May 2: Albion Tourgée, who’s on my short list of most inspiring Americans, for all the reasons detailed in that post and more.
May 3: Jacob Riis, who remains, more than a century later, one of the most complex and important voices to engage with American poverty in our history.
May 4: A tie between two pioneering 19th century American thinkers and writers, both born in 1796: Horace Mann, considered “The Father of American Public Education” for his innovative and seminal ideas about public education, teacher training, and other key educational questions; and William H. Prescott, considered the first scientifically analytical American historian and one of the most significant pioneers in writing the history of the Americas.
May 5: Nellie Bly, the pioneering and hugely talented investigative reporter and muckraking journalist who changed American media, writing, and narratives of gender and identity.
May 6: A tie between two titanic 20th century Americans who need no introduction, Orson Welles and Willie Mays.
May 7: Archibald MacLeish, the World War I veteran and poet whose career included some of the most innovative Modernist poems, important tenures at the American Academy of Arts and Letters and the Library of Congress, and an impressive willingness to evolve and grow with the twentieth century.
May 8: Harry Truman. I hesitate to put presidents and other already famous Americans on this list, but Truman assumed the presidency at a crucial time and (imperfectly but definitely) helped the U.S. end World War II and move into the years beyond, and then he desegrated the military. That’s enough for a Memory Day in my book!
May 9: Daniel Berrigan, the Catholic priest and peace activist whose courageous opposition to the Vietnam War marked only the beginning of a long career of activism, protest, and poetry (and inspired a song by one of my favorite singer-songwriters, Dar Williams).
May 10: T. Berry Brazelton, the pioneering pediatrician and advocate for early childhood education and awareness, whose efforts on behalf of some of our most vulnerable and important Americans (and humans) continue to this day.
May 11: A tie between Irving Berlin, the Russian immigrant who in the course of his 20th century-spanning life created some of the most enduring and powerful American songs; and Richard Feynman, the Nobel Prize-winning physicist who was also one of America’s most talented and charismatic public figures and educators.
May 12: George Carlin, who to my mind rivals only Mark Twain when it comes to American humorists whose voices, perspectives, and ideas have been hugely influential in satirizing, critiquing, reflecting, and engaging with our society and culture.
May 13: A tie between two unique and talented American musical artists with very different stories and arcs: Ritchie Valens and Stevie Wonder.
May 14: Ed Ricketts, the marine biologist and philosopher who helped change America’s relationship to its oceanic and natural worlds and who served as the inspiration for the character “Doc” in his friend John Steinbeck’s Cannery Row.
May 15: A tie between two influential turn of the 20th century authors, L. Frank Baum, who wrote many successful children’s books but none that impacted American culture more than the fourteen set in in the marvelous land of Oz (thanks of course in part to the film adaptation); and Katherine Anne Porter, perhaps the only modernist American author whose use of stream of consciousness could rival Faulkner’s, and for more than three decades one of the premier chroniclers of Southwestern and American communities and lives.
May 16: Adrienne Rich, the hugely talented poet, scholar and essayist, and feminist activist whose recent passing only reminded us more of everything she has meant to American culture and society for many decades.
May 17: Archibald Cox, the lawyer, professor, and Solicitor General whose most lasting legacy was as one of the most famous and influential Watergate special prosecutors.
May 18: Frank Capra, one of 20th century America’s greatest mythmakers and yet a filmmaker entirely willing to portray some of America’s darker and more complex narratives and themes as well.
May 19: A tie between two interconnected, complex, and inspiring Civil Rights leaders, writers, and revolutionaries, Malcolm X and Yuri Kochiyama.
May 20: Dolley Madison, for her courageous symbolic acts during the War of 1812 (a moment from the trajectory of the US could have gone very differently to be sure) and her generally impressive contributions to our poltical and social culture.
May 21: Robert Creeley, the dense, challenging, experimental, and very important late 20th and early 21st century American poet, essayist, and scholar who helped change the face of poetry and higher education in America.
May 22: Peter Gomes, on whose amazing and inspiring life, career, work, and voice, see that post!
May 23: A tie between two very unique, talented, and hugely influential American writers, Margaret Fuller and Margaret Wise Brown.
May 24: Bob Dylan, for so many reasons, but here especially for creating so many genuinely American Studies songs!
May 25: Ralph Waldo Emerson, for his profoundly influential essays (and orations) and publications and journals and philosophies, his inspiring influences on other important Americans, his singularly catchy poem, and, not least, his eternal optimism, which remains both a dangerous yet a key American attribute.
May 27: Another tie, this time between two very different but equally influential writers and activists, Julia Ward Howe and Rachel Carson.
May 28: Jim Thorpe, perhaps the greatest American athlete, and certainly one of the most unique, interesting, and socially significant.
May 29: Patrick Henry, whose genuine courage and radicalism were instrumental in starting the American Revolution, whose war-time governorships of Virginia helped it succeed, and whose opposition to the Constitutional convention makes clear just how much diversity of opinion the founding era and community included.
May 30: A tie between Randolph Bourne, the journalist, activist, and cultural critic whose ideas of a trans-national America foreshadowed much late 20th and early 21st century American Studies work;and James Chaney, the young Misssissippi student and Civil Rights worker whose brutal murder epitomized white supremacist violence and inspired multiple cultural responses.