I've been re-reading Hilary Mantel's "Wolf Hall" and "Bring Up the Bodies" because I want to, because I love her writing style, and because I'm really looking forward to the third volume. But it's made me think about reputation and how it changes over time.
There was a time when Teddy Roosevelt was that madman only one heartbeat away from the presidency - now he's Theodore Rex. In his own time, Harry Truman was considered an average numbskull - if not downright impeachable, especially for his opposition to General Macarthur and Big Mac's idea of bombing China - but after Watergate, Merle Miller's transcripts of Harry's "Plain Speaking" became a best-seller, and his salty speech and down home ways proved his integrity in a corrupt world. Every American reader of "Life" Magazine from the 1920s through the early 40s knew that General Chiang Kai-Shek was democracy's one great hope in China; but after WWII, with China gone Communist, his brutal takeover in Taiwan, and his constant demands for money (and nukes), he became widely known as "General Cash-My-Check."
|Chiang Kai-Shek, his wife, Mei-ling Soong, and General Stillwell, who called CKS "Peanut" - |
and not affectionately.
Much of reputation depends on timing. Histories aren't written in a vacuum, nor are plays, novels, movies, television shows. There are reasons behind what is written. Sometimes we know what they are; sometimes we don't. Sometimes we're too close to know, and it will take later people to figure it out.
For example, there's an ancient historian named Plutarch, who wrote biographies and histories back around 100 CE: "The Lives of the Noble Romans and the Noble Greeks", and "On Sparta." They are major sources for historians about the ancient world - especially Sparta, which wasn't known for writing down much of anything. There are only two problems with Plutarch's work: his biographies were written to show the influence of character on lives and destinies - and he didn't believe people could change. And "On Sparta" reeks of nostalgia for a society in which everyone was equal, honest, brave, above sordid things like money and greed and luxury. And the question is, why did Plutarch - writing 500 years after Sparta was dead and gone - write so admiringly of a society that was totally dedicated to war AND based on one of the most horrifyingly brutal slave-owning regimes in a world that has known some pretty bad ones? Good question. Well, one answer might be that he was writing during the reign of the Emperor Trajan, which saw the greatest military expansion of the Roman Empire:
|The Roman Empire under Trajan - most of the known world of the day|
|Earliest known |
portrait of Richard III
|Yeah, like this is serious history|
NOTE: My next blog is New Year's Day, and I will be doing a review of our own Janice Law's new novel, "The Prisoner of the Riviera". I started it last night and I can tell you this much: - it's really, really good…