Historian Glenn E. Campbell of Historic Annapolis gave a short talk at a recent conference that warned against overdoing superlatives. The most dangerous words we use are “best example of,” “first,” “oldest,” “only,” largest,” and so forth. For example, while researching my upcoming book about Virginia’s Governor’s Mansion (October 11 launch date), I’ve had to modify statements that docents have made for years: that the 1813 house was “the oldest continuously occupied governor’s mansion in America.” But at least one governor (and probably others) did not live there, so we need to drop “continuously,” and the governor’s residence in Puerto Rico dates to the 1500s–Puerto Rico is in America too. Are there statements that your docents make that over-reach? Do you hear such statements when you visit historic sites and museums? Share examples!!
Glenn kindly allowed me to post his short and enjoyable presentation , which he titled, Firsts, Bests, and Onlys: Quick Thoughts and Cautions Regarding Historical Superlatives
A superlative recognizes and calls attention to some quality or accomplishment that is not merely noteworthy or even outstanding. Superlatives are reserved for the truly exceptional and unique. Besides “firsts, bests, and onlys,” there are many other superlatives that we like to use when practicing public history: greatest, biggest, most, tallest, richest, etc.
The historical superlative is a cousin of the historical myth. It’s easy to understand the appeal and usefulness of superlatives. They’re a kind of shortcut to the attention centers of our audiences’ brains. By their nature, they demand that people prick up their ears and really take notice of what we’re saying.
On the counter-intuitive downside, a superlative statement actually can divert attention away from the very trait or achievement worthy of recognition and toward the seemingly more impressive “fact” that so-and-so was the first, best, or only to do or be such-and-such. Ask a tour group to look at the fine carving on your site’s parlor mantle, and you’re likely to get a mixed response at best. Tell them it’s the only surviving mantle created by famed colonial craftsman What’s-his-Name, and suddenly people are pushing up close to see. The “fact” that it’s the only such mantel in existence anywhere is more important than the exceptional quality of the carving.
Another drawback of the superlative is that it can be a very difficult thing to verify. To prove a superlative statement, you must be prepared to fend off challenges from every possible rival for the claim.
For example: a few months ago, a board member sent an e-mail asking me to confirm a statement he wanted to include in a pitch to potential donors. Could he say that Annapolis had the greatest collection of 18th-century architecture in the country? Another board member had questioned that assertion, and he wanted a definitive ruling. I checked a few books in my office, did some Googling, and sent e-mails to Jean Russo and Jane McWilliams, two colleagues who are my “go-to” authorities when it comes to Annapolis history. The three of us asked ourselves what other cities might be in the running for that honor.
I read in a new book about Philadelphia the claim that it “has more surviving early American buildings than any other city in the nation.” Williamsburg is justly proud of its “88 original buildings.” (The sharp-eared will pick up on the vague descriptors “early” and “original”— neither one is the same as “18th-century.”) What about Boston, Charleston, Newport, or Providence—how many old buildings do they each have?
For that matter, we asked, exactly how many does Annapolis have? It seems like that should be an easy question to answer, but pinning down a firm number is tougher than you’d expect. Jean Russo drafted a list of 42 structures in 1993. Architecture in Annapolis: A Field Guide, which was a product of the 1998 Vernacular Architecture Forum, came up with 45. The city’s National Register description says there are 120, but we agreed that figure probably reflects an optimistic overestimation from the 1965 nomination form, which was submitted before the systematic lot histories project done by Jane McWilliams and Dr. Ed Papenfuse.
After two days of firing e-mails back and forth, I sent our board member this “history police”- approved, more cautious superlative statement: “Among small American cities, Annapolis has the greatest collection of surviving 18th-century brick buildings, including several of the nation’s finest Georgian mansions.” Can you hear all of the limiting, hedging, “weasel” words? That’s another thing about superlative statements—if you qualify them enough, almost anything can be made into a “first, best, or only.” When I mentioned this little exercise at a department meeting, a colleague told me his favorite formulation about the city: “Annapolis has the most intact, above-ground, 18th-century structures in continuous use within a one-third square-mile area in the nation.”
If you deal in superlatives, don’t get so committed to and invested in a particular statement formulation to the extent that your world comes crashing down if it’s shown to be not entirely accurate. If your favorite superlative statement is disproven, challenged, or superseded in some way, does that diminish or negate the noteworthy quality or accomplishment that you really want to recognize? Does altering or qualifying the superlative formulation take away from your subject’s significance? If the little house museum ten miles down the road proudly announces to the world that it, too, has a mantel carved by What’s-his-Name, does that take away from the craftsmanship of the formerly “only” one at your site? To use an Olympic reference, did Mark Spitz become a worse swimmer when Michael Phelps earned his 8th gold medal in Beijing?
Keep the attention on the noteworthy trait or achievement itself. Going back to our board member’s question, what he really wanted to do was call a potential donor’s attention to the fact that Annapolis has an impressive collection of well-preserved 18th-century buildings, largely thanks to the efforts of Historic Annapolis—that’s the underlying message that the different superlative statements tried to convey but somehow got obscured in the process of trying to get the specific formulation correct.
To conclude, I’ll leave you with these suggestions. When dealing in superlatives, try very hard to get them right. But don’t hesitate to abandon or alter them if they’re disproven or put in serious doubt. And don’t let them divert attention from the qualities or accomplishments that you really want to recognize.