The Trump era news cycle moves fast. As we try to separate the urgent from the important, it’s worth asking who and what will really be remembered a century from now.
It’s not likely to be what you’d expect. For the past few years, I’ve been combing through the archives of the New York Times Sunday magazine for my website SundayMagazine.org. And what I’ve found is that even the biggest news of the time quickly fades.
The 100-year test is much different than the half-century test. After 50 years, tens of millions of people are still alive. After 100 years, the living witnesses are gone.
So let’s examine who and what from around 1918 is—and isn’t—still widely remembered in 2018. Those findings can help us make informed guesses about who and what from 2018 might still be remembered in 2118.
I’ve always had a fear of dying anonymously, so I take these questions seriously. What will we remember from today a century from now.
Here’s my list, in no particular order.
Phillip Roth. I spent a large part of my youth arguing which contemporary authors would be studied in the future. Thomas Pynchon, Don Delillo, Joan Didion. Ishmael Reed. (I think I will probably be wrong on at least two out of those four.) I never argued for Philip Roth, but I have to think the way he captured the zeitgeist of our times and was so prolific, people will be talking about him in 100 years.
Another aspect that helps the Philip Roth argument is that his work may play well in the future. History has shown many artists who caught their time perfectly but almost too much: they didn’t make much sense in future times. We remember William Shakespeare for many things, but one of them is because his stories and characters still resonate today. Ben Johnson, not so much.
Barack Obama. I am not wholly convinced by this, but I think he provides a window into our times. And, there are a lot of firsts. We also may count Ronald Reagan, who will be remembered as the opposite of FDR or the end of his influence. Reagan for his popularity and the revolution he was part of.
Milton Freidman. That is a good question. His arguments certainly fueled some of Reagan’s revolution, but how will laissez faire capitalism play in the future? The next few years may help decide: a really bad idea or give us more, please.
Muhammad, Buddha, Jesus, Moses, Confucius. Some of the great religions of the world. Will we have another one 10 decades from now? Will followers flee from one of the popular religions? It’s doubtful. For one, 100 years isn’t that long. Not very much can change on that level, even taking into account surprises and black swans. We haven’t had a major new religion in many centuries. The other ones are four millennia old.
Frank Sinatra, Miles Davis, Nina Simone. Future people would need a reason to study people like this, and they all have it. Frank Sinatra gives us a certain space in time and someone who could play well in the future. He is a window for a specific milieu which could be interesting to certain people in the future.
Davis has so much material, and he was at the forefront of so many artistic movements. Some of his music will pass the test of time. He is also arguably a window in more than one fascinating time frames.
Something about Nina Simone. She wasn’t the most popular of her time, but her songs still have that …chill. She’s still influencing people. Put her on the slow burn.
Michael Jordan, Lionel Messi. American sport stars don’t have a lot of global traction, so Jordan may not be remembered outside the US. The list above is pretty US-centric, so he may be remembered there as the greatest of all time. He hasn’t played in nearly two decades and he’s still considered cool.
I don’t have any idea of how soccer players age and how their careers look so far into the future. Cumulatively he’s the biggest star (give or take) in the biggest sport in the world. Does this make him the biggest athlete in the world? How much does this hold when he retires?
Wikipedia (from my daughter). We’ll still be talking about Wikipedia somehow. Perhaps it will still be around. Perhaps it will be studied and revered from the early days of the web. She said it is because people can make stuff up about other things.
What we learned
How to be remembered by people in 100 years:
Like Philip Roth, Miles Davis, Nina Simone, you have to be a hitmaker during your day and you have to have something to say for the future.
You have to be an interesting window to your world. Never underestimate the power of popular historians and artists to keep people talking about you. (see, Hamilton, Alexander).
You have to have a one-in-a-million personality with a complicated sense of power. You also need to have power. Think Teddy Rosevelt to our day. Personal power has always been attractive. No one is certainly the combination of power and personality of Nero or sheer power like Stalin. Even in this age of YouTube stars, even the brightest lights can be dull.