When I teach my Age of Johnson (Restoration/18th C.) class, I’m fond of mentioning one of the English government’s actions upon Charles II’s ascent to the throne. From St. Wiki:
Charles’s new parliament ordered the disinterment of Cromwell’s body from Westminster Abbey, and of those of other leading regicides, John Bradshaw and Henry Ireton, for a posthumous execution at Tyburn. After hanging “from morning till four in the afternoon”, the three bodies were cut down and the heads placed on a 20-foot (6.1 m) spike above Westminster Hall (the location of the trial of Charles I). In 1685, a storm broke the pole upon which Cromwell’s head stood, throwing it to the ground (although other sources put the date anywhere between 1672 and 1703)[.]
I can see Charles II’s desire for payback, given that Cromwell et al. had been responsible for the execution of the his father and had driven him to the Continent. Still, given that Cromwell, Bradshaw, and Ireton either had far more pressing concerns or no concerns at all (depending on one’s perspective on post mortem existence), the whole “hanging of corpses and heads on pikes” thing seems a bit, well, redundant. (Side note: Some Christian sects believed dead bodies had to be buried facing East (toward Jerusalem) in order to face God at the Day of Resurrection. This sort of posthumous dismemberment could be seen as adding an extra level of damnation to the whole business. And as far as it goes, many cemeteries — including the one in which my parents are buried — still do the Eastward thing.)
Anyway, all this came to my mind this morning when I looked at Twitter after class and saw the latest offender against contemporary notions of decency and politesse, the latest target of condemnation and scorn from all goodthinkers. The scourge in question? One Marion Mitchell Morrison, better known under his stage name of John Wayne.
In 1971, