Reflecting on people you idolize(d)

History can be a disenchanting discipline. It helps cultivate an attitude of unflinching honesty (perhaps too often unalloyed with sympathy) that often imbues the historian with a sense of moral righteousness. I consistently find myself wondering how I managed to keep such good opinions of certain people over the years when it seems clear from the historical literature that they were pretty crappy people. Maybe they did something good in a particularly important place or time. Maybe they managed to hide their crappiness well enough that it was only uncovered in retrospect and then actively disbelieved by the people who actually knew the person. Or perhaps one’s own ideological stances caused one to overlook the problematic spots in a person’s life or work and consider them as a much better person or more successful than they really were.

But by far the most difficult of these disenchantments comes in the form of broken idols. The shock and disorientation resulting from the downfall of one’s heroes – those people so lionized in one’s imagination that they take on nearly mythical status – can be hard to bear. It doesn’t matter if these are public or private figures, a group of people you particularly respect, or just an image of a culture that turns out to be obviously false. This has been happening to me, little by little, for years, but a book I have been reading recently struck the final blow against one of the people I most respected: my grandfather. 

I don’t have the time or space to do a full retrospective on the man – nor would those who might read this probably want me to do so – but I do feel like justice demands me to give some relevant details. From what I know of him, he was an ambitious and successful businessman, eventually coming to own the local feed mill, as well as several other properties in the towns surrounding his own. He loved to read – especially Civil War histories – and was an avid golfer. I actually have his only hole-in-one golf ball on my nightstand. He taught me to play the game when I was very young, and I still enjoy it to this day. In fact, many of my memories of him come from the golf course, where we would spend significant amounts of time together. His memories of the Great Depression, which he rarely shared with me, caused him to value a good meal more than any person I have ever met. I can directly trace my love of shrimp and Chinese food to him, as well as my strict devotion to California navel oranges, which he cultivated in his back yard. To my boyhood imagination, he was a giant. He was well-read, seemed to know everything about everything, and obviously had fantastic taste in cinema, music, and art.

But cracks started to develop in this conception as I progressed into young adulthood. I heard my own father talk about the ways in which my grandfather had let him down, everything from missing sporting events to realizing he had trouble reading. A competing picture of a workaholic with serious anger issues began to emerge. I refused to believe these things about my grandfather. Then I went to college. I started reading academic histories. I started avidly listening to music. I started encountering literature. I began to realize that his interest in the Civil War was facilitated by Time Life books, that his library was probably built by Book-of-the-month clubs he subscribed to as part of a fundraising effort for a neighborhood kid or in an attempt to populate a library in which he could entertain clients. I eventually inherited one of the sets of books I most admired (colloquially known as the “Great Books” collection) because I thought it showed just how well-read my grandfather was. I eventually opened up most of the volumes to hear the binding crack for the first time. They had never been opened. They were decoration. A little bit later I started realizing that my grandfather’s love of Glen Miller did not reflect an interest in good music, but simply an attachment to his own youth. He hadn’t been a fan of jazz for his entire life, but simply enjoyed the occasional sentimental tune just like everyone else of his era. As I listened to Coltrane, Getz, Parker, Gillespie, Metheny, Monk, and fifty other jazz greats, I came to realize that big band, especially Miller’s interpretation, was among the most commerical and sterile forms of jazz possible.

And yet my heroic interpretation of my grandfather endured. So he might not have been the intellectual giant I thought he was. So he struggled (like any of us) with certain relationships and emotional outbursts. I figured he didn’t have time for all of that (or only had time during his retirement) because he was busy providing for his family. And then, of course, it eventually came out that the various things he had been telling the family about certain aspects of his finances for years turned out to be only “tangentially related” to the truth. Even then I figured it was okay, because he was the one who built the company after all, and the idea of inheritance is strange anyway (or at least seemed strange to me at the time).

Unfortunately, I can no longer keep up the ruse. Just this week (or maybe just within the last twenty-four hours) I have finally realized what all of this means. I am finally in posession of an organizing motif that allows me to put my grandfather in context. My grandfather, for all of my hero-worship, was a regular, middlebrow American. It’s not that he was particularly bad, just that he wasn’t particularly special. He had plebian tastes. He was mostly frugal, enjoyed simple pleasures, and shared a lot of the traits of men in his generation. He could be generous, and he could be a jerk. He was just normal. And that’s probably okay.

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