are inseparable from herds. The one leads the many, this is the natural order. When the many are strong and of good quality, there is no need for a great teacher.

According to Nietzche, this why Plato and Pythagoras were able to found only cults and not great religions in ancient Greece, because the public was of high quality. He contrasted this with the situation in decadent Rome, which eagerly adopted Christianity. He attributed this to the infusion of Teutonic blood, which debased the racial character of the ancient Romans. (Yes, Nietzsche meant this as a deliberate jab at the ideology of his day).

So, there are not as many "important" Americans because we are a bourgeois society of able and relatively independent and orderly people.

Robert said...

I wonder which list HL Mencken would fit on. He was certainly influential and famous in his time. He helped jump start the careers of some of the writers on the list. His career was ended in the first age of political correctness, when you could not say anything bad about Roosevelt, the New Deal, or anything liberal without being Watsoned. That probably explains why he is not really mentioned very often today.

Black Sea said...


This morning on NPR (our version of the beeb), I heard one of your countrymen describe Amy Winehouse as a "musical genius," and was wondering how much you'd sell her to us for?


tommy said...

Auden shouldn't have even made the list. The man's hackneyed poetry has been rightfully derided in an amusing column by John Dolan at eXile. Upon first reading it, I was glad to see I wasn't the only person who felt Auden's output was mediocre.

Anonymous said...

The idea that everything can be quantized and ranked, including something so explicitly qualitative as “achievement,” probably will not go down in history as a great idea.

I rank Murray’s effort a zero.

nope said...

According to Nietzche, this why Plato and Pythagoras were able to found only cults and not great religions in ancient Greece, because the public was of high quality. He contrasted this with the situation in decadent Rome, which eagerly adopted Christianity. He attributed this to the infusion of Teutonic blood, which debased the racial character of the ancient Romans.

Citation? I find this very unlikely.

Argent Paladin said...

"That Luther's Reformation succeeded in the North suggests that the north of Europe was retarded compared to the south, and still knew only rather homogeneous and monotonous needs. Indeed, Europe would never have become Christian in the first place if the culture of the ancient world in the south had not gradually been barbarized through an excessive admixture of Teutonic barbarian blood, thus losing its cultural superiority."

Nietzache, 'The Gay Science,' Book III, 143.
Fount in about 3 seconds of googling (for "nietzsche teutonic blood"

Argent Paladin said...

My question to you Steve is, what, other then pure aesthetic judgment makes you so sure that Eakins will one day be regarded as the premier American painter? I don't hold an opposing opinion, I have just never heard that judgment before.

nope said...

Oh, well. One of the dumber things Nietzsche wrote, which is saying a lot.

Steve Sailer said...


Well, you certainly shouldn't take my advice on art investments! I'm just assuming that when all the fads and fashions are ancient history and only the paintings are left, then Eakins will come out on top. But, what do I know?

TCO said...

michel: you left out porn.

Steve S.: The dude is asking for why you think that about Eakins. He's not asking for a mathematical proof. Just some more detailed expression of what it is about Eakins that you enjoy (or that you think people will appreciate more).

meathead said...

What is with people on this site quoting Nietzsche as if he were an authority others would tend to defer to?

Anyway, mixed in with the nonsense on this thread was this:

"I think it would be hard to find another country [outside the U.S.A.] that has contributed as much by unbiased metrics such as noble prizes. On a population adjusted basis, I would be curious who is even in the competition? England, Germany and Israel are the only one that come to mind as possible contenders."

Adjusting for population is not as straightforward as it may seem, due to shifting populations since the Nobels first started being awarded.

