Difficult Reputations: Collective Memories of the Evil, Inept, and Controversial.
Gary Fine has given us an illuminating study of historical and literary figures from Colonial to mid-twentieth century America. His subjects are varied and sometimes unexpected, including not only individuals who once lived but also a pair of literary characters (Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita and Humbert Humbert) and a place (Sinclair Lewis's Sauk Centre, represented in Main Street as Gopher Prairie). Although Fine approaches his material sociologically, his inclusion of literary texts underscores his point that the construction of reputation, like the construction of a work of fiction, involves an imaginative shaping of character and plot. Thus Benedict Arnold, subject of his first chapter, is constructed as a villain with the sinister duplicity of Shakespeare's Richard III, another figure who would lend himself beautifully to such reputational analysis.
Reputational analysis inevitably raises an epistemological question: in what senses do we "know" Richard III, or Benedict Arnold, or O. J. Simpson? In his introduction Fine touches on the fact that we may "recognize the thinness of our knowledge of [celebrity] figures" even as the fact of their celebrity connects us to them and affords us opportunities to "converse about vital social matters" that their lives illustrate. Celebrity, in fact, confers a fictive familiarity so that we respond to celebrities "as if we knew their motivations and values" (4). Thus even at the outset we see how equivocal the term "knowledge" is as applied to the subject of reputation, since Fine himself gets caught in the slippage between "thin" knowledge (of the obscure and arguably unknowable "actual" individual) and the "thick" knowing that we construct as we engage in the fictionmaking that surrounds celebrities. At times, Fine's attention to explaining his theoretical stance--a social constructionism modified by "cautious naturalism" (15-17)--actually hampers his analysis, since reputation, unlike the individuals possessing (or masked by) reputation, has no possible existence apart from its constructed one.
The eight chapter titles give a good overview of the nature and scope of the book: "Benedict Arnold and the Commemoration of Treason," "Warren Harding and the Memory of Incompetence," "John Brown and the Legitimation of Political Violence," "Fatty Arbuckle and the Creation of Public Attention," "Henry Ford and the Multiple-Audience Problem," "Vladimir Nabokov, Lolita, and the Creation of Imaginary Social Relations," "Herman Melville and the Demise of Literary Reputation," and "Sinclair Lewis, Main Street, and Community Reputation." Each chapter, as well as the introduction, ends with an extensive list of references.
The "difficult reputations" to which the book's title refers are reputations that are not positive and stable. Fine examines three types: reputations that are negative because the individual has violated the society's canonical values; reputations that are contested, that is, in the process of being formed or re-formed; and reputations that are divided along the lines of differing subcultural viewpoints and values. These three categories are useful as an initial approach to the subject, but because of their overlap, they have a certain conceptual awkwardness. Contested reputations are identified as those of a specific category, yet contestation is also a process to which any sort of reputation--positive or negative, singular or plural--may be subjected--in other words, contestation is a potential attribute of the whole.
Fine's cases effectively show how the processes of reputation formation and revision exhibit certain common characteristics regardless of historical period. Such a study could be augmented by an examination of the particular effects of current journalistic/communications practices and media. For instance, how has the Internet, with its capacity to facilitate the contestation and proliferation of multiple reputations, increased reputational "difficulty"? What are the consequences of the American appetite for tabloid journalism (and its televised counterpart), with its increasingly shameless invasions and inventions of private lives, so that would-be heroes are reduced to buffoons by being caught, literally or figuratively, with their pants down? At the same time, public relations has fostered the reverse phenomenon, a sort of preemptive strike whereby the managers of a public figure glorify that individual, for instance as a "compassionate conservative," which of course invites contestation but also shapes the terms that the contestation will take (not compassionate? not a conservative?). However, since these current problems and practices fall outside the scope of Fine's book, it can hardly be faulted for not covering them. Indeed, one of the book's merits is that it invites just this sort of extension and speculation.
