Biography 26.1 (2003) 155-160
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Gary Alan Fine, a professor of sociology at Northwestern University and author or co-author of eighteen books, explores the construction of reputation and the many headed hydra of the public persona in his latest work, Difficult Reputations. This collection of eight essays is the fruit of research programs he conducted at the University of Georgia and the University of Minnesota, and it takes its inspiration and purported "contrarian" stance from the author's avowed penchant for seeking out a counterpoint or opposition. Fine dedicates his work to Barry Schwartz, a colleague and mentor at the University of Georgia, and explains that, inasmuch as Schwartz is widely known for his research on historical paragons such as Abraham Lincoln and George Washington, Fine, because of his own analyses of the reputations of provocateurs and pariahs (Benedict Arnold, Warren Harding, Vladimir Nabokov), mirthfully fancied himself to be Schwartz's "dark twin." And so it is that we receive from this self-described contrapuntalist a splendid consideration of the difficult reputations of, in addition to Arnold, Harding, and Nabokov, John Brown, Fatty Arbuckle, Henry Ford, Herman Melville, and Sinclair Lewis.
Fine will not write here of those who rest comfortably in the pantheons of history, but rather of those "whose reputations have not been solidified in such complimentary terms: those figures who are tarnished with . . . difficult reputations" (10). But why does one wish to consider or concern oneself with such figures?
The examination of difficult reputations expands the study of positive reputations, both in terms of the functions that reputations serve for the social system and in terms of the effect of reputations on segmental groups that are linked to reputational entrepreneurs. . . . These negative reputations are as deserving of study as the reputations that shine, and perhaps more so because of their challenge to established beliefs and their boundary-making role. (13)
Fine first defines the three types of difficult reputations to be studied: negative reputations, contested reputations, and subcultural reputations. [End Page 155] "Negative reputations emerge when historical figures are perceived to have violated canonical values of society" (10-11), and examples cited include Adolph Hitler and Benedict Arnold. Contested reputations are "reputations that are in play" (11). Fine cites the dispute over Columbus Day celebrations, and the contestation among those who variously wish to cast the Italian discoverer of America as a founder of a new civilization, or conversely as a willing agent of genocide. Third, the individual who is seen differently by different segments of a population possesses a subcultural reputation. Fine here cites the reputations of Richard Nixon, a figure who is widely revered by Republicans though often denigrated by Democrats, and John F. Kennedy, for whom the reverse is true.
From the first paragraphs of its Acknowledgements, Difficult Reputations argues to establish the estimable cultural importance of the reputation. History is written by the winners, they say. Thus, if truth is truly valuable, and if one is a social scientist, then one must be a contestant. The author takes pains to articulate his self-professed "interactionist" approach to the construction of the social persona, and thus the reputation: "Reputations are matters of contention—they are in play. I argue that the interests of reputational entrepreneurs and the outcomes of their battles over reputation are significant" (x). In other words, like "reality," the "facts" imply their own quotation marks, and therefore, for the social scientist, entering the foray of forging reputations is culturally significant, if not obligatory. "I struggle with the reality of facts in the essays I write," says Fine at the outset: "As a cautious naturalist I grant the facts some legitimacy, but I simultaneously wish to argue as a good contrarian that each fact has its own provenance, grounded in interests and relations" (x). This, he claims, distances his approach from the Durkheimian...