Difficult Reputations: Collective Memories of the Evil, Inept, and Controversial / Edition 2

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We take reputations for granted. Believing in the bad and the good natures of our notorious or illustrious forebears is part of our shared national heritage. Yet we are largely ignorant of how such reputations came to be, who was instrumental in creating them, and why. Even less have we considered how villains, just as much as heroes, have helped our society define its values.
Presenting essays on America's most reviled traitor, its worst president, and its most controversial literary ingénue (Benedict Arnold, Warren G. Harding, and Lolita), among others, sociologist Gary Alan Fine analyzes negative, contested, and subcultural reputations. Difficult Reputations offers eight compelling historical case studies as well as a theoretical introduction situating the complex roles in culture and history that negative reputations play.

Arguing the need for understanding real conditions that lead to proposed interpretations, as well as how reputations are given meaning over time, this book marks an important contribution to the sociologies of culture and knowledge.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780226249414
  • Publisher: University of Chicago Press
  • Publication date: 4/28/2001
  • Edition description: 1
  • Edition number: 2
  • Pages: 264
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 9.00 (h) x 1.20 (d)

Meet the Author

Gary Fine is a professor of sociology at Northwestern University. His many books include Manufacturing Tales: Sex and Money in Contemporary Legends and With the Boys: Little League Baseball and Preadolescent Culture.

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Read an Excerpt

Difficult Reputations

Collective Memories of the Evil, Inept, and Controversial

By Gary Alan Fine

The University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 2001 The University of Chicago
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-226-24941-4


Benedict Arnold and the Commemoration of Treason




To uncover the values for which a society stands, one need only look at its heroes and at the mechanisms through which those heroes are commemorated and celebrated (Goode 1978; Klapp 1962; Schwartz 1982, 1987). The memory of heroic identities and events reveals the ideals upon which social solidarity rests. Celebration of the remembered past enhances collective commitment to those ideals. Communities benefit from the endurance of heroic events in the collective representations found within individual memory (Halbwachs 1992). But might not a society's villains reveal as much about its values as its heroes? Might not the creation and preservation of negative images benefit the community as well?

The notion that the commemoration of negative events and identities may be beneficial to a community seems, at least on the surface, to go against commonsense notions of what is valuable and worth preserving. Durkheim ([1912] 1965) argues that the celebration of positive memories reaffirms the collective conscience. But elsewhere Durkheim ([1983] 1947, [1895] 1964) notes the functional consequences of deviance for the affirmation of social solidarity, and here he provides a clue to the benefits of commemorating negative events. Particularly in societies characterized by mechanical solidarity, the public reaction to deviance provides an outlet for collective moral outrage and dramatically publicizes social rules of acceptable behavior (Schudson 1992). In this sense, the public response to negative images defined as deviant behavior can also fulfill society's need for integration by defining boundaries (Erikson 1966). If heroic figures represent the power of the morally sacred, villains reflect the danger of the profane. By warning against deviant acts, creating folk devils, and drawing boundaries, society reaffirms normative behavior and communal integration.

Communities solidify the reputations of their villains in collective memory through dramatic public reactions to activities that offend shared values. The public response often is expressed through a process akin to an extended degradation ceremony (Garfinkel 1956), in which the identity of the offender is transformed into that of a deviant and outcast, and becomes defined as evil. Largely irreversible, successful status degradation processes relegate the offenders, and their reputations, to the area outside society's moral boundaries. Although tarnished reputations may shed some of their stigma over time when the moral terrain of society changes (Schudson 1992; Schwartz 1991), it is difficult, if not impossible, for them to shed the deviant label altogether. In the language of social control, such ceremonies dramatize "where the line is drawn" between deviance and acceptability (Erikson 1966). The perpetuation of evil in collective memory exemplifies the mechanisms by which a society regulates the flow of human traffic across its moral boundaries (Zerubavel 1991).

