January 2: A tie between Isaac Asimov, the Russian American writer, scientist, and philosopher who helped originate and popularize an entire literary genre, taught at the BU School of Medicine for decades, and developed original insights into such crucial 20th and 21st century fields as computers, robotics, the role of technology and science in society, their relationship to spirituality, and more; and the pioneering novelist and filmmaker Oscar Micheaux.
January 3: A tie between Lucretia Coffin Mott, one of the 19th century’s most influential and prolific social activists and reformers, one of the very few Americans who can be describe as leading both the abolitionist and the suffragist movements, and by all accounts a speaker of tremendous talent, passion, and eloquence; and the groundbreaking actor and activist Anna May Wong.
January 4: Max Eastman, the poet, journalist, and political activist whose complex and always interesting and inspiring writings and life can help us trace many of the 20th century’s most prominent communities, from the Harlem Renaissance (for which he was a patron) to 1930s Communism, his modernist literary efforts to post-World War II conservative turns in his political and philosophy ideas.
January 5: Hosea Williams, the Civil Rights leader and hugely inspiring American whose exemplary 20th century life included surviving a near-lynching, serving in World War II, working closely with Martin Luther King, and founding a still-thriving organization dedicated to feeding hungry and homeless Americans.
January 6: Carl Sandburg, the son of Swedish American immigrants and a Spanish American War vet who became one of the 20th century’s most multi-talented and prolific writers: of poems that define a city and era, of a Pulitzer-winning multi-volume biography of Lincoln, and of a huge and very underrated historical novel.
January 7: Zora Neale Hurston, the Harlem Renaissance novelist, anthropologist and folklorist, and essayist whose works consistently depict the complexity and richness, the pain and promise, the horrors and hopes, of African American and American communities and lives.
January 8: Emily Green Balch, the Nobel Prize-winning anti-war activist whose near-century of inspiring American life included professing economics and sociology at Wellesley, writing pioneering books on Slavic Americans and international women’s organizing and activism (among others), and defending human rights around the globe.
January 9: Joan Baez, the folk singer-songwriter who has been an iconic presence on the American cultural landscape since Woodstock, who has done important activist work on behalf of civil and gay rights, anti-war and anti-poverty efforts, and the environment (among many other issues), and who continues to release powerful new music in the 21st century.
January 10: Robinson Jeffers, the iconoclastic poet whose works compare favorably to modernists like T.S. Eliot, American Studiers like William Carlos Williams, and natural/spiritual poets like Robert Frost, and whose biting and bracing views of human nature offer important correctives to some of our more blithely sunny ideals.
January 11: William James, the pioneering psychological, philosopher, spiritual thinker, and renaissance American who not only significantly advanced human knowledge and ideas in a number of disciplines but also played a hugely influential role in the careers and lives of both one of our greatest creative writers (his brother Henry) and (to me) the most inspiring single American (W.E.B. Du Bois).
January 12: Ira Hayes, the Pima Native American (from the Gila River community) whose service with the Marines during World War II was immortalized in his role as one of the six Iwo Jima flag raisers, who played himself in a subsequent film about the battle, and whose complex and tragic yet also crucial American identity and life have been further immortalized by such artists as Tony Curtis, Johnny Cash, and Clint Eastwood.
January 13: Salmon Chase, best known as Lincoln’s crucial Secretary of the Treasury and then as the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court who swore in Lincoln’s successor Andrew Johnson and helped uphold the 13th and 14th amendments during Reconstruction, but just as inspiringly an abolitionist lawyer and activist who helped form the 1840s Liberty Party and continued after the war to take important stands such as his support for voting rights for black men.
January 14: A tie between Tillie Olsen, the hugely unique author and activist who helped change the way Americans think about class, gender, motherhood, and identity (among other themes); and Julian Bond, the Civil Rights leader, legislator, and scholar who helped found the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and whose influences on 20th and 21st century America are immeasurable.
January 15: A tie between Martin Luther King, Jr., who of course already has a holiday in his honor but who deserves it as much as anyone I will or could nominate all year; and Ernest Gaines!
January 16: Dian Fossey, the pioneering zoologist and activist whose work with gorillas, both as a scientist studying them in the wild and as a political advocate of protecting them and their habitats, embodies the best of public research and studies (and made for a pretty good film to boot).
