Portrait Gallery of Unique Americans

IF, as British writer Thomas Carlyle put it, "The history of the world is but the biography of great men," this engaging collection of more than 40 biographical sketches corroborates that observation at a more accessible level: A popular history of the United States is to be found in these brief chapters on "some singular men and women."

"American Originals" is an eclectic, not to say disparate, collection. Abraham Lincoln is there (twice), and there is an entire section on the Roosevelts (and Delanos, too) - on whom Geoffrey C. Ward has written in greater depth elsewhere. Grant, Sherman, and Lee, are profiled, not surprisingly, since Ward was the lead writer on the acclaimed PBS series "The Civil War." But the book is devoted less to the quasi-official pantheon, than it is to more recent figures such as Fiorello La Guardia, Josephine Ba ker, H. L. Mencken, Dorothy Thompson, and Alger Hiss.

The pieces in this collection were first published elsewhere, in most cases in American Heritage. As is often true of such collections, the book works better dipped into a little here and there; to read it straight through is to have the feeling of having filled up on hors d'oeuvres rather than having dined.

But these are quite delicious hors d'oeuvres. Many pieces draw heavily on recent full-length biographies - Edmund Morris's "Rise of Theodore Roosevelt," for instance - and thus provide guidance for further reading.

The arrangement of the chapters into categories makes sense thematically but in some cases leads to a sense of repetition: Two boxers, John L. Sullivan and Jack Dempsey, seem a bit much in a seven-chapter section on "entertainers." Why two boxers but no Marilyn Monroe, no Elvis?

We get some particular angles on some of our subjects: Ernest Hemingway is considered in the light of his difficult relationship with his mother. Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain) is described as a comfortable paterfamilias in Hartford, Conn., in a piece originally commissioned by Gourmet magazine. There is even a chapter, originally published in Audubon, on Franklin Delano Roosevelt as a bird-watcher.

The book sometimes makes one feel that one is looking, if not through the wrong end of the telescope, then maybe through binoculars that are focused too closely on too narrow a field.

But there are some wonderful lines, some evidently Ward's own and some judiciously adapted from others. Of Abraham Lincoln: "At the best of times he spoke and thought and moved so slowly, a friend remembered, it seemed as if he needed oiling."

Of the excessively energetic Theodore Roosevelt: "Even his rocking was hyperactive, his chair edging its way across the piazza as he devoured a book." Ward adds, "His own admiring but weary family liked to recite a poem about him which included the lines: 'At five o'clock he takes the air,/ He does not take it all, of course.

And Ward confirms that Teddy's daughter Alice Roosevelt Longworth, "Princess Alice," really did have a sofa pillow embroidered with the legend, "If you can't say something good about someone, sit right here by me."

"American Originals" provides the fascinating human particulars from which the generalities of the larger national scene can be inferred and understood. Instructive and useful in itself, it should also inspire deeper reading in American history.

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