Q&A: why did we forget?

Posted by Matt Kuhns on Mar 27, 2013

Fun time in Cleveland Heights last night. Did some talking, listened to two other very interesting authors talk, signed & sold a few books, didn’t get lost on the east side. Also answered some questions, which I enjoyed very much; I have been looking forward to opportunities to engage a bit with others’ ideas and questions.

One of the best questions really went right to a core theme of my book: why have these remarkable figures been forgotten? It is mysterious, on its face, I think; crime, mystery and detection are all still popular themes in fiction, and even if real-life detection has changed such that there is no longer scope for achieving the kind of celebrity that top investigators enjoyed in the 19th century, shouldn’t the fact that “they don’t make ’em like that any more” make them even more memorable rather than less?

I spend time considering various answers to this in Brilliant Deduction, though I can’t really claim to have any definitive, certain “solution.” One more possible answer did occur to me, after thinking about it again last night, though.

It might be that public amnesia about the great real-life detectives is at least somewhat less mysterious than it seems, and not that different from the eventual fate of most celebrities. It occurs to me that the rate of attrition for celebrity recognition is likely very, very high, especially beyond the edge of living memory. Out of the nine men profiled in my book, one (Allan Pinkerton) still commands at least some broad, if thin, public awareness. Is that ratio enormously different from other famous figures of the same era? My vague impression from a few decades of leisured study of history is that it isn’t.

It seems likely that for every one famous Victorian individual still remembered today, there are quite a few athletes, performers, artists, explorers, tycoons, kingmakers, etc., etc., now settled alongside “Paddington” Pollaky in obscurity. John Wilkes Booth was one of the most recognizable men in American in the 1860s… but would anyone know his name today if he hadn’t assassinated the president? One suspects not.

I suspect a number of factors explain the great real-life detectives’ disappearance for public memory, but it does seem one of them is that time effaces most celebrity, and too much time has passed. Most of them, as well as the real golden age for their type, came and went more than 80 years ago. What’s more, they came and went before modern media; a few minutes of audio or video of William Burns might survive in some dusty archive, but he and his peers basically missed out on the television age entirely, to say nothing of the internet age. They can’t be found in searches of online news archives that begin around 1995; there are no video clips to post on YouTube. Even if anyone still thought to look.

Still, history’s judgment is not necessarily final, and it just may be that something of a comeback is yet a possibility.

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