I listened to an interesting Freakonomics podcast on my drive home today. It was called The Legacy of a Jerk and featured several stories related to people who were, or were made out to be, jerks and how their jerkiness was treated after their deaths.
As historians, it is important to be as truthful and accurate as possible when recounting past events and delving into the lives of people who have passed on. But it’s human nature, and perhaps more of a social more, to not speak ill of the dead. How can we reconcile these two very different approaches to remembering the past?
People tend to gloss over the bad bits when remembering those who have died, so I found it amazing that this podcast actually focused on someone who apparently wasn’t as bad in life as he was made out to be after his death. This person is Ty Cobb, an American baseball player who was arguably one of the best in the game. He was vilified by sports writer Al Stump who apparently fabricated huge lies about Cobb, one of which was that Cobb was a member of the KKK. Pretty serious allegations, especially considering Cobb wasn’t even alive to defend himself, as these articles were written several decades after his death.
The podcast finishes up by discussing Steve Jobs and chatting with Walter Isaacson, the biographer who was commissioned by Jobs to write his biography. Published after Jobs’ death, this book is brutally frank, which is almost surprising since Jobs was so adamant about including the good and the bad. Even the cringe-worthy parts where he shouted at employees and told them their work was crap when he peered onto their computer screens. I haven’t had the chance to read this book yet, but based on this podcast, I’m definitely intrigued.
This podcast is worth a listen, if you get a chance!