A Treasury Of Foolishly Forgotten Americans: Pirates, Skinflints, Patriots, and Other Colorful Characters Stuck In The Footnotes Of History, by Michael Farquar
While wandering through the library looking for a worthwhile audiobook, I thought that this book might be sufficiently quirky to be a good listen. I am glad that I listened to it, because it proved to be not only about seven hours worth of entertaining listening while I drove to and fro in the greater Portland area, but because it had more to say and deeper things to say than I first thought. I would have been content with a few breezy and short biographical sketches that showed delightfully odd people, and this book certainly met that limited standard, but the book prompted at least a few other reflections as well. For example, these people are largely forgotten because few people care about sports like the high jump or read biographies . Related to this thought was the fact that this book made it easy to understand that the famous people of today will mostly be forgotten. Celebrity is not an enduring currency at all, nor is political or cultural power, as the people in this book were ones who would be famous had they been doing what they were doing today. There would be magazine articles about them, television specials, and then, all too quickly, they would be forgotten long before they were even dead.
What makes a life worth remembering? That is the unspoken question that follows many of these people, who were forgotten for deeply obscure reasons. One fellow, Dawes, was a midnight rider like Paul Revere, but did not have the same gift of self-promotion, the same credibility within Patriot circles, and the same poetic name, and so he is largely forgotten. Richard Johnson was once Vice President of the United States, but for the forgotten Martin Van Buren, and became famous in a forgotten war as the supposed killer of the brave Shawnee chief Tecumseh, who is remembered largely because a famous Civil War general I deeply admire was named after him . And on and on it goes. There seemed to be no way for these people to ensure that they could stay in public attention, as most of the people involved had a brief moment of celebrity for one reason or another, whether exploration or acting or sports or politics, but died young or had only a short period in the spotlight and did not do deeds that endured, or had people who were able to make their deeds sing. It is the fate of all too many people to serve for the benefit of humanity for a lifetime and then to be entirely forgotten, as even martyrdom cannot ensure that one’s deeds will be remembered.
The book itself takes a chronological approach to the people it discusses, starting in the colonial period and ending with the living pioneer of the high jump technique that is most commonly used today. Aside from providing a few hours of delightful enjoyment, this book will likely serve one other useful and meritorious purpose, and that is encouraging those readers who enjoy reading about the delightfully odd lives discussed in the book to go seek out the larger and fuller accounts from biographers. After all, to the extent that we celebrate the efforts of responsible biography, we help ensure the memory of many people, and perhaps even ourselves, if we may be repaid for helping others to be remembered by being remembered ourselves, and thus being rescued from oblivion and becoming a part of the past that is worth remembering. None of us can demand this of the world, but hopefully we live lives that are worth remembering for good reasons, and that endure after we depart this mortal coil and sleep peacefully in the grave. A good many of the people in this particular book were worth remembering, and it is a good thing that such a worthwhile book was written about them, to encourage some part of their lives to stick in the minds of others and so to be preserved from oblivion and nothingness.
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