Fate, American-Style

Why it's often hard to tell the heroes from tha has-beens

| November / December 2002

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.

Thaddeus Cahill
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.

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