February 2: SolomonGuggenheim, the son of Swiss immigrants and very successful businessman whose love for the world of modern art led him both to contribute to the creation of some of the 20th century’s most innovative museums and to start a hugely influential and ongoing foundation for art and education.
February 3: A tie between Elizabeth Blackwell, the first American woman to receive an MD, founder of the New York Infirmary for Women and Children, and an author who translated her own pioneering and inspiring life into multiple volumes of advice and support for future female doctors; and Norman Rockwell, perhaps the most iconic American artist and one whose works could capture both our highest ideals and our most troubling realities.
February 4: A tie between Betty Friedan, the scholar, author, and activist whose book The Feminine Mystique (1963) is one of the 20th century’s most significant works, and whose efforts in founding the National Organization for Women (NOW), the National Association for the Repeal of Abortion Laws (Naral), and the National Women’s Political Caucus transformed every aspect of American society and life in the 1970s and beyond; and Rosa Parks!
February 5: James Otis, the lawyer and firebrand whose eloquent and impassioned opposition to both the Sugar Act and writs of assistance in the early 1760s helped set the stage for the American Revolution; even though a 1769 fight with an angered royal customs commissioner left Otis disabled and unable to take full part in the Revolution itself, his words and arguments were instrumental to every stage of colonial resistance and independence.
February 6: Aaron Burr, certainly a controversial choice—I don’t anticipate any other nominees having been tried for treason or having killed another prominent American in a duel—but a voice and perspective that can, as Gore Vidal so brilliantly recognized, shed a very different and crucially important light on the Revolutionary and Early Republic era, on the Founders and their legacies, and on America’s origins and meanings.
February 7: Laura Ingalls Wilder, whose “Little House on the Prairie” books (and the subsequent TV series) defined the frontier and childhood and family for many generations of young Americans, and whose own complicated and multi-stage life and identity can help us understand not only those themes, but also America itself in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
February 8: Kate Chopin, the late 19th century regionalist and realist author whose over 100 short stories and two novels helped take American literature and culture in significant new directions: from the ironic feminism of “The Story of an Hour” to the shocking sexuality of the unpublished “The Storm” to her masterpiece The Awakening, quite simply one of the greatest American novels.
February 9: Tom Paine, the Anglo-American immigrant whose political pamphlets Common Sense and the multi-volume The Crisis complemented, strengthened, and extended the efforts of the Declaration of Independence and early Revolutionary battles, and whose broader political and spiritual philosophizing in The Rights of Man and The Age of Reason provided bracingly radical and democratic visions for a rebellious age.
February 10: John Franklin Enders, the Nobel Prize-winning microbiologist whose pioneering work with viruses greatly influenced Jonas Salk’s development of a polio vaccine, led Enders to be known as “The Father of Modern Vaccines,” and reflected, as does his co-authored Nobel lecture, a communal understanding of scientific work and progress.
February 11: A tie between Lydia Maria Child, about the many facets of whose justified status as “The First Woman in the Republic” I wrote at length in that linked post—and for further details of which I cannot recommend highly enough Carolyn Karcher’s comprehensive cultural biography with that title; and the amazing Harriet Jacobs, who adopted February 11th as her birthday.
February 12: Cotton Mather, partly because he helps us understand the complex and telling national tragedy that was the SalemWitch Trials, but mostly because the rest of his life and work, especially in advocating for smallpox inoculation, were so important and inspiring.
February 13: Chuck Yeager, the aviator and World War II veteran whose test flights contributed directly to the development of the space program, helped change the course of American and world history, and led to his starring role in Tom Wolfe’s The Right Stuff.
February 14: Anna Howard Shaw, the women’s rights and suffrage activist who was also the first female ordained Methodist minister in America, received the Distinguished Service Medal for her efforts during World War I, and extended her activism to an important anti-lynching conference in the final months of her life. [Also note: Frederick Douglass chose February 14th as the day to celebrate as his birthday, although I feature him on 2/20.]
