Historical Figures in Our Shared Collective Memories We Should Never Forget….

If you are a historian (which I am not) or an amateur historian in the form of an alternative-history novelist (which I seem to have become), and if you set your tale deep enough in the past, you spend quite a lot of time studying up on people . . . who are dead, along with their beloved children and grandchildren and, if they were lucky enough to know them, their great-grandchildren, too. Not only that but, if the person was famous enough, you can quickly learn not only when they died, but where and how. Died at home of consumption. Thrown from a horse into the road before, most unfortunately, being run down by a cabriolet. Burned at the stake. It is a kind of weird super-power over the past.

There is a downside, though. The whole exercise tends to remind you rather starkly of your own mortality.

While trying to put that out of mind, I have, however, long puzzled over a mystery. Why do some historical figures, famous in their day, some of them famous enough to have, in their time, (quoting Cassius on Julius Caesar), bestrode “the narrow world like a Colossus.” And yet, “poof!” many of them are now, if not totally gone from popular memory, at least vastly diminished.

Let’s take Ulysses S. Grant as an example of diminished.

In his time, Grant was as famous as you can get in the United States and in much of the rest of world as well. But my guess is that if you were to ask high school students today about him, he would be reduced to a set of headlines: Led the Union Army to victory in the Civil War, served as President of the United States. And not much else. Well, maybe a sophisticated high schooler might know that the Grant administration was deeply corrupt.

Of course, historical figures can be revived. Here’s a story about that. One day, about ten years ago, my wife and I were in Manhattan and ended up with a spare afternoon. It was a pretty summer day, so we said, “Let’s go up to Grant’s Tomb. Haven’t been there since college.”

The tomb is in Riverside Park on the upper West Side of Manhattan.  When we got there, the place was empty except for an elderly National Park Service ranger, who told us that his gig was reserved for rangers about to retire, because hardly anyone ever visited. (Grant’s tomb, if you’ve never seen it, looks eerily like a near copy of Napoleon’s tomb at Les Invalides in Paris.)

When we were done poking around, we said to the ranger, “We have some more time this afternoon. What else is around here that might be interesting to visit?”

“Well,” he said, “Alexander Hamilton’s house isn’t far away. No one ever goes there, either.”

Hence, some figures can indeed be restored to popular memory, sometimes by the oddest thing (by a rap musical? really? wow!). Grant could be on the way to restoration, too. Ron Chernow has written a brilliant, highly readable new Grant biography (Grant), and Leonardo DiCaprio has optioned it for a movie.

But consider this: In August, 1927, thousands marched in front of the White House to protest the scheduled execution of Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti, Italian immigrant anarchists who had been convicted of the murder of two men who were transporting a payroll near Boston. It was the criminal trial of the decade, and whatever one thinks about their possible guilt, their trial was seriously biased and procedurally unfair. Hundreds of books were written about it. Movies were made. Memorials were put up.

And yet . . . I have taught a law school course for many years called Law and Popular Culture, in which I taught that case. In the last ten years only one law student in my class had ever heard of Sacco and Vanzetti. Why had he alone heard of them? Because back in the 1930s his great-grandfather, who was an Italian immigrant, had told his grandfather, apparently a difficult teenager, “If you go on behaving like this, you’ll end up like Sacco and Vanzetti.” The grandfather told my student the story, who, close to a hundred years later, regaled us with it in class.

So what might insure enduring fame? Well, if you hold an important office like the presidency, as long as the United States endures you will be remembered at least as part of a list, and you make yourself available to be revived. Anyone for a light opera celebrating Chester A. Arthur?

It also helps if your cause endures and is still being actively promoted by people. It can help if you write a great autobiography, but not always. Grant’s autobiography is a great one, and was edited by Mark Twain; but it hasn’t helped him be remembered all that much. It sometimes helps if you did something truly notorious that continues to horrify (Jack the Ripper, even though we don’t know for sure who he was). In the end, though, I think it is largely random. I’ve concluded that there is only so much room for dead people in our collective cultural memory, and when someone new moves in, someone else has to go.


About The Day Lincoln Lost

Abby Kelley Foster arrived in Springfield, Illinois, with the fate of the nation on her mind. Her fame as an abolitionist speaker had spread west and she knew that her first speech in the city would make headlines. One of the residents reading those headlines would be none other than the likely next president of the United States.

Abraham Lincoln, lawyer and presidential candidate, knew his chances of winning were good. All he had to do was stay above the fray of the slavery debate and appear the voice of compromise until the people cast their votes. The last thing he needed was a fiery abolitionist appearing in town. When her speech sparks violence, leading to her arrest and a high-profile trial, he suspects that his political rivals have conspired against him.

President James Buchanan is one such rival. As his term ends and his political power crumbles, he gathers his advisers at the White House to make one last move that might derail Lincoln’s campaign, steal the election and throw America into chaos.

About Charles Rosenberg

Charles Rosenberg is the author of the legal thriller Death on a High Floor and its sequels. The credited legal consultant to the TV shows LA Law, Boston Legal, The Practice, and The Paper Chase, he was also one of two on-air legal analysts for E! Television’s coverage of the O.J. Simpson criminal and civil trials. He teaches as an adjunct law professor at Loyola Law School and has also taught at UCLA, Pepperdine and Southwestern law schools. He practices law in the Los Angeles area.