UK Labour grandee Denis Healey was once asked to name the best speech he had heard in his four decades in Parliament. He cited a 1959 oration defending the humanity of the Mau Mau prisoners who were murdered by British soldiers in the Hola Massacre. Who gave this passionate anti-Imperialist speech condemning abuse of the people living under British colonial rule in Kenya? (Take a guess, answer after the jump)
I would not have guessed that, and can’t think of anyone who would. Enoch Powell gets one line in most people’s historical memory: “Wasn’t he the racist, anti-immigrant Rivers of Blood guy?”.
There was clearly more to him than that. Among other things, he was an accomplished poet and scholar/translator. Few people’s lives can be accurately summarized in one phrase. Even villains can have some virtues, and even our heroes can sometimes badly let us down (see, e.g., Gandhi’s comments about South African Blacks).
Edward Bulwer-Lytton meets a particularly cruel fate in history’s shorthand. We remember only “It was a dark and stormy night” as a kind of joke about bad opening sentences in novels, and the poor man’s name adorns an annual contest for atrocious writing. Yet someone who gives the English language phrases like “the pen is mightier than the sword” and who outsold Charles Dickens for years was no mere scribbler. As I read Leslie Mitchell’s biography of him, I realized I previously didn’t understand Bulwer-Lytton at all, including being ignorant of the fact that he was a Member of Parliament and a consequential politician of his age.
Some accomplished people fear being forgotten by history. But a far worse fate is to be remembered as a caricature based on a single over-simplified phrase or anecdote (Potentially, as in the case of poor Howard “The Scream” Dean, based on something that never really happened at all). Such things make me profoundly grateful for my own obscurity.