Monday, June 8, 2009

What's the Opposite of an Historical Postcard?

Last August I read about the Battle of New Orleans and offered the idea of “historical postcards”-- those events that are seared into the memory of an entire generation.

At the time I suggested five postcards for the late Baby Boomers: 9/11, the Challenger disaster, the moon landing, MLK, and JFK.

I also wondered about the “Stan Musial problem,” which Bill James offered up in his marvelous Historical Baseball Abstract (1986): “The image of Musial seems to be fading quickly. Maybe I'm wrong, but it doesn't seem to me that you hear much about him anymore, compared to such comparable stars as Mantle, Williams, Mays and DiMaggio, and to the extent that you do hear of him it doesn't seem that the image is very sharp. . .He makes a better statue.”

Why does that happen, I wonder? It's almost the reverse of the historical postcard, when an event or person who is vibrant and important in public life seems to rapidly fade once her or she is no longer practicing their craft.

Jim Thorpe was voted the greatest athlete of the first fifty years of the twentieth century. Where’d he go?  Mary Pickford was the most popular actress and maybe best-known woman in the world, auctioning off one of her curls for $15,000 to raise money during WWI. Where’d she go?

The Mexican-American War of 1846—it's the war in which Winfield Scott taught Grant and Lee how to fight, the war that saw at Veracruz the most dramatic amphibious landing before D-Day--not to mention the subsequent securing of the “Halls of Montezumas” in Mexico City. Long afterward, the son of Dwight Eisenhower would call Winfield Scott “the most capable soldier this country has ever produced.”  Where did Scott go? 

For that matter, what happened to George Marshall, who raised an army of 7 million men and was said to be the closest thing to George Washington that America produced in the 20th century?

Ever since my post on historical postcards, I've been wondering about cultural memory.  It's a fascinating puzzle--this idea of a national lost and found bin--even in the business world.  It would be hard for most Americans to name one CEO from the Fortune 500 of 1976, even though these men and women were giants of their time. Malcolm Gladwell has even opined that Steve Jobs will be forgotten someday.  Hard to believe?  Ask Jim Thorpe.  Ask Mary Pickford.

For that matter, ask Clifton C. Garvin, Jr. who, in 1976, was CEO of Exxon, the largest corporation in America.