I was surprised and disappointed to see that not a single American from the pre-Revolutionary period was included in your feature “They Made America” (December Atlantic). More specifically, I was surprised that a definition of what constitutes “American” was not among the five challenges faced by your distinguished panel.
I would posit that American ideals had their roots in men and women living in America before the United States ever existed. Indeed, were it not for certain enterprising souls, the United States—as we know it—may never have come into being. I can understand why the panel might omit Thomas Hariot, John Winthrop, or Anne Bradstreet; however, omitting Captain John Smith and William Bradford seems unpardonable, even if their citizenship was technically English.
Smith was one of America’s staunchest promoters and gave us our notion of the new country as a land of plenty and opportunity. Long before Ben Franklin, Smith represented our iconic rags-to-riches story; in varying retellings of the Pocahontas story, he gave us one of our first legends; and, of course, it was Smith’s tenacity that kept the first permanent English colony, Jamestown, afloat during its most tenuous times.
William Bradford also merits our recognition. The first governor of the Plymouth Plantation, Bradford led the Pilgrims to the shores of New England. He not only recorded our earliest history, but also established the idea of America as a land of destiny, and a place where one was free to worship in one’s own way.
George C. Scouten
It was striking that your list of influential Americans did not include any playwrights. More remarkably, your companion article, which otherwise analyzed the composition of the list quite meticulously, did not even find this absence of playwrights worthy of comment. In contrast, a 2002 BBC series ranked Shakespeare the fifth “Greatest Briton,” and in a recent poll by French public television, Molière was rated the eighth “Greatest Frenchman of All Time.” Surely Eugene O’Neill, Tennessee Williams, Arthur Miller, Lillian Hellman, and, more recently, August Wilson and Wendy Wasserstein have shaped our country significantly.
Jacob M. Appel
New York, N.Y.
I cannot imagine how your list of influential Americans omitted the late Milton Friedman. Friedman did more than any other twentieth-century American to make the United States prosperous—more than any president, business leader, or technologist. He was a trailbreaking economist, winning the Nobel Prize in 1976. He provided the intellectual framework that enabled Paul Volcker and Ronald Reagan (No. 17 on your list) to heal the U.S. economy when it was on track to become a high-inflation, high-unemployment banana republic in the style of Peronist Argentina. His work was also a major reason why the years since 1982 have had only minor, shallow pauses in increasing American prosperity.
Rancho Palos Verdes, Calif.
In “They Made America,” your entry for Dr. Jonas Salk describes his vaccine as having eradicated polio. While it is true that Dr. Salk developed the first vaccine against polio, the disease is still in circulation today in some parts of the globe. The World Health Organization, with the support of Rotary International, is now in the advanced stages of an effort to eradicate the disease primarily with the Oral Polio Vaccine, the vaccine developed by Dr. Albert Sabin. Indeed, the elimination of polio in most countries was accomplished with Sabin’s vaccine, not Salk’s.
Like thousands of other readers, I eagerly perused your listing of the 100 Most Influential Americans, and I was disturbed to find myself missing. I’ve spoken to my mother, my children, and other objective sources, and they all confirm that, even taking into account challenges such as “the collaborative nature of achievement” and “the power of pop culture,” my influence still has a pervasiveness that is well-nigh legendary. Am I funnier than Andrew Carnegie? Absolutely. More attractive than Susan B. Anthony? Without question. Do I possess greater musical talent than Frederick Law Olmsted, a sunnier disposition than John Brown, better teeth than George Washington? The facts speak for themselves.
And yet, and yet … your panel chose to ignore these attributes and instead embrace a list that includes historical footnotes such as Woodrow Wilson, who was unable to play Ping-Pong (which I excel at), Eli Whitney (who certainly cannot type ninety words per minute, as I can), and Lewis and Clark (who don’t even have first names!).
What do I have to do—die? (No, I see Bill Gates is up there.) Invent the cotton gin? (Already been done.) Resign the presidency? (Ditto.) Well, what’s done is done. It’s probably too late to ask you to pulp the issue, and I imagine I shall keep reading The Atlantic, but honestly—have you no sense of decency, sirs, at long last?
In focusing almost exclusively on the idea of “variety and comfort,” Virginia Postrel’s “In Praise of Chain Stores” (December Atlantic) ignores several far more important objections to retail homogenization. That these ubiquitous establishments make life more boring and less varied is little more than an ancillary complaint. The bigger objection to the likes of Wal-Mart, McDonald’s, and Home Depot is that they hurt real people. They typically pay their workers abysmally low wages and offer virtually no benefits, treating them more like expendable pawns than human beings. (Some chains, including Starbucks, are notable exceptions to this rule.) They offer low prices by strong-arming small-scale manufacturers, desperate to stay alive at all, into economically unfavorable agreements. They grease government wheels to turn in their favor. They knowingly purchase products manufactured in Third World countries by exploited workers who toil under abominable conditions. They artificially deflate their prices just long enough to drive local mom-and-pop establishments out of business and then jack prices back up once they’ve cornered the market.
I have no desire for major chains to disappear from the American landscape (and I’d be naive to even think this were possible). As Postrel points out, their value and selection provide an important market segment for American consumers. However, I do wish they would play by a fair set of rules, instead of using their clout to create unfair advantages at the expense of the companies that manufacture their products, the individuals who staff their stores, and the small-business owners who compete with them.
Virginia Postrel replies:
I could happily devote a 1,500-word column to refuting each of Michelle Trela’s heartfelt but undocumented complaints. Unfortunately, The Atlantic’s readers (not to mention its editors) would soon tire of the endless chain-store series. Many of these criticisms, notably the “problem” of low prices, date back at least a century, to the rise of department stores and the spread of chain grocers like A&P. That’s why so much of Emile Zola’s The Ladies’ Paradise, published in 1883, seems contemporary. Suffice it to say that we would not be better off, either as workers or as consumers, with a return to the old days of high-priced local monopolies.
I focused on the “homogenization” critique because it is the most common current complaint among elites and because it is the only complaint that is actually about chains in general, rather than about a particular chain or store format. The activists who campaign to keep Ann Taylor, Crate & Barrel, and California Pizza Kitchen out of currently moribund downtowns are not doing so to save the high-paying jobs at Dottie’s Boutique, Joe’s Furniture Store, and Luigi’s Pizzeria. They hate Starbucks, whatever its wages and benefits. Like local retailers who simply don’t want the competition, they just don’t like the idea of chains.