Why it's often hard to tell the heroes from tha has-beens
IF INDEED WE ARE "CALLED" to do what we do in life, you really have to wonder sometimes about the caller. Look at any life, brilliant or obscure, saintly or diabolic, and you’ll detect the hand of a narrator with a taste for twisted comedy and a total indifference to what’s fair, right, and wrong. History is a fascinating grab bag of such stories, and the American versions often have a special resonance, given our deep cultural desire to believe we’re pulling the strings.
But as so many people’s lives—including those described here—suggest, we’re not entirely in charge. If there’s a consolation in that discovery, it’s that you never know when time might get around to vindicating a life that looks (or feels) misspent. Reputations do rise from the dead. Then again, things are just as likely to go the other way.
Edgar Allan Poe
Underrated in life, slandered in death
Regarded today as a literary genius for his dark tales and poems, Poe lived the hard life of a 19th-century hack, writing and editing for various magazines. In 1848, while he was still in his 30s, he also published a treatise on cosmology that explained, among other things, why the night sky is black. Though he believed the book Eureka: A Prose Poem to be his masterwork, most critics panned it as wild-eyed ranting. A century later, astronomers began to realize that Poe had foreseen many modern cosmological concepts; he had a vision akin to the big bang theory of how the universe began. By most accounts a generous and decent man, he died two painful deaths—the first in 1849 after a drinking binge in Baltimore, and the second at the hands of his literary executor, R.W. Griswold, whose vindictive obituary destroyed Poe’s reputation for decades.
Think big, lose big
A century before you could download songs off the World Wide Web, Cahill dreamed of pumping beautiful music through phone lines into America’s homes. In 1907 he unveiled the first commercial version of what he named the Telharmonium, an electric music machine that generated melodies from a snarl of switches, rotors, and dynamos covering half an acre. Raw Deal: Horrible and Ironic Stories of Forgotten Americans by Ken Smith (Blast Books, 1998) describes how people were at first "delighted and mystifed to hear clear, pretty tunes emerge from ordinary telephone receivers." At first. They soon grew bored, investors balked, and the New York Telephone Company cut him off, but the final blow to the mammoth invention was a little one called the radio. Cahill, who never quite got over his obsession, died in 1934.
The mysterious impulse to overreach
Born in Jamaica, Garvey rose from a printer’s apprentice to become the early 20th century’s leading black nationalist. After he arrived in Harlem in 1916, his fiery speeches in support of a "back to Africa" movement quickly earned him legions of followers. Other African American leaders condemned his more extreme views, including disdain for integration, but no one questioned his charisma. His downfall began with an ambitious effort to foster steamship trade between the world’s black nations by building what he called the Blackstar Line. Ruined by bad business decisions, jealous enemies (government officials perhaps among them), and his own autocratic excesses, Garvey spent two years in jail on a mail fraud charge tied to the failed venture before being deported. Though he died forgotten in London in 1940, Garvey now enjoys a second life as a symbol of global, radical black solidarity.
Hero wanted, no experience necessary
Hired in 1972 to work at the Kerr-McGee nuclear plant near Crescent, Oklahoma, Silkwood was 28 when she found herself thrust into the thankless and unlikely role of a corporate whistleblower. As Ken Smith puts it in Raw Deal, Silkwood may not have been a model citizen—she liked to party—but when it came to protecting her fellow workers, she had "a lockjawed sense of right and wrong." Appalled by the plutonium contamination in the plant, Silkwood began to gather evidence against her employers, only to find herself branded a plutonium smuggler. She died in a suspicious car wreck in 1974 on her way to a meeting with a New York Times reporter.
The fact that her life has been the subject of several books and a 1983 Hollywood film starring Meryl Streep doesn’t soften the cruelty of her fate. But it does underscore the complexity of fate in general. We never know when events will bring us face to face with the central riddle of human experience: Are we called to a destiny, which we then choose, or are we dragooned into a life by unseen forces beyond our control? Maybe it’s just as well we’ll never know.
Jeremiah Creedon is senior editor of Utne.