October 2002 | Volume 53, Issue 5
“Overrated & Underrated” is back again for its fifth year, and like so many five-year-olds, it’s an attractive troublemaker.
Attractive because a great many of our readers enjoy it and a troublemaker because it has always had the power to deeply annoy a few of them. This is not so much because they get miffed by having an exemplar cited as “overrated,” although it certainly raised all sorts of hell when in the feature’s advent, Roger J. Spiller (see “World War II General” in this issue) questioned Robert E. Lee’s generalship. Rather, the complainers seem to feel the exercise is frivolous. They want history, not mere opinions; and they don’t want “revisionist history.” But as John Lukacs points out in his fine new book Churchill: Visionary. Statesman. Historian , “Historical thinking and writing and study are, by their nature, revisionist. The historian, unlike a judge, is permitted to try a case over and over again. . . .” All historical thinking involves tinkering with the lenses that shine the light of other days into our lives.
After his exhilarating and calamitous summer in West Egg (see “Novel”), Nick Carraway went back home to the Midwest because he “wanted the world to be in uniform and at a sort of moral attention forever.” Many find comfort in the idea that history behaves that way, that as consensus encrusts events and personalities, they become immutable, subject to inspection from any angle with uniform results if the inspectors have done their homework properly.
It isn’t true. Take so high and recent an example as Douglas MacArthur. With the exception of his military governorship of Japan, his reputation was volatile in his lifetime, and it remains so today. Did his Pacific campaigns achieve his every objective with tactical and strategic brilliance, as well as amazingly low casualties, or were they a total waste of time, effort, and blood, a sop to a powerful megalomaniac who might well disrupt the entire war effort if he didn’t get his way? This debate continues, and it likely always will.
I think “Overrated & Underrated” reminds us of the volatility of the past in an especially lively and accessible way. But it is not merely a devotion to Clio that spurred the editors to launch the series; rather, we were looking for a regular feature that might attract attention, readers, and advertisers.
It has certainly attracted attention. So much so, in fact, that last year Sports Illustrated appropriated the concept whole for a cover story. I got some calls from the press about this at the time but, I think, disappointed the reporters by failing to be indignant: It’s gratifying to have imitators on this scale.
Our contributors have from the start taken the idea seriously, and continue to. In five years, only one person sent in a response that suggested mild contempt for the project, and an art critic said something that I would have thought was an utter abdication of the most fundamental precepts of her profession, “I don’t make value judgments.”
Of course, we all make “value judgments” as instinctively as we breathe (“Emma,” my strict grandfather said to his fifteen-year-old daughter in reference to a passenger about her age who was trying to strike up an acquaintance on a Lake Ontario steamer, “that young man is either a fool or a knave”; “Willie,” I say to my son, “this homework looks like a ransom note”). We’re not spared such judgments when we’re old; we’re not spared them when we’re dead. Nor should we be. I think this year’s “Overrated & Underrated” is particularly eloquent of this.
My thanks to everyone who was willing to contribute. And to those who, I suspect, will continue to dislike the feature, I offer an example of one of its happier effects. Last year John B. Holway cited Bob Feller as the most underrated baseball player. A fan of Feller, Beryl Grist of Ohio, showed him the issue and was good enough to send us a photograph of “Rapid Robert,” now 83, enjoying it and, possibly, the fluidity of history’s verdicts—even though so very many of those subjected to them have, as the (underrated) Edwin Arlington Robinson put it, “gone where Saturn keeps the years.”