February 15: Susan B. Anthony, one of a handful of American reformers whose efforts (centrally on behalf of suffrage, but also for numerous other causes including abolitionism, temperance, labor, and education reform) transcended their era and established her as a model for impassioned, effective, and meaningful activism (if one whose mixed legacy needs further analysis to be sure).
February 16: Henry Adams, who built on the legacy of his uber-American family to become one of our most inspiring Renaissance Americans: from his novels, non-fiction, and unique and powerful memoir to his pioneering identity as a transnational, cosmopolitan traveler and thinker.
February 17: Huey Newton, the co-founder of the Black Panther Party whose complex and influential 20th century American life also included community social programs and activism in Oakland, publishing the memoir Revolutionary Suicide (1973), and receiving a PhD in social philosophy from UC Santa Cruz (all before it was tragically cut short by a senseless street killing when Newton was just 47).
February 18: A tie between Toni Morrison, the Nobel Prize-winning novelist and scholar whose best novel, one amazing short story, and pioneering work of literary criticism might all be better than her (still plenty great) best-known novel; and Audre Lorde!
February 19: A tie between Karen Silkwood, the nuclear power plant worker and activist whose inspiring life and mysterious death made her an ideal subject for one of the 1980s most interesting American Studies films; and Amy Tan, whose multigenerational, transnational American novels and non-fiction pieces on family, heritage, and identity I’d put right there with any 20th century author's.
February 20: A tie between Frederick Douglass, who passed away on this day, one of the most significant and impressive, eloquent and brilliant, and vital and inspiring Americans; and Sidney Poitier!
February 21: A tie between three Civil Rights and cultural pioneers and leaders: Barbara Jordan, whose legislative achievements and legacy go far beyond being the first black female Congresswoman from the South; John Lewis, one of the most inspiring political figures in our history but whose efforts with SNCC and the Freedom Rides were even more vital and inspiring; and Nina Simone!
February 22: A tie between James Russell Lowell, who while not as talented a versifier as his New England peers, nor as innovative as Whitman, enjoyed a significantly more wide-ranging and multi-faceted career than any other 19th century America poet: from his unique and vital satires (such as “The Biglow Papers”) to his insightful literary criticism; his philosophical and poetic embraces of American and human ideals; and his exemplary public scholarship, such as his long tenure editing The Atlantic Monthly; and the amazing Zitkála-Šá.
February 23: W.E.B. Du Bois, who was the subject of my (sadly lost) introductory blog post for many reasons that can be boiled down to this one: I believe him to be the single most impressive and inspiring American.
February 24: Winslow Homer, whose pioneering artistic career began during the Civil War, ended in the early 20th century, and along the way exemplified new, realistic, and deeply human engagements with American settings, communities, and identities.
February 25: Chauncey Allen Goodrich, Professor of Rhetoric and Theology at Yale, benefactor and supporter of the university and of liberal education in America more generally, author of influential works on language and grammar, and, most significantly, Noah Webster’s son-in-law and the editor of Webster’s dictionary who helped extend and deepen that hugely important work.
February 26: Johnny Cash, whose hugely productive and influential half-century musical and artistic career is deeply intertwined with numerous significant American moments, issues, and histories—and, of course, full of pitch-perfect classics and wonderful surprises.
February 27: A tie between John Steinbeck, the Nobel Prize-winning novelist, regionalist, realist, and travel writer whose best novel remains one of the most significant works in American literary history; and N. Scott Momaday, the Kiowa American novelist, poet, and scholar whose Pulitzer-winning debut novel helped usher in a powerful new era in Native American literature.
February 28: Frank Gehry, the award-winning and hugely influential Canadian American architect who radically redefined the concept of home and whose Guggenheim Museum Bilbao is perhaps the late 20th century’s single most famous architectural achievement.February 29: Dee Brown, whose best-selling, tragic, and completely compelling Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee: An Indian History of the American West (1970) exemplifies the very best that revisionist history, narrative history, and quite simply American history writing, scholarship, and study can be.