That said, here are the awards, by country, with their absolute rank, # Nobels, population (July 2007), and # Nobels / million, coefficient not calculated for countries with < 5. Following that are the countries ranked according to coefficients:

1 United States 160
2 United Kingdom 110
3 Germany 94
4 France 54
5 Sweden 27
6 Switzerland 25
=7 USSR and Russia 21
=7 Austria 21
9 Italy 19
=10 Canada 18
=10 Netherlands 18
=12 Hungary 16
=12 Poland 16
14 Denmark 14
15 Japan 12
=16 Belgium 10
=16 Ireland 10
=18 Australia 9
=18 Norway 9
=18 South Africa 9
(assuming ethnic European population of about 5 million, get 1.8)
=21 India 8
(lucky I didn't round to just 1 decimal place!)
=21 Israel 8
=23 Spain 7
=24 Argentina 5
=24 China 5
(sorry China, I should have rounded to 3 decimal places!)
=24 Czech Republic 5

Ranked in terms of # Nobels / million,

1. Switzerland 3.3
2. Sweden 3.0
3. Austria 2.56
4. Denmark 2.55
5. Ireland 2.44
6. Norway 1.96
7. United Kingdom 1.81
(8. South Africa with just European population's score of 1.8 would be here)
8. Hungary 1.6
9. Israel 1.25
10. Germany 1.14
11. Netherlands 1.08
12. Belgium 0.96
13. France 0.84
14. Canada 0.54
15. United States 0.53
16. Czech Republic 0.49
17. Australia 0.44
18. Poland 0.42
19. Italy 0.33
20. USSR and Russia 0.15
21. South Africa (see 8.) 0.2
22. Spain 0.17
23. Argentina 0.12
24. Japan 0.09
25. India 0.01
26. China 0.00

Truth said...

"According to Nietzche, this why Plato and Pythagoras were able to found only cults and not great religions in ancient Greece,"

Not only is this true, but for a while the Romans themselves had similar beliefs. Like Jared Taylor and Charles Murray et all, the Ancient Romans believed through hundreds of years of conquest experience that the world was divided into three races. Only with them it was Mediterraneans, Africans (which they called Ethiopians) and Northern Europeans, characterized by their blonde hair. The Romans considered themselves (of course) to be the superior humans, but considered the Ethiopians and the Northern Savages of roughly equal capability.

The strange thing is that the Romans considered the Africans to be smart, creative and crafty yet cowardly and physically frail while considering the 'Slavs' dumb as rocks, yet valiant and easily led, and able to do physical work all day. Thus most of the slaves in the empire at this time were of Northern European stock and we use the word 'slave' rather then 'ethiop'.

green mamba said...

The 1910 cut-off point for births makes a huge difference. If it weren't there, the proportion of American achievements would rise dramatically. Maybe at some far off future point, when that history is written, snobbish Europeans like dearieme will stop dismissing us.

tommy said...

Americans aren't terribly philosophically inclined, but that's not a bad little bunch.

In general, American philosophers seem to be a lot more down to earth than their European counterparts. I would much rather be a citizen of the country of James and Pierce than the country of Hegel and Heidegger or Derrida and Sartre.

nope said...

The comment by "truth" is 200% BS, historically-illiterate, misremembered Afrocentric babble.

Slavs were barely a blip on the radar screen of the Classical world. The use of "Slav" to mean slave originated well after the collapse of the Western Roman Empire, when Germans enslaved Slavs en masse.

Truth said...

"The comment by "truth" is 200% BS, historically-illiterate, misremembered Afrocentric babble."

200% eh?

I've always wondered; is that more than 100%?

Anonymous said...

WRT Nobel Prizes:

"14. Canada 0.54
15. United States 0.53"

Canada beats the U.S., that's the important thing.

Dutch Boy said...

Charles Ives over Gershwin or Barber?!
Mark Rothko and Willem De Kooning over Winslow Homer?!
Gimme a break!!

Ron Guhname said...

"1. United States 160"
"15. United States 0.53"

Giving a number adjusted for population tells us about the concentration of talent in a country, but one can make the case that the total number is more important.

To the person who benefits from a Nobel prize winner's work, what does he care whether the winner's country has concentrated talent or not? Going by the Nobel measure, the United State has produced more than 6 times the benefactors to mankind that Switzerland has--the country with the highest rate of reward winners. Why should the U.S. be punished for being big?

meathead said...

