May/June 1998 | Volume 49, Issue 3
It has been a little under a decade since the editors here pestered a group of historians and journalists with these questions: “1. In all of American history, whom do you consider the single most overrated public figure? 2. Most underrated?” The response was generous and so interesting that we never quite got over it.
Neither did our readers. Again and again, even after years had passed, someone would tell us how he or she remembered, with either fondness or irritation, a passage from that particular issue. Eventually we found ourselves discussing how to strike the same chord once more. Clearly we couldn’t do it ourselves—that is, we editors make up a list of various American things and declare them either overrated or underrated. At the very best the result of such an exercise would seem arrogant and contentious; at worst, arrogant and contentious and dull. No, we had to go back out to the world with our query, and it couldn’t be the identical query. Yet we could discover no sensible follow-up. Even asking something so broad as what American thing is most overrated or underrated would have sounded weird.
In the end, though, we lit on a solution that perhaps should have been obvious to us from the start, a way to ensure the variety so necessary to this feature’s success. We began assembling, tentatively at first and then with growing enthusiasm, a list of categories and matching them to possible writers—in effect, little assignments. Then we sent them out.
We were very pleased with the result (so much so that we’re going to do it again next year), and I’ll be surprised if you too don’t find it interesting, amusing, and significant. Significant because the responses—whether Max Rudin’s defense of a yuppie generation that seems despised even by its own members or Roger Spiller’s unsentimental assessment of the much-sentimentalized Robert E. Lee or Nicholas Lemann’s rueful weighing of Brown v. Board of Education —reflect the fact that this exercise is not merely a game of categorization. To say “overrated/underrated” is to summarize the historian’s work—indeed the work of anyone navigating his way through the world.
For such calculations are the lights we steer by. Two other articles in this issue suggest this, and we could cast the substance of their message thus: UNDERRATED —the Spanish-American War; OVERRATED —trolleys.
The war lies beyond the devastation of the great twentieth-century struggles, beyond the century’s turn, in a sort of Yankee Ruritania, a picturesque and slightly silly land where naive Americans preened and postured and showed off their dandy new toy Navy by beating up on the remnants of a long-decayed power. In fact, says John Lukacs in his hundredth-anniversary assessment, it was a modern war of the first importance. The opening guns of that conflict signaled the fact that this nation had the inclination and the capability to dominate the coming century.
But why think about trolleys? Those engaging vehicles with their quaint clerestories and their blunt, squared-off fronts (which John Lukacs once described as looking like Theodore Roosevelt’s face) have come to seem not only an appealing technology but a rational one that whisked Americans efficiently to their destinations before social fragmentation set in and people selfishly sealed themselves up in automobiles. And as Robert Post explains, this is not just harmless nostalgia; communities are spending billions of dollars to re-create, under the rubric of “light rail,” what turns out to be an antiquated transportation system whose benefits lie mostly in the realm of an imagined past.
So this scrutiny of historical objects and figures and events can have significant ramifications, and we thank everyone who responded to our queries not only for helping assemble an intriguing feature but for reminding us that such judgments are a part of the continuous mediation with the past that forms our sense of history. Their contributions help us see that this past does not lie formed and final like some stratum of rock; rather it is a volatile place where the reputations of people and the utility of ideas fluctuate just as they do in the living world.