But historical reputations are as much products of shifting moral boundaries as they are illustrative of them (Coser 1992). Particularly under conditions of mechanical solidarity, the presence of external threats to social organization influenced the tightening or loosening of moral boundaries, and, as a result, the rejection or tolerance of deviance (Erikson 1966). Under threat from outside, societies often increase their rejection of internal deviance. Collective reactions against deviance ultimately foster increased social solidarity (Lauderdale 1976). Thus, the punishment of deviance may not be strictly a product of the inherent negative qualities of the act; punishment may also depend on externally provoked shifts in the society's moral boundaries.

Negative events and identities yield increased integration for society only to the extent that they are preserved in collective memory. It is insufficient to suggest that such memories are constructed simply because they have a particular effect or result. Just how is this construction accomplished? We contend that historical reputations (particularly negative reputations) result from two basic processes: (1) the reconstruction of biography, through selective emphasis on historical events (Coser 1992; Maines, Sugrue, and Katovich 1983); and (2) the evaluation of motives, that is, the process by which accounts are presented, challenged, honored, ascribed, and assessed (Scott and Lyman 1968).

Evil is potentially a difficult construct in a society given to tolerance and moral relativism. Yet, on some occasions, evil is robust and consensually agreed upon, as in the memorialization of the Nazi leaders associated with the Holocaust. On other occasions, evil can be contested, as the memories of Watergate (Schudson 1992) or the Alger Hiss trial attest. In still other cases, there are figures (e.g., traitors) or events (e.g., the Vietnam conflict) whose remembrance combines both positive and negative characteristics. On these occasions, society faces a challenge, for any commemoration must adequately address both the object's virtue and its depravity. When heroism and glory cannot be ignored, they may be discounted, such that these characteristics seem accidental or irrelevant. Or these same characteristics may be used to magnify the evil also found in the event, as when heroism and treason are juxtaposed to show the extent of an individual's fall from grace. In such instances, society segments or splits the image of the actor or event, thereby permitting the simultaneous preservation of positive and negative characteristics.

On the one hand, the identities of heroic individuals may be commemorated, while the greater purpose of their actions is suppressed or redefined. Such has been the case with the formal commemoration of the Vietnam conflict in the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, where the identities and heroic sacrifices of fallen soldiers are remembered but the broader political context of their actions (on which American society lacks moral consensus) is quietly ignored (Wagner-Pacifici and Schwartz 1991). On the other hand, a virtuous act may be recalled while the villainous actor is ignored as the animator of the deed. In memorialization, the actor is transformed into a nonperson.

While similarities exist among all forms of commemoration, differences occur in the specific processes by which heroic acts and villainy are remembered. We examine two related processes, which we term demonization and the transformation into nonpersonhood. Demonization refers to a process in which ambiguities of moral character are erased, so that the commemorated figure is seen as fully, intensely, and quintessentially evil. While heroes may have their virtues magnified and their flaws overlooked, the transformation of a sinner into a demon, and the erasure of all personal virtue, may be a more significant transformation. Thus, in commemorating villains, demonization works in conjunction with a process of disidentification. The process is especially visible in the case of a prominent figure who has had a seemingly virtuous career prior to his or her villainy, where the moral, heroic aspect of the self must be discarded.

Unlike heroes, most villains are known for a single highly condemnable act. When these actors are persons of some prominence, they will likely also possess some virtuous characteristics or have to their credit numerous meritorious or otherwise seemingly contradictory acts that historians and the public must confront in the process of commemoration. The construction of villainous reputations depends upon society's ability to negate positive actions and characteristics and to see only those deeds and qualities that confirm the malefactor's transformed identity. In this transformation, the self is essentialized, so all that remains from the public's perspective is the evil core. "Nonpersonhood" describes not the erasure of the whole person, but the denial of the virtuous aspects of self in the villain's commemoration.