January 17: A tie between Ben Franklin, not because he wrote a relatively self-aggrandizing autobiography that helped launch the idealized “self-made man” narrative, nor because he gradually changed his mind on his xenophobic opposition to Germans in Pennsylvania (although he did indeed change), but because he was one of the first and remains one of the most impressive genuinely renaissance Americans, and one who (the Germans notwithstanding) modeled attitudes of tolerance and community that can and should inspire all Americans; and Muhammad Ali, who needs no further introduction!a
January 18: Daniel Hale Williams, the first African American cardiologist and a physician and surgeon of tremendous talent and influence, but also a pioneering social activist: Williams opened the Provident Hospital and Nursing Training School for young African Americans, served as surgeon-in-chief at Washington’s Freedmen’s Hospital, and, when denied membership in the American Medical Association, founded the National Medical Association.
January 19: Edgar Allan Poe, one of the couple most famous American writers (you get a football team named after you, you’re at the top of the list) but still underappreciated for the breadth and depth of his talent: the guy helped create and popularize not only realistic psychological horror, but also the detective story, science fiction, and modern literary criticism—all before the age of forty! (To say nothing of his innovative, mathematically precise yet still emotionally resonant poetry.)
January 20: Buzz Aldrin, the pioneering astronaut and advocate for space exploration who performed America’s first spacewalk, was one of the first men to walk on the moon, and has continued to make an impassioned case for the values of exploration and science ever since—most especially and inspiringly in his books for and work with schoolchildren.
January 21: Roger Nash Baldwin, the influential social worker and probation officer who, in response to World War I and the need for an organization to support and defend conscientious objectors, helped found and then directed for many years the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), spearheading many of the ACLU’s signature legal and social efforts.
January 22: Noah Phelps, the Revolutionary War officer whose efforts as a spy led directly to one of the war’s earliest and most significant victories (Ethan Allen’s capture of Fort Ticonderoga), and who continued to serve the new nation politically for many years, chairing the meeting that passed Connecticut’s Articles of Confederation and serving as a delegate to the state’s Constitutional Convention.
January 23: Gertrude Belle Elion, the Nobel Prize-winning medical researcher and chemist who was the daughter of two Jewish immigrants and one of America’s most pioneering female scientists, creating her own career and opportunities as well as much of the field of modern medical research.
January 24: Edith Wharton, the novelist and scholar who was the first American woman awarded the Pulitzer prize, who became a self-educated authority on topics as diverse as architecture and travel, and whose best works of fiction engage realistically with both social and psychological identity as well as any American writer.
January 25: Etta James!
January 26: A tie between Bessie Coleman, the first black woman in the world to earn an aviator’s license and, to my mind, an even more inspiring and pioneering aviator and American than Amelia Earhart (which is no knock on Earhart); and Paul Newman, not for his iconic and impressively long and diverse career in film so much as for his incredibly successful and inspiring work as a philanthropist and activist.
January 27: Samuel Gompers, the Anglo-Jewish immigrant and cigar maker who became one of the labor movement’s earliest and most eloquent and committed leaders and advocates.
January 28: José Martí, the Cuban American revolutionary, political and social activist and leader, journalist and translator and essayist and poet, and general transnational Renaissance American whose essay “Our America” makes a perfect case for precisely that transnational American Studies identity and community.
January 29: Edward Abbey, the pioneering environmentalist, naturalist, and activist whose books Desert Solitaire and The Monkey Wrench Gang (among many others) join the works of Thoreau, John Muir, and Rachel Carson at the summit of American naturalist and activist writing. [NOTE: I learned on Twitter in 2022 after Abbey's frustrating racism and xenophobia--for now I'm leaving this entry here, as it reflects the presence of such attitudes across so much of American culture and history, but I'm very open to other nominees for January 29th of course!]
January 30: A tie between Thomas Rolfe, the son of Pocahontas and John Rolfe and so the first prominent mixed race American child (and one whose English and Virginian life is full of both the complexities and the promises of cross-cultural American identity); Franklin Delano Roosevelt, without whose influence (whatever your political perspectives) 20th century American and world history would have been entirely different; and reader nomination Fred Korematsu.January 31: Jackie Robinson, one of the most socially significant American sports figures and a pretty talented baseball player to boot.