Do icons live up to the hype? That’s what Outlook asked last week in a special package of essays on key historical figures whose names have become commonly used adjectives. We asked whether Mao was a Maoist. We asked whether Bill Clinton is Clintonian. We even asked whether Sigmund Freud was truly Freudian. But we didn’t include every such figure — and readers disagreed passionately about some of the ones we did feature.
“I never thought that Victorianism ever connoted a lack of sexual passion,” one reader wrote in response to Kate Williams’s argument that Queen Victoria was not prudish or dour. “Victorianism was all about propriety: keeping your carnal romps between the sheets — whether at home or at the brothel — while maintaining public dignity. Victoria’s lurid diaries were thoroughly Victorian in that they were written to be reread only by her (and maybe by randy [Prince] Albert) and then burned.”
Ayn Rand, who historian Jennifer Burns noted was more sensitive to criticism than the protagonists of her novels, had a few strident defenders. “Ayn Rand was a novelist and philosopher, yet Burns never in her book or in her latest article analyzes the tenets of Rand’s philosophy, but merely spreads kaffee-klatsch-level gossip about her,” one reader wrote. Another suggested that we “try to incorporate some factual ideas in her writing about Ayn Rand, instead of gossip from those who hate her.”
Some people objected to the feature’s demographics. “I read your column and reflected upon your eight choices, seven of European descent and one Asian . . . and no persons, male or female, of African descent. Why?” Another reader suggested an African leader who should have been included. “Kwame Nkrumah, the first head of state of Ghana, was the brainchild behind Pan Africanism,” the reader noted. “I would like to know if you can come up with ‘Nkrumahism.’ ”
Some readers pointed out that Jesus Christ was not in fact Christian. “Christ wasn’t a Christian, especially considering how many Christians act today,” a self-described “former Baptist pastor” wrote. “As Gandhi said, ‘I like your Christ, I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ.’ ” Was Gandhi himself Gandhian? Others called his bona fides into question.
Nor were U.S. presidents safe from scrutiny. Some readers thought Andrew Jackson wasn’t Jacksonian, Woodrow Wilson wasn’t Wilsonian and Richard Nixon wasn’t Nixonian. A number of people wrote in to argue that Ronald Reagan was hardly Reaganesque.
Another famous figure readers wished we’d taken on was a bushy-bearded 19th-century German philosopher and hero of socialism. Many argued that Marx was not a Marxist (“Referring to Karl, not Groucho,” as one reader helpfully explained). “The theoretical economist and social commentator (a) objected to the vulgarization of his views by sloganeers and (b) was opposed on principle to making an iconic, calcified creed out of what should be an ongoing intellectual dialectic,” another wrote.
Others pointed out that Marx himself was wary of turning his name into an adjective. In an 1882 letter, “Communist Manifesto” co-author Friedrich Engels quoted Marx as saying: “If anything is certain, it is that I myself am not a Marxist.” While such hearsay can’t be taken at face value, Marx — who, though he championed the proletariat, never visited a factory until the end of his life — was a man of many contradictions.
Or perhaps Engels was just jealous. “Engelsian” doesn’t have much of a ring to it.
Read “What’s in a name?”