How to deal with historical injustice
Who invented the telegraph?
You’re a scholar who has spent a lifetime engaged in painstaking detective work concerning an obscure and esoteric subject. Just as you’re about to present your findings, a rival scholar accidentally stumbles upon the critical text you’ve sought all your life, and consequently he becomes a celebrity while your lifetime of work is relegated to a footnote, if you’re lucky.
This is the crux of Footnote, Joseph Cedar’s comedy of academic rivalry. As described in BSR reviews by AJ Sabatini and Robert Zaller, the question Cedar poses to his audiences is: “What would you do in such a situation?”
This question is hardly hypothetical. Every day, somewhere on this planet, somebody gets credit that somebody else deserves. It will happen to you sooner or later, if it hasn’t already.
My favorite example is Chaim Selig Slonimsky, an itinerant Russian-Jewish tinkerer who invented the electric telegraph in the 1830s but neglected to patent it or publicize it, only to learn some years later that the same device had been patented by the American painter Samuel F.B. Morse, who is credited with its invention to this day.
Everyone lacks some dimension. Inventors by their very nature tend not to be very good self-promoters. Thomas Edison did get credit for the electric light and the phonograph but not terribly much in the way of money, which was made by others.
So, what would you do? I suggest four possible responses.
1. “There is no limit to what a man can achieve if he doesn’t mind who gets the credit.” Ditto for women. (And if you can tell me the original source of this oft-cited quotation, you get a free subscription to BSR.)
2. “If you work in the knowledge business, your job is to spread knowledge, not to accumulate fame or fortune.” My journalistic work has occasionally been plagiarized, without attribution. That bothers me a little. But it would bother me much more if others had never used my research at all.
3. “Awards— even Nobels and Pulitzers— are ultimately merely popularity contests.”
4. “The truly deserving will indeed be recognized eventually— although not necessarily in their lifetimes.” Slonimsky, for example, was celebrated in a 1977 article in Commentary, about a century after he died.
Then there’s the case of the 19th-Century Philadelphia banker Anthony J. Drexel. In many respects Drexel was the father of modern finance. After the Civil War he raised the capital that fueled America’s railroads and created America’s first modern corporations. He transformed a confused and depressed J.P. Morgan into a one-man stabilizing force in the U.S. economy. With Drexel’s help, another obscure banker named Jay Cooke became America’s financial savior during the Civil War, a former clerk named George Childs became publisher of one of America’s most respected newspapers (the Philadelphia Ledger), and Drexel’s niece Katharine Drexel founded a religious order and became a saint.
Yet Drexel was a modest and reticent man who granted no interviews, kept no diaries, held no public office and destroyed his papers He supported hundreds of charities, almost all anonymously. (Drexel University was the exception.) Consequently, journalists, historians and biographers took the path of least resistance and focused their energies elsewhere.
I first became interested in Drexel in the 1970s, when I was working on an article about J.P. Morgan & Co. and was astonished to learn that it had actually been founded not by Morgan but by Drexel. It took me 23 years to interest a publisher in a biography of the man. When The Man Who Made Wall Street was finally published in 2001 by the University of Pennsylvania Press, Anthony Drexel had been dead for 108 years.
The last Yiddish novelist
Nevertheless, a paperback edition followed five years later. And this year a Chinese-language edition of my book was published in Shanghai. Will it surprise you to learn that the first printing in China exceeded the hardcover sales of the English-language edition?
Isaac Bashevis Singer, the last of the Yiddish novelists, was asked before his death in 1991 whether he was concerned that in the future his novels would be read only in translation. Not at all, Singer replied: A century from now, he said, there will be 150 billion people in the world. In order to make a living, people will have to specialize. Some of them will specialize in Yiddish. Out of 150 billion on the planet, there might be a few million learning Yiddish, or at least a few hundred thousand.
To everyone who labors unappreciated in obscurity, I say: Patience! Remember Slonimsky. Remember Drexel. Remember Singer. Your day will come, albeit possibly in a manner you least expect.♦