We take as our example the commemoration of the infamous American traitor, Benedict Arnold, in order to examine the establishment of his villainous reputation and his heroic nonpersonhood. Moreover, we set this analysis in the broader context of a discussion about shifts in moral boundaries, status degradation, and the social construction of historical identities. We argue that it was not Arnold's actions alone that rendered his treason so memorable, but rather the social context in which those actions were witnessed and interpreted. His reputation is linked to American society's definitions of itself.

Most Americans know that in the midst of the War for Independence, Benedict Arnold abandoned the Colonial army and joined the British. Although his treason does not carry great objective weight in the nation's history, his name remains synonymous with deceit. We routinely invoke Arnold's name as a label for allies who have betrayed us (Wood 1994), yet we do so without knowing precisely the nature of Arnold's crimes. Because Arnold's name is widely known but his actions are not, the persistence of his reputation is problematic. The simplicity and uniformity of the common images of Benedict Arnold do not hint at the complexities underlying their evolution. The volatile context in which Arnold's treason was discovered fueled the American public's vehement rejection of him, and shaped the moral evaluation of the traitor that persists long after his death. Through an enduring degradation process, Benedict Arnold, once a celebrated military hero, was transformed into America's great villain.


Our analysis draws upon a wide array of documents that trace the reputation of Benedict Arnold from his military career to his treason and his death and through to the present day. First, we analyze historical accounts documenting Arnold's life and career. These documents include excerpts from the diaries and letters of Arnold and his contemporaries, as well as newspaper and other early accounts of the Revolutionary War. We also draw upon thirty-five historical biographies of Arnold, published between 1835 and 1993, in order to trace the evolution of his image among historians over the period.

Together these accounts provide only the historians' perspective on the "place" of Benedict Arnold in the American pantheon. Arnold's reputation is not simply a product of historians' debates; the collective memory has other entrepreneurs and custodians. Our analyses of popular accounts—such as those found in books (both fiction and nonfiction), magazines, and other periodical literature—permit insights into the image of Arnold as it was portrayed to and by the general public over this time period. Finally, to explore one way in which the collective memory of Benedict Arnold is transmitted over time, we draw upon the media through which children learn of him, namely, elementary and secondary school history textbooks, published between 1794 and 1991; entries in encyclopedias and biographical dictionaries; and several biographies written for a juvenile audience. While any one source provides a partial depiction of Benedict Arnold, together they reveal an interactive process through which his reputation was formulated, debated, crystallized, and commemorated.

With the exception of discussion of the immediate reaction to Arnold's treason and more recent revisionist thinking about Arnold, we treat all sources as belonging to the same analytic base. Admittedly, examining changes in the reputations of villains is as desirable as it is for heroic figures (e.g., Schwartz 1987), and we would do well to examine how Arnold's reputation changed over generations, perhaps as a function of changes in American values and concerns. However, our data are too limited to permit sweeping conclusions about such complex historical variations.


Benedict Arnold was arguably one of the greatest fighting generals of the Revolutionary War (Brandt 1993; Flexner [1953] 1975; Kraske 1970; Randall 1990; Wallace 1954)—a genuine military hero. He played key roles in the American victories at Ticonderoga and Saratoga, as well as in the prolonged assault on Quebec. During his tenure in the Continental Army, he was one of George Washington's most trusted soldiers (Freeman 1948). He was called upon to assist in the most difficult battles and was appointed to command at both Philadelphia and West Point.

Arnold's military career crested with his heroic participation in the Battles of Saratoga in 1777. After that victory, which brought the surrender of British General Burgoyne and his troops, George Washington bestowed upon Arnold a sword knot and epaulets, the gift of a French official who requested that they be given to one of Washington's favorite military generals. Arnold's hometown of New Haven, Connecticut, greeted his return from Saratoga with a hero's welcome (Sparks 1835). Arnold's contribution to the Saratoga victory was soon followed by his belated appointment to the rank of Major General.

