Kenworthy has offered his readers twelve inspirational synopses of undeniably important and useful lives. Some of these biographies first appeared in the closing years of World War II and, because of the book’s popularity, were amended and updated in subsequent printings. It was not written because the author intended to lecture readers on how to become “great.” Realistically, he was frank to declare that most of them had little chance for that. Rather, his purpose was to provide them with “stars” by which they could better steer their lives in profoundly unsettled times.
In so doing, Kenworthy notes that “the Twelve,” as he calls his subjects, were often unpopular figures, some of them for particular actions undertaken during parts of their careers, others for calling down permanent prejudices against themselves in some quarters. This, Kenworthy explains, was because they were ahead of their times. Gandhi, for example, was profoundly feared and distrusted by British authorities as well as by large numbers of both Moslems and Hindus—as his assassination indicated. Similarly, Eleanor Roosevelt was always subjected to derision for her work on behalf of labor, women, and minorities. Even after she served as a U.S. delegate to the United Nations and had gained international stature in her own right, she continued to be the butt of vicious jokes and a provocation to people with deeply ingrained prejudices. It was much the same for Sun Yat-sen, who at various points in his career was depicted as a dangerous revolutionary or dissident,...
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Kenworthy intended his book to be inspirational, and insofar as he chose exceptionally able people who in the course of their careers expended time, effort, and often their popularity to improve the lives of others, he succeeded. The book was first published during the last months of World War II, then reprinted in the first years of the Cold War. Its author tried to bring some light and hope to young readers amid unprecedented calamities and uncertainties.
While these are not fictionalized biographies, they are rather simplistic and uncritical. Toscanini, for example, was unquestionably a musical genius who contributed to the internationalization of classic musical scores, but he should not be portrayed as lovable or as an expert in the art of human relations: He could be both tyrannical and egomaniacal. Likewise, whatever the merit of his rhetoric, Sun Yat-sen could arguably be dismissed as neither a particularly brilliant nor successful Chinese politician. Ralph Bunche probably had less of an impact at the United Nations on colonial peoples than he did on African Americans as a racial symbol and on white politicians who needed black support. Gandhi reportedly mistreated his wife. Such notations, to be sure, do not diminish the importance of Kenworthy’s subjects in particular situations or deny that they lived useful lives; however, much of their humanity is stripped away in the glare of an awed, inspirational approach.