Formula Un

I said in the introductory post to this series that it’s difficult for a blog like this one to draw any firm conclusions. I stand by that statement, but patterns do emerge. Over the past week or so of scouring the web for “best ever” and “top N” lists, I have started to see two trends. First, sports enthusiasts are especially prone to conceptualizing history in this way. Second, European sports enthusiasts may be even more partial to the form. My last two posts are good cases in point.

In the interest of good research, however, I shouldn’t simply trust my gut. Therefore, over the next couple of days, I’m going to try to disprove at least my second thesis by paying special attention to the sports pages to see how many “best ever” stories are posted about the NFL, NBA, MLB, NCAA, and (for Canadians) the NHL. In the meantime, Found History readers should enjoy AutoMotoPortal’s Greatest Drivers Ever: The Best of Formula 1—yet another tops of all time list for the EuroSport set.

Top of the Pops

I can’t tell who’s in charge of The 500 Greatest Songs of All Time, but he or she is definitely dedicated. Since late October, a blogger named “Xadai” has been counting down his or her favorite music videos, beginning with one of my personal favorites, #500, Boston’s “More Than A Feeling.” Each song gets its own post, which includes original historical commentary and a YouTube embed. As of this afternoon Xadai is down to #401, which at this rate means we should see #1 sometime in early spring.

Dumb Dumb

When I first came across 2Spare.com’s Top 10 Dumbest Personal Names Ever, I assumed it wouldn’t qualify as found history. There are, after all, lots of Top 10 lists that have nothing to do with history (e.g. Top 10 Fonts Used by Churches or Top 10 People Most Affected by Election 2006). But when I saw Cotton Mather on the list, I thought better, and in addition to Mather the list describes some less well known historical figures, including Thursday October Christian and World B. Free.

The motivating instinct behind Found History was the sense that history is lurking everywhere. I should learn to trust that instinct.

Best, Worst, Most, Least

I have never intended Found History as a place for serious or systematic research into popular historymaking, so it’s hard to talk about “findings,” “results” or “conclusions.” But over the course of nearly a year of anecdotal stumbling, some definite trends have emerged. One is the general public’s tendency to conceptualize history in terms of “best” and “worst” and “most” and “least”; to argue history in terms of “ever” and “of all time”; and to pen history as “top 10” and “top 20” lists. Yesterday’s post on Drivl’s “Top 20 Hackers in Film History” is a very good example of this.

Because it is such a prevalent phenomenon (and also because I have struggled lately to post consistently), today I begin a new series called “Tops of All Time.” Each day between now and the New Year (with maybe a couple breaks for Thanksgiving and Christmas), Found History will present a different Top 10, Top 20, “best of” or “worst of” list from somewhere on the web. Some of these are bound to be more interesting than others, and where they are, I will offer some commentary. Where they’re not, I’ll just post them for your casual contemplation. At the end of the series, I’ll try to say something smart about what we’ve seen.

So sit back and enjoy the best (only) Found History series of all time.

"The Worst Natural Disaster in American History"

This morning on Fox News Sunday, the President’s new Chief of Staff, Josh Bolton said something in passing that has become conventional wisdom in Washington on both sides of the aisle. Talking about the many reasons for high gas prices, Bolton mentioned Hurricane Katrina and the damage it did to drilling and refining operations in the Gulf of Mexico, calling last August’s storm “the worst natural disaster in American history.” My own quick search turned up several similar comments, many made in the last couple weeks, including statements by House Minority Leader John Boehner, Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour, and Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs ranking member Joe Lieberman.

Undoubtedly Katrina was and continues to be a major tragedy, but is it the worst natural disaster in American history? Very good arguments could be made for the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and the 1900 Galveston hurricane. But this isn’t an argument we seem to be having. Even the Bay Area media seems to have conceded primacy to Katrina, commonly referring in its 100th anniversary coverage of 1906 to the quake as “the worst natural disaster in American history up to that time.” (Emphasis added.) Thus common knowledge seems to have settled what is really a pretty complex problem of historical analysis, judging Katrina “worst.”

This is a powerful example of popular historical production. My guess is that it will be a long time before professional historians revisit the question of “worst.” In the meantime, right or wrong, the popular judgement will stand as historical truth. Sometimes to historians’ surprise, sometimes to their chagrin, this is often how history is made.