The December issue of the Atlantic Monthly hit newsstands last week, confronting readers with a cover story befitting of Time or Entertainment Weekly: “The 100 Most Influential Americans of All Time.”
Indeed, Time has already run its annual top 100 issue; in May it went with the cover story of “Time 100: People Who Shape Our World,” a list of contemporaries that included Daddy Yankee, Muqtada al-Sadr, and Bono. In fact, last week’s Time magazine settled on the “all-Time” 100 Albums. Several trade publications are currently contemplating the top 100 wines, PCs, automobiles, and music videos. But that’s Time. What’s up with the Atlantic?
The obvious excuse for padding the year-end issue with a top 100 list is that the Atlantic is now celebrating its 150th anniversary. For the past 11 months, in honor of the milestone, the Atlantic has reprinted notable excerpts from issues past. Their subjects have spanned American political and civil rights leaders, economics, environmentalism, and feminism. By all accounts, it’s been a laudable historical exercise with a subtle emphasis on the achievements of a great magazine. They’ve also been doing literal victory laps for much of the year: earlier in the fall the magazine announced that prominent staff members would hit the road for a “live tour” — also to honor the 150th — organizing panel discussions and book signings in Boston, Washington, San Francisco, Chicago, and New York.
We thought it an odd choice, then, to punctuate the festivities by addressing such a nebulous concept as “influence” — especially in the form of a top 100 list. Which brings us to the content of this list.
The list of American icons that inhabits 21 pages of the magazine is overwhelmingly dominated by dead white guys whose accomplishments are summed up in a single terse sentence. In the space between the columns of names, Atlantic editor Ross Douthat muses — almost apologetically — at the apparent shortcomings of the influential rankings as they appear in the magazine:
The final 100 also suggests that men still rule, at least in many historians’ eyes — oh, and make that white men. Ten women are on the list (the highest-ranked is the feminist pioneer Elizabeth Cady Stanton, at No. 30), and eight African Americans, but the Top 100 is heavily WASPish. Martin Luther King Jr. (8) was among the top vote-getters, but there isn’t another African American on the list until Jackie Robinson (35). And there are no Hispanics, Asian Americans, or Native Americans.
The racial and gender lopsidedness of the list might be due, in part, to the tendency of the panelists (historians, all) that were called on by the Atlantic to favor dead people, because, after all, the civil rights movement is still a relatively recent phenomenon. So when we consider that 97 percent of the “influential Americans” that made the cut are no longer among the living, it makes sense that the list is more representative of the pre-women’s suffrage era instead of offering an idealized image of the past based on modern cosmopolitan and multicultural values. And in fact a short list of “living influentials” that were nominated but didn’t receive the necessary votes to make the final list does include African Americans and women in higher proportions (although still no Native Americans).
What we end up with then is a history of the United States written by the winners — almost exactly as we might expect to find in the most unadventurous of children’s history books. We are reminded, as junior high students have been for more than a century, that Abraham Lincoln was the most important because “He saved the Union, freed the slaves, and presided over America’s second founding.” And that’s all that needs to be said about that. A pithy, one-sentence epithet, which is all that we’re given for any of the names on this list, is the manner in which the lives of these “American influentials” are summarized; just enough to pass the test.