Difficult Reputations: Collective Memories of the Evil, Inept, and Controversial.

Author:Lawson, Jessie
Position:Book review

Difficult Reputations: Collective Memories of the Evil, Inept, and Controversial. By Gary Alan Fine. (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 2001. Pp. xi + 267, acknowledgments, chapter references, index.)

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...

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