Fine's work exemplifies how biography provides us with a form of history, the individual standing in synecdochally for the period or sequence of events with which he or she is associated. Reputation, difficult or otherwise, gives us "a shorthand way of conceptualizing a person, and it is a powerful metaphor for thinking about a period or set of events" (7). Since indeed it is precisely the individual as characterized by reputation--not the irretrievable, unmediated individual--that is exhibited in our historical narratives, the first point is perhaps tautological, but the second is a useful reminder about the operation of historical tropes. In these pages we glimpse the power of visual images, anecdotes, poetry. For example, Fine quotes a poem by John Greenleaf Whittier on the occasion of John Brown's execution. This "beatific image" (105) of a violent man transformed by tenderness was apparently invented by an anti-slavery journalist and became part of Brown's legend:
John Brown of Osawatomie, They led him out to die; And lo!--a poor slave-mother With her little child pressed nigh. Then the bold blue eyes grew tender, And the old harsh face grew mild, As he stooped between the jeering ranks And kissed the negro's child! (105)
When reading this poem, I was reminded of e.e. cummings's eulogy to President Harding, another of Fine's subjects:
the first president to be loved by his bitterest enemies" is dead the only man woman or child who wrote a simple declarative sentence with seven grammatical errors "is dead" (Collected Poems, 1926, no. 200)
Moving from substance to style, Fine's approach is somewhat vitiated by the problem of voice--an authorial "I," which is used frequently (though not throughout) and is most noticeable when theory or method is being discussed. Yet much of the book was composed collaboratively, so this singular voice leads to occasional uncertainty as to whose views are being represented. In his acknowledgments, Fine explains that five of the eight studies comprising the book were coauthored with former graduate students, and that in these five (two of which were master's theses), "the students are properly first authors" (ix). Although Fine is careful to give credit where it is due, we are left with a rhetorical problem that leads to a bit of a structural problem as well.
Given the multiple authorship, the volume might more usefully be evaluated as a collection of essays, were it not for that controlling voice. In his introduction Fine remarks that "the eight case studies do not by themselves make for an intellectually coherent argument; my task in this introduction is to sketch what a broader approach to the analysis of difficult reputations might entail." Here we have the essence of the problem. We would expect that these case studies, given their multiple authors, would not have such coherence, so why not turn an admitted shortcoming into an advantage by emphasizing rather than downplaying the variety of viewpoints? More diversity of voice--unedited and unrevised by Fine--would perhaps have given this volume more richness in its approaches to the subject of reputation.
Perhaps as a consequence of the multiple authorship, the book occasionally bogs down in what seems a repetitive discussion of theory and method--a discussion that could have been developed more thoroughly in the introduction and then referred to only briefly within the chapters. At the same time, several apologetic-seeming disclaimers might be eliminated. For instance, Fine disclaims the title of historian, explaining that as a sociologist he has other goals and standards: "To suggest that in five years I could write conscientious historical essays on eight different periods from the 1780s to the 1950s would be laughable. Instead, I must describe how I perceive the methodology" (23). The first of these sentences again raises the problem of voice, since we already know (if we have taken the time to read his acknowledgments) that he did not in fact author all eight essays. His words also point ahead to one aspect of the methodological problem. He proceeds to explain that most of the research in this book depends on secondary sources: "I did not feel it necessary to travel to dusty archives, although my coauthors and I spent much time reading the accounts of those who had. In essence literary, economic, cultural, and political historians served as research assistants" (23) We may feel uneasy about the dismissal of those "dusty archives" and the reduction of other scholars to the functional status of "research assistants" (not to mention that ubiquitous "I") but surely there is a more intellectually defensible (and clearer) way to determine and justify the method. This book examines not a number of individuals who are hidden behind or beneath a layer of texts, but rather a number of very visible reputations that are constructed by and recorded in texts which cumulatively had wide enough circulation to shape public opinion. Thus the research logically would be directed toward those texts. If some of them are now housed in "dusty archives," then they must be sought there; otherwise not.
By expounding his theoretical approach at several points in the book, Fine not only weakens the coherence of the whole work but also sometimes foregrounds the discussion of general principles to an extent that the particulars of the individual case recede from view. Yet Fine's "cautious naturalism" does not seem in itself to warrant much discussion, indeed affording undesirable opportunities for semantic or conceptual slippage. The proof of its utility lies in the application, and his ideas find their best expression when he focuses on "the process by which reputations are made or unmade" (259). His close readings of reputation entertainingly support his concluding observation: "History is filled with stories and with storytellers" (259) and with a rich cast of characters--heroic, villainous, and ambiguously "difficult."
University of Missouri, Columbia