The following is a guest post from Oliver Bateman, professor of American legal history at the University of Texas at Arlington.
Carl Becker, whose long-overdue revival is discussed in greater and more critical detail here, writes in his “Everyman His Own Historian” address that “the history that does work in the world…is living history, that pattern of remembered events, whether true or false, that enlarges and enriches the specious present, the specious present of Mr. Everyman.” This is intended to serve as a valuable reminder that history ought to be remade to suit the needs of whatever generation writes it, in order that we members of that generation might “make use” of history so as “to correct and rationalize for common use Mr. Everyman’s mythological adaptation of what actually happened.”
When I first read (or, to be perfectly candid, skimmed) this address at the beginning of my graduate career, I considered it more small “d” democratic than it actually is. The address, far from being a plea for “Mr. Everyman” to actually sit down and write his own history, is instead an exhortation to professional historians to adapt their work to the “felt necessities” of the present, Von Rankean notions of perfect objectivity be damned.1 It is a call, in other words, for better and more relevant scholarly production—even if, as Becker himself acknowledges, Everyman rarely reads “our” books.
Everyman’s own memories, in Becker’s opinion, “fashion for him a more spacious world than that of the immediately practical,” with most of the scraps of factual knowledge that he acquires derived from his mostly unconscious work as a popular culture bricoleur: “information, picked up in the most casual way…from knowledge gained in business or profession, from newspapers glanced at, from books (yes, even history books) read or heard of, from remembered scraps of newsreels or educational films or ex cathedra utterances of presidents and kings, from fifteen-minute discourses on the history of civilization broadcast by the courtesy (it may be) of Pepsodent, the Bulova Watch Company, or the Shepherd Stores in Boston.”2 For those of us who regularly encounter students whose entire understanding of world events is derived from BuzzFeed lists and Daily Show clips, Becker’s somewhat condescending remark continues to resonate.
Becker’s proposed solution, then, is that we professional historians must work to ensure that Mr. Everyman’s weltanschauung is shaped by more than just the detritus left in the sieve after his daily skimming and browsing is complete. Thus, through our useful and frequent contributions to the public-intellectual sphere, a somewhat more enlightened Mr. Everyman might one day become acquainted with the meanings of borrowed words and phrases such as bricoleur, ex cathedra, and weltanschauung.
I both appreciate Becker’s address and deeply dislike it. I believe he is right—history must be “made useful” for Mr. Everyman, in some generic sense—and therefore lecture to ingenuous freshmen in a manner that reflects this belief. But it pains me to concede that he is right, and it pains me to make history useful…because, in the course of doing so, I’m indisputably engaged in doing history “from above.” In fact, a more fitting title for “Everyman His Own Historian” might be “History From Above Directed Below, Delivered With Partially Concealed But Nevertheless Patronizing Superiority” (try saying that ten times fast!). It is, of course, what we do, will continue to do, and often do quite well. We historians, like Becker, are products of the Ph.D.-oriented professionalization project that has first created and then enriched our discipline even as it opened it to the criticisms of Bourdieu and others.
Having studied under Marcus Rediker, I recognize the value of doing “history from below” as a means of achieving various social justice objectives. But even this “history from below,” produced without the tongue-in-cheek snark found in Becker’s “Everyman His Own Historian,” still originates “from above,” given that it is prepared by trained scholars. It is not, in other words, naïve history that approximates the “outsider art” of, say, William Blake or Wesley Willis.
Alas, much naïve or “outsider” history that would fit such a definition seems at first blush unworthy of professional scrutiny. Shambolic, sprawling family genealogies—my father produced one such effort that has grown to 300 incomprehensible single-spaced pages—often amount to little more than do-it-yourself chronicles of dates and events interspersed with equal parts fiction and speculation. Historical societies dedicated to the categorizing of ancient baseball box scores or the pedigree records of legendary cats and dogs appear to represent antiquarianism at its worst. If this is the kind of history that Mr. Everyman is producing, of what “usefulness” could it have for us seasoned professionals?3
In 1999, the professional wrestler Mick Foley inaugurated an unusual sub-genre of DIY history when he published his autobiography Have a Nice Day: A Tale of Blood and Sweatsocks. The central conceit of the book was that Foley, one of the few wrestlers who had earned a college degree, had written it himself. It became an improbable bestseller on the strength of Foley’s surprisingly insightful prose and thus solidified his own standing among the sport’s all-time greats. More importantly, though, it convinced many has-been professional wrestlers—a group of individuals accustomed to monetizing every aspect of their lives—that they could earn a few bucks from preparing their memoirs with the aid of a ghostwriter.
