American Heritage

Articles from Vol. 50, No. 3, May

Adage
Most Overrated Adage: "If anything can go wrong, it will was well known in the fifties and sixties, when it passed for just another bit of clever bulletin-board wisdom. All that changed in 1977, when an enterprising fellow named Arthur Bloch came out...
Autobiography or Journal
Most Overrated Autobiography or Journal: Democracy in America, by Alexis de Tocqueville. It easily wins the most quoted/ least read award. Though brilliant, of course, in parts, it has a key premise that is a shallow reading of American character:...
Ballpark
Most Overrated Ballpark: Ebbets Field, Brooklyn. There is perhaps no more misunderstood symbol of the so-called golden age of baseball, no stadium so disproportionately eulogized, than Brooklyn's old Ebbets Field. All the candles being held for it...
Ballplayer
Most Overrated Ballplayer: It would be easy to pick on Rabbit Maranville and Rick Ferrell, both Hall of Famers, for this designation. Rabbit, a shortstop, played for more than twenty-three years in the major leagues, had a lifetime batting average...
City
Most Overrated City: Which city's most intrinsic interest has been most exaggerated? The obvious choice is Washington, D.C.--whose reputation is inflated by its denizens, of course, but even more by its detractors. In fact you might say that belittlement...
Civil War General
Most Overrated Civil War General: William Tecumseh Sherman. The Pooh-Bahs of generalship persist in ranking him behind only Grant (or ahead of him) in the pantheon of Union commanders. Yet in fact, when it came to the battlefield, Sherman was not that...
Decade
Most Overrated Decade: Say "the sixties" and sappy nostalgia seems to follow reflexively. Well, Age of Aquarius, baloney. Greening of America, hooey. Got to get back to the garden, gimme a giant break. Talk about false dawns. The sixties heralded a...
Education Initiative
Most Overrated Education Initiative: That's easy: The Servicemen's Readjustment Act of 1944, a.k.a, the GI Bill. I'm not saying the GI Bill wasn't successful. But the current understanding of the most revered piece of educational legislation in American...
Environmental Program
Most Overrated Environmental Program: This just occurred in March 1999, when the Maxxam Corporation of Houston was paid $480 million by the federal government and the state of California for 10,000 acres of ancient redwoods in Humboldt County's Headwaters...
Event in This Century
Most Overrated Event in This Century: My first choice would be something of a nonevent: the failure of the United States to join the League of Nations following World War II. Despite the popular mythology associated with this decision, it is unlikely...
Fashion Designer
Most Overrated Fashion Designer: Naming a single fashion designer the most overrated is like picking the most self-absorbed model: There are so many to choose from! To my mind the entire professional class is overrated--by the humorless, adoring in-group...
Feminist
Most Overrated Feminist: Gloria Steinem. The media dropped the real feminist foremother, the ferociously haggard Betty Friedan, like a hot potato when the flirty blonde-tressed Steinem waltzed in after a glitzy career as a socialite journalist sporting...
Founding Father
Most Overrated Founding Father: I assume that Founding Fathers means five people: Franklin, Washington, Adams, Jefferson, and Madison. They all had weaknesses, but I find it hard to say that any of them is overrated in public recognition, unless it...
Gangster
Most Overrated Gangster: Al Capone. It's amazing what a hit TV series and a few popular movies can do for a guy's image. Al Capone and Eliot Ness are inextricably locked together in the mythology of twentieth-century American gang warfare, yet they...
How Heroes Talk
In late October 1944 I was a newly minted engineering officer aboard the USS Belleau Wood, a light, fast carrier cruising ninety miles off Leyte Gulf in the Philippines with the 3d Fleet, under the command of Adm. William F. Halsey. The Japanese...
Humorist
Most Overrated Humorist: Here, I'm sorry to say, is my grandfather's favorite joke: An elderly couple used to wear the same pair of dentures on alternate days. One evening the wife comes home from a tea party and hands the dentures over to her husband....
Invention
Most Overrated Invention: Atomic power. No one can dispute the existential impact of atomic power, from the first explosion in the New Mexico desert in 1945, but the practical effects of atomic energy, for both military and civilian purposes, have...
Journalistic Trend
Most Overrated Journalistic Trend: The New Journalism, 1960s-1970s. The New Journalism's jazzily personal writings are still discussed as a breakthrough as radical as the introduction of movie swearwords or nudity. But the best of it wasn't even all...
