It doesn’t take much study of history to come across someone who was famous in their day, and was a hero to the next generations, but has now been forgotten by all but the most diligent students of the time period. Perhaps some readers are old enough to remember this happening over their lifetimes. Why does this happen? What factors control the rise and fall of heroes? I recently came across an article in the Journal of the American Revolution that discussed 5 Tracks to Historical Obscurity. The author looks at Joseph Warren, a American Revolution leader who was famous in his time, but now is virtually unknown. He pulled out several helpful principles, some of which I have restated here:
1. A Story that Supports the Culture’s Morals. Heroes’ stories are told because people think they are worth telling. If that story supports, or can be spun to support, the morals that people want to spread to others, that gives the incentive to keep their memory alive.
2. Depictions in Popular Culture. This is often critical in keeping the memory of someone’s exploits alive. Depictions in popular media, especially if popular, can introduce the hero to new generations. Books, music, film and plays can all can contribute.
3. Scholarship. Having historical material and archives relevant to the person that can be studied by future generations, and interest by scholars in the material, can play a role in preserving their story. Though this is not absolutely necessary, as there are figures in ancient history that remain popular, when there is virtually nothing to add to the published research that has been done on them over the years.
4. Historical Sites and Relics. Locations for those who are interested to visit and historical artifacts from the person help reinforce the hero in people’s minds. Physical objects can create deeper memories than you can get just from words on a page.
If you find this subject interesting, be sure to check out the original article. What do you think makes the difference between a hero that is remembered or forgotten? Let us know in the comments.