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Reputations

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Difficult Reputations: Collective Memories of the Evil, Inept, and Controversial. By Gary Alan Fine. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2001. 267 pp.

Every good story needs its hero and its villain. In Gary Alan Fine’s book, Difficult Reputations: Collective Memories of the Evil, Inept, and Controversial, he urges the importance of history’s villains, and those with controversial reputations, in modern society. Eight case studies are used to show how controversial figures in public memory (ranging from Benedict Arnold to Henry Ford to Fatty Arbuckle) acquired difficult reputations and the effects that those reputations had on the American people. In Fine’s introduction, he makes a case for the relevance of figures with difficult reputations. American society has a tendency to focus on reputational heroes such as George Washington and Abraham Lincoln who represent the center of American morality. Fine argues that those with difficult reputations are just as important because they represent the boundaries of morality. Portrayals of these figures as villains are thus examples for the people of what is morally unacceptable in American society. Fine then explains the importance of reputational entrepreneurs in the construction of reputations. He defines reputational entrepreneurs as those who help construct reputations in ways that benefit their own agendas. In the case of morality, reputational entrepreneurs can benefit society by constructing negative reputations for those whose actions are immoral. However, as shown in Chapter 7’s demonstration of literary circles in New York in the mid-1800s, reputational entrepreneurs can be solely self-interested and portray reputations in ways to benefit themselves even if they are false or don’t benefit anyone else. Therefore, Fine shows the importance of knowing the source of a reputational construction and if/how the reputation helps the author. When someone has a set reputation, it can be hard to explain his or her actions that contradict the reputation. Fine explains that when figures with good reputations make mistakes, the mistakes are accredited to human nature. However, when figures with bad reputations act morally well, there are two ways to explain it. First, one can suggest a moral change in the figure that has a point of moral decline or moral enlightenment. The other option is to look at the morally good actions and to try to shed a new light on them that makes them appear as bad as the person’s immoral actions. Fine shows in Chapter 1 with the story of Benedict Arnold that the second option can often turn into a demonization of the figure, which can change history. For even though Arnold was a war hero before he became a traitor, commemorations of him for his accomplishments are now empty or nameless. The book then explains how reputations can be formed in a one-sided manner. The reputations of Warren Harding and John Brown, for example, largely resulted from a lack of opposition. In Warren Harding’s case, no one would defend his good reputation after his death because the Democrats wanted to show Republican mistakes and the Republicans wanted to distance themselves from the scandals during Harding’s presidency. Conversely, no one would oppose John Brown’s good reputation because the Union saw him as an abolitionist martyr and the Confederacy seceded and therefore left the reputational debate. Yet, these reputations greatly affected American society and may have influenced the outcomes of a Presidential election and the Civil War, respectively. The book’s fourth major character is that of Henry Ford, whom had multiple reputations based on multiple audiences. Fine suggests that such characters use different means to portray a positive self-image to each audience. He argues that Ford was a reputational genius in his early years by telling the story of the peace ship that he sent overseas during World War I, which won him the hearts of many customers. He also describes Ford’s five-dollar workday, which Ford portrayed as a profit-sharing plan to his stockholders, as a reputational chess move that was viewed favorably by both workers and stockholders. The final story of Ford’s near-presidential campaign that was endorsed by common people all across the nation shows the significance of his reputation and how far even businessmen’s reputations can take them. Fine’s book, Difficult Reputations: Collective Memories of the Evil, Inept, and Controversial, provides a strong case for the influence and power of the reputations of controversial figures in history with a wide variety of sources. It is easy to tell that a great amount of work was put into the research that includes biographies, books, newspapers, oral histories, and much more. Although Fine admits that he is a social psychologist and not a historian, the historical work is very impressive and deserves applause. Since each chapter is a case study, it can be a little difficult to follow from one chapter to the next. However, the author does an excellent job of tying the main ideas together in both the introduction and conclusion, which allows the book to function as a single piece of literature. Altogether, Difficult Reputations: Collective Memories of the Evil, Inept, and Controversial is meant for a large audience that does not require any previous knowledge for comprehension. However, those with a strong interest in history, reputations, and psychology, especially social psychology, might find more value in the book’s theoretical aspects of collective memory and identity. The book’s organization of case studies keeps the reader interested in each chapter’s new controversial figure, while the introduction and conclusion tie the main ideas together and stress the importance of controversial reputations. The book was a very interesting piece of literature that can be of use to any and all readers with a thirst for knowledge. It displayed the true power of controversial reputations and how they can influence wars, presidencies, and the most important aspects of American society. It also showed how reputational entrepreneurs can use this power toward tremendous personal gain, and how societies use reputations for their own benefit. In essence, readers learn how to interpret the reputations all around them and how previous interpretations have affected the present. However, Fine leaves it up to the audience to decide how its interpretations of reputations today will affect the future.…...

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