The leg wound Arnold sustained in battle at Saratoga prevented him from accepting an active field command for the remainder of his time in the Continental Army. But he was appointed to the post of military governor of Philadelphia shortly after the British evacuation of that city in 1778. There, he encountered the remains of the opulent lifestyle enjoyed by the British troops and wealthy citizens of Philadelphia, many of whom had supported the British during the occupation and remained loyal to the crown. Arnold purchased a handsome estate and hosted elaborate parties for the city's elite. To support such habits, he dabbled in merchant trade, using his access to military supplies and other privileges of rank.

In Philadelphia, Arnold met and married Peggy Shippen, the daughter of a wealthy family who had previously been charmed by British Major John Andre during the British occupation. She maintained a friendly correspondence with Andre after her marriage, and it was through Andre that Arnold began his correspondence with British commander Sir Henry Clinton in May 1779.

When Arnold came under fire from the Pennsylvania Council for abuses of military privilege and suspicious financial dealings, he resigned his position. A long and bitter court-martial ensued, and Arnold was reprimanded by General Washington. Arnold then renewed his correspondence with Clinton, determined to join the British and to end a war that he and many others felt had lasted too long and could not be won (Headley 1847; Morpurgo 1975; Sparks 1835; Van Doren 1941). When he secured from the trusting General Washington the command of West Point, Arnold finally had the leverage he needed. He demanded twenty thousand pounds sterling from Clinton, for which he would assist the British in taking the fortress that would provide access to the Hudson River Valley, allowing them to sever New England from the rest of the colonies, effectively terminating the Revolution. In case the fort was not surrendered, Arnold demanded ten thousand pounds sterling for his own defection.

Arnold met secretly with Major Andre on the banks of the Hudson River in late September 1780. Three days later, Andre was captured by American troops, who found in his boot papers containing detailed plans for the defense of West Point, along with an overland pass signed by Benedict Arnold. When Andre revealed his identity and his activity, word spread rapidly that the trusted Benedict Arnold was a traitor. Meanwhile, Arnold fled to a waiting British warship and escaped with his life. He joined the British army and later commanded fierce military raids in Virginia and Connecticut.

Not only was Arnold despised by the Americans whom he betrayed, like most traitors he was also never fully accepted by those to whom he defected (Kohn 1989). Arnold was held responsible for the execution of Major Andre at the hands of the Americans; moreover, he carried with him the master status of traitor, acknowledged even by a speaker in Parliament who refused to continue his address so long as "the traitor" Arnold was in the audience (Steele 1890:137). After his retirement from the military, Arnold became a merchant trader. He lived out the rest of his life in relative obscurity and died in 1801.


In order to understand the vehement public reaction to Arnold, and his subsequent demonization, we explore the social and historical context of his treason. Of primary importance are the values upon which the Revolution had been based. Royster (1979) explains: "When Americans declared their independence, they agreed that it could only survive if they and their descendants maintained their virtue. They must choose voluntarily to sacrifice safety, ease, and self-interest in order to defend liberty" (165). Through the years, the people continued to profess the necessity of public virtue, but their actions belied their words and beliefs. Short-term sacrifice was a pledge readily taken, but long-term hardship was difficult to endure. Active engagement (i.e., military enlistment) in the defense of liberty had lost its shine. Few colonists outside of New England had given their wholehearted support to the war (Morpurgo 1975). Furthermore, the troops were poorly supplied, making enlistment even less appealing. While active engagement was extolled as a virtue, it was often seen as someone else's duty.


Excerpted from Difficult Reputations by Gary Alan Fine. Copyright © 2001 The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

Introduction- Constructing Difficult Reputations
1. Benedict Arnold and the Commemoration of Treason
2. Warren Harding and the Memory of Incompetence
3. John Brown and the Legitimation of Political Violence
4. Fatty Arbuckle and the Creation of Public Attention
5. Henry Ford and the Multiple-Audience Problem
6. Vladimir Nabokov, Lolita, and the Creation of Imaginary Social Relations
7. Herman Melville and the Demise of Literary Reputation
8. Sinclair Lewis, Main Street, and Community Reputation
Conclusion- Difficult Reputations

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