The years following the publication of Have a Nice Day have witnessed an unprecedented efflorescence of “as told to” wrestling narratives. Athlete autobiographies have long been a catalog staple at many publishing houses, but these Foley-inspired manuscripts were neither instructional manuals by top stars nor bowdlerized just-so stories of living legends. Many were published by Essays on Canadian Writing (ECW) Press, which found a niche as a purveyor of low-cost, low-print run wrestler autobiographies.
And, as depressing as it is to admit, Goodreads reports that I have read 80 of these books since I began using that service in 2009. My interest in this sport, widely and perhaps rightly regarded as a trashy and prurient spectacle by some of its highbrow critics, betrays my own rural, Southern origins…but it cannot account for why I spent four hours reading the autobiography of Dewey “The Missing Link” Robertson. Or five hours reading Bill Watts’ The Cowboy and the Cross. And so on ad nauseam.
In fact, until I began preparing this piece, I had little idea why I was reading such material. It was “source work,” I kept assuring myself. It would serve as the basis for a future project of some sort. Yet how, exactly? As the basis for a monograph that addressed the history of professional wrestling in a thematic manner, with chapters on race, class, masculinity, etc.? Oh sure, that would be the “hook” for solicitation letters sent to scholarly presses, on account of how no extant single-author work treats the subject in that way. But there was something else here: what were all of these authors doing in their memoirs? What was the point of all this naïve history?4
A book such as Tony Atlas’ Too Much…Too Soon does indeed address the issue of racism in the sport, and Joe “The Assassin” Hamilton’s The Man Behind the Mask contains actual racist content, but neither offers a fraction of the insight on that subject that can be found in a few paragraphs of James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time; then again, one wouldn’t expect them to. Rather, what emerges following a long immersion in this material is a profound fascination with the competing claims made by the wrestlers who produced it.
Each wrestler attempts to “put himself over” (i.e., to come off looking good) at the expense of his fellows—much as he did during his working career. To Joe Hamilton, Tony Atlas was a lazy and undisciplined worker. To Atlas, Hamilton was an old-school Southern racist (quick aside: he was). Dozens of autobiographies address the notoriously brutal and ingenious Mid-South wrestling promoter “Cowboy” Bill Watts, an ex-Oklahoma football player regarded as a hero to some, a jerk by most, and “double tough” by everyone (most notably Watts himself, who confesses to innumerable crimes, including ripping out someone’s eyeball and eating a human ear, in the course of his stock Christian redemption narrative). At some point, you as the reader become internal to the story, at a level that almost (but not quite, and never) amounts to that of instinctive reaction.
As I organize this material into a manuscript suitable for publication, I realize that I am doing it a disservice. To make it useful, I must impose on it an order “from above.” Tony Atlas and Joe Hamilton will be quoted for specific purposes, their words removed from the context of the narratives that Scott Teal compiled for them. The non-wrestler amateur historians who took it upon themselves to write chronicles of various wrestling promotions will suffer a similar fate. They merely wanted to preserve the record of a specific match or storyline; now excerpts from their work will have to stand in for something ostensibly greater and more significant.5
Everyman does not, as Becker tells us, make his history out of whole cloth, but rather out of the factual fragments that surround and rush past him. What he fastens firmly in the front of his mind and what we professional historians would like him to remember are two very different things. Tony Atlas would have you remember him as a wrestling star, and I would have you treat him as a disembodied sentence or three. This is, admittedly, an insoluble problem for us, and one that warrants our careful and constant consideration.
1 Never mind, of course, that this does a disservice to whatever studying the past wie es eigentlich gewesen actually means. Von Ranke’s function in Becker’s present, and perhaps in ours as well, is as a hobby horse or straw man best utilized when making arguments such as the one found in “Everyman.”
2 Becker, in a passage that reflects the vast gulf between his generation of U.S. History instructors and my own, observes that “no doubt [Mr. Everyman] can, if he is an American, call up an image of the signing of the Declaration of Independence in 1776 as readily as he can call up an image of Smith’s coal wagons creaking up the hill last summer.” Recent research suggests this knowledge is no longer as universal as it once was, if it was ever universal at all.
3 Besides the stockpiling of primary source fodder for various theses and dissertations, that is.
4 Most of these are prepared by the long-time wrestling writer Scott Teal, whose unimaginative prose style appears to follow the “I dictate it while they say it” model. Teal proves to be less of an impediment to accessing the insights of the named author than a more experienced and aggressive ghostwriter would be. This can be further substantiated by reading these autobiographies while streaming interviews with the subjects…of which I must confess, alas, that I have watched hundreds if not thousands of hours. The most useful books are generally by lesser lights who can describe the intricate workings of the carnival and territorial wrestling circuits; the worst books are those such as The Rock Says…, which was produced in conjunction with the experienced professional ghostwriter Joe Layden and with which WWE superstar Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson appears to have had little involvement whatsoever.
5 i.e., as “great” and “significant” as anything that takes professional wrestling as its subject can possibly be.