Smashing a few pedestals

Debunking: Revered icons like Al Capone and Ernest Hemingway take a beating in a `most overrated' list.

June 03, 1999|By Don Aucoin | Don Aucoin,BOSTON GLOBE

It does the heart good somehow to see an inflated reputation reduced to a popped balloon by a few piercing words. In that spirit, American Heritage does solid service with its second annual list of the most overrated and underrated people, things, ideas, and events in U.S. history.

You may find yourself lingering upon the "overrated" list, especially given the scathing treatment some of the subjects receive. Among those whose reputations are cut down to size: Gloria Steinem, Al Capone, Ernest Hemingway, Isaac Asimov, the 1960s, Shel Silverstein, John Adams, Boss Tweed, atomic power, Alfred Eisenstaedt, Hunter S. Thompson, Gary Cooper, the idea of progress, Alexis de Tocqueville, Yalta and the Beatles.

American Heritage has chosen its debunkers well from a roster of scholars and writers who argue, in general, that icon-hood is often just a matter of good PR. Allen Barra is persuasive in arguing that Capone was a lightweight who inherited a crime machine built by others and who owes his enduring reputation to "The Untouchables." And it's hard to think glowingly of Hemingway after Nancy Caldwell Sorel describes the shoddy journalism he practiced as a war correspondent.

Camille Paglia brands Steinem the "chief deb of her own little sorority, which awards honorary memberships to pampered men of power, such as glad-handing presidential adulterers." Woody Hochswender dismisses Halston as "probably a better hatmaker than clothing designer." And Bruce McCall tees off on the '60s, calling the decade "one spontaneous, protracted narcissistic binge with all the intellectual clarity of a spoiled brat's tantrum. ... The one profound thing about the period is the mystery of why a society so advanced so willingly fell under the spell of this mush-headed vision of life as children's holiday."

Pub Date: 6/03/99

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