October 2004 | Volume 55, Issue 5
Its back again, and six years of experience has taught me that it’s going to make some readers angry. Others will tell us it’s their favorite feature. Save for a now-distant cover story about Jane Fonda, nothing we’ve published has elicited such vehement responses as “Overrated & Underrated.” This is not because it is controversial, in the usual sense of the word, although it may touch on subjects close to people. For instance, in the category of Regional Food, Danny Meyer —who owns a clutch of the best restaurants in Manhattan—boldly addresses the subject of barbecue (on which even people raised in the Yankee fastness of inland Maine have strong opinions) and then disses ramps, which not so long ago were featured on the menu of one of his celebrated chefs, Kerry Heffernan, in his splendid establishment Eleven Madison Park. This is certainly food for discussion but not the kind of thing that ordinarily draws cancel-my-subscription letters.
Here, though, it will. The reason is that many take offense not at any particular category but at the exercise itself. As season after season of letters testify, the disaffected find it a frivolous and even a meretricious way of looking at history. I also suspect that they feel we are diminishing the most important aspects of our past by allotting them equal time with the more mundane. In this issue, for instance, Candy Bar and Civil War General occupy roughly the same amount of room. But does this really trivialize the general, inflate the candy bar? After all, the grand and the small live side by side together in our fears and our affections throughout our lives. When, in Stephen Vincent Benét’s wonderful fable “The Devil and Daniel Webster,” the senator argues against Satan before a jury of the damned for the soul of his neighbor Jabez Stone, he doesn’t sway the jurors solely with his famous oratorical thunder. Instead, ”. . . to one, his voice was like the forest and its secrecy, and to another like the sea and the storms of the sea; and one heard the cry of his lost nation in it, and another saw a little harmless scene he hadn’t remembered for years.” The candy bar as well as the general saves Jabez Stone.
But besides putting the homely down on our palette with the momentous, the feature makes in a concise and engaging way a most important historical point: History isn’t history. That is, although the past is all we have to guide us as we negotiate the seemingly solid ground of the present, that ground is always in motion, and we look back from changing vantage points. A generation ago Thomas Jefferson was by far the most revered of the Founders, and Alexander Hamilton was someone on the ten—the twenty?—dollar bill. Now, in a beleaguered time when federalism is beginning to seem increasingly significant to a good many people, Hamilton’s star is in the ascendant.
This will change, and neither star will ever be extinguished. But both will turn in their courses, and “Overrated & Underrated” will continue to chart this most alive of all historical processes.
To conclude this defense against attacks yet unleashed, I will cite two new books, one of them excerpted in this issue, that make, in the most absorbing way, the point that George Washington is underrated. Yes, he’s one of the two most famous Americans, but he did what he did a long time ago, and his accomplishment is so much a part of us that it can seem to have been somehow inevitable—that history was awaiting him, and any competent virtuous man who was there just then could have successfully ridden its current.
In our excerpt from His Excellency: George Washington , Joseph Ellis makes very clear that this was hardly the case. The American Presidency was not a vacuum waiting to be filled with protocol; it was a howling wilderness whose mountains and canyons had to be scaled and bridged by the extemporizations of the one man who could do it. And for the next four years George Bush or John Kerry will be moving along a road that Washington cut for him.
Ellis’s fine new biography is a bracingly brief (but never cursory) account of Washington’s whole career. Richard Ketchum, in Victory at Yorktown: The Campaign That Won the Revolution , examines a single phase of that career. One tends to think (or at least I did) of Yorktown as a culmination of increasingly effective campaigns by an increasingly confident American army. Moreover, the French were here with their gold and their battleships, so all was well. Actually, as Ketchum shows in a gripping, headlong narrative, the Continental cause was in worse shape than it had been at any time since the dire winter of 1776. Just as Washington had hung on and saved it then at Trenton and Princeton, so he did again five awful years later. The French gave us muscle and money; but Washington gave us our nerve.
So, from barbecue to the most crucial weeks of our national existence. The fact that “Overrated & Underrated” makes such leaps in the span of a few pages is only a distillation of what this magazine has done in every issue from the very beginning, playing its light on the alligator farm and the transcontinental railway alike, on Hershey’s Kisses, and Omaha Beach.