Little Big Man's Man
Thomas Berger, the author of a classic novel of the American West, speaks about its long-a waited sequel--and about what is to be learned in the challenging territory that lies between history and fiction IN 1992 AMERICAN HERITAGE ASKED VARIOUS...
Magician
Most Overrated Magician: You're expecting me to say Houdini. Why? Because Houdini is the only magician in American history you can name. And possibly you've heard technically slick but charisma-free modern would-be rivals of Houdini say, "Oh, Houdini...
Native and Other Americans
Indian policy has always had more to do with current social thinking than with tribal life A CERTAIN DEFTNESS IS NECESSARY WHEN WRITING ABOUT Indians (or Native Americans), to avoid the booby traps of overgeneralization, sentimentality, indignation,...
New Worlds to Explore
Heritage Destinations of the Southeast More vacationers than ever are turning down history's back roads to discover pieces of the past, reclaiming a sense of peace that comes with unhurried exploration. In the southeastern U.S., historic sites are...
Philanthropist
Most Overrated Philanthropist: Elihu Yale. In 1701 the Reverend James Pierpont (an ancestor of J. P. Morgan), minister of the First Church, in New Haven, pushed the General Court of Connecticut to charter a college. He thought that the colony should...
Photographer
Most Overrated Photographer: By definition, to be overrated, you have to be well known to a wide public. But how many photographers are? Alfred Stieglitz and Edward Steichen? Ansel Adams and Annie Leibovitz? Herb Ritts and Helmut Newton? Margaret Bourke-White?...
Political Boss
Most Overrated Political Boss: William Magear Tweed, the man so connected with the American urban machine that he alone bears the title "Boss." Overrated? Sure. After all, how shrewd and powerful could he have been? First of all, he couldn't get himself...
Seventy-Five Miles from Broadway
Long after George Washington slept in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, so did George S. Kaufman, Oscar Hammerstein, Dorothy Parker, and Moss Hart PEOPLE WHO EARN THEIR LIVINGS BY PEN OR BRUSH HAVE A knack for discovering places where rents are cheap....
Songwriter
Most Overrated Songwriter: Stephen Sondheim. Whatsoever he hews he gets good reviews, unlike Webber, who nebber gets naught but the boot --except he gets loot. So much loot he can't fit in his suit. But Sondheim! --whose art is so exquisite, so superior,...
Spy
Most Ovearrated Spy: A case could be made that the answer to both categories is Julius Rosenberg. As a spy for the Soviet Union he lasted only a short while and accomplished little of value. But as a martyr of the left who gladly died for his beliefs...
The Bathroom: An Epic
THE SEEMINGLY simple act of bringing it inside the house required not only medical revelation and technological revolution but the remaking of human habits as old as time "CAN YOU THINK," HOUSE & GARDEN inquired in September 1926, "of any room...
The Derby
THE FOUNDER, BELIEVING HIS RACE A FAILURE, TOOK HIS OWN LIFE. BUT HIS CONTEST SURVIVED HIM, ENDURING SEVERAL BRUSHES WITH EXTINCTION TO BECOME AMERICA'S LONGEST-RUNNING SPORTS TRADITION. IT TURNS 125 THIS SPRING. THE HILLS OF KENTUCKY HAVE A TEMPERED...
The Great Crash (of 1792)
The federal government handled it far better than it would later ones THE YEAR 1929, LIKE 1066, 1492, and 1776, is one of those dates that summon up an instant picture in our collective imagination. For not only did that year see a stock market...
The Mentor
DURING THE FALL SEMESTER OF 1970, I WAS A graduate student at the University of Pennsylvania. It had been just two years since the assassinations of Sen. Robert F. Kennedy and Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., and since the violent confrontation between...
The Spy
The first thing you must understand in the story of how I was recruited to spy for Albania is that when I was eight years old, I never foresaw a time when I might be embarrassed to admit that I used to read Dennis the Menace comic books. But the truth...
The Time Machine
1874 One Hundred and Twenty-five Years Ago The First College Football Game On May 15, in Cambridge, Massachusetts, students from Harvard and McGill Universities battled in America's first game of intercollegiate footbball. Some readers may...
Toy
Most Overrated Toy: Despite (or maybe because of) media hype, the Barbie doll is doubtless the most overrated toy of modern nines. Oh, sure, Barbie earns 1.9 billion dollars yearly for Mattel and hag become the symbol of growing up for millions of...
War Correspondent
Most Overrated War Correspondent: Ernest Hemingway. His fixation on his image as war correspondent was already evident in Madrid during the Spanish Civil War, where, like most reporters, he was pro-Republic but where, unlike most, he lost all objectivity...