Yanks, fear not. Using a different data set (from Wikipedia), the coefficient is much better (but you're still 14th).

1 Switzerland 3.31
2 Sweden 3.10
3 Ireland 2.43
4 Denmark 2.38
5 Norway 2.38
6 United Kingdom 1.88
7 Austria 1.34
8 Hungary 1.31
9 Israel 1.24
10 Germany 1.20
11 South Africa (European) 1.20
12 Netherlands 1.09
13 Belgium 1.06
14 United States 1.01
15 France 0.85
16 Czech Republic 0.68
17 Canada 0.54
18 Australia 0.54
19 Italy 0.34
20 Poland 0.29
21 South Africa 0.20
22 Spain 0.17
23 USSR and Russia 0.16
24 Argentina 0.12
25 Japan 0.09
26 India 0.01
27 China 0.00

Anonymous said...

Nietzsche also said that a society can either focus on culture or war, but not both. They tend to exclude one another for some reason.

By the way, the British had this doctrine (right up through WW2) of "Martial Races." Basically that people of some ethnics were genetically inclined to bravery and excellence in war, like the Scottish Highlanders or the Sikhs. The British noticed these ethnics tended to hail from craggy mountain areas. Every effort was made to recruit men from these ethnics into the British Army for the greater glory of the Empire.

But: this was disregarded when bringing in officers, because the "Martial Races" were also regarded as not so bright and made to be followers rather than leaders. The "Non-Martial Races" (like Indians from the central plains) were thought of as cowardly and weak, but also cunning and intelligent and able to generate high culture.

You know, it's interesting that German philosophers have the most to say about the "Herd." Nietzsche spoke of it endlessly. I think it would be fair to say the Bismarkian Germans of the 19th century (when the Prussian Junkers dominated society, by the way) qualified as a "Martial Race." The Anglos (or the Dutch for that matter) are very differently inclined. Americans are more martial, maybe because of all those mountain brawlers from Ireland and Scotland.

I realized why McCain looks and acts so much like the actor Bruce Dern. They both have a certain kind of Celtic look - maybe even a Scottish Highlander look. Hmm.

Anonymous said...

"Slav" is an adaptation of a Greek term "Slakvos," not a German term at all. If the Germans had been the ones to enslave the Slavs, our inherited term would be "Wallach."

The Slavs that the ancient world knew about were what we would call the Southern Slavs today. You know, the ones from the hilly areas north of Greece who are perpetually trying to annihilate and ethnically cleanse one another. Nobody accused Slobodan Milosevic of being an intellectual.

The Ethiops (Greek for "burnt skins") known to the ancients were most like your Ethiopians and Nilotic types than the Niger-Congo people who are influential in modern times.

Niger-Congo folk are not exactly known for being cowardly. They are warlike and able to successfully mobilize. Million Man March and so on. The Romans would probably call people like Louis Farrakhan and Al Sharpton rogue generals who assemble massive armies to extract collective social demands. They are brave people, given their very small numbers.

Ethiopians are different: they are more like the English as shopkeepers and traders.

nope said...

I am right. You are wrong. From m-w.com:

Main Entry:
1slave Listen to the pronunciation of 1slave
Middle English sclave, from Anglo-French or Medieval Latin; Anglo-French esclave, from Medieval Latin sclavus, from Sclavus Slavic; from the frequent enslavement of Slavs in central Europe during the early Middle Ages
14th century

1 : a person held in servitude as the chattel of another 2 : one that is completely subservient to a dominating influence 3 : a device (as the printer of a computer) that is directly responsive to another 4 : drudge, toiler

The ultimate origin or the ethnonym "Slav" is irrelevant, and was not discussed in my post.

Niger-Congo folk are not exactly known for being cowardly.

I suppose that would depend on who you ask.

They are warlike and able to successfully mobilize. Million Man March and so on.

Yep. It takes a lot of balls to ride a bus / stand around.

. . . English as shopkeepers and traders.

This must be why it was so easy for the English to conquer all those brave African'ts.