It’s a historian’s professional obligation to dispel myths and legends writes Gordon Wood (No Thanks for the Memories, The New York Review of Books, Jan. 13, 2011, ). But sometimes the last thing we want are revisionist and historically accurate portraits of a public figure. We want the symbol over scholarship: a belief in destiny and a purposeful life because these things resonate with us emotionally. We want George Washington’s Cherry Tree.
The English historian J.H. Plumb found that it was the “created ideology” and “mythical, religious and political interpretations” with which humans sanctify their societies. In the same vein, family members need to harness their collective memories to remember a loved one. For legacy projects, we need to explore what was so compelling about this relative’s drive (or lack thereof); what were their peculiar hobbies, passions and eccentricities when they were 9, or 90? What made them so ahead of their time? Or conversely, so at odds with their time?
Instead of performing a critical dissection of a loved one’s accomplishments along a timeline, I say define the man with myths and legends handed down from generation to generation. Listen to the lore and to the memories and anecdotes which evoke the greatest laughter or tears: pay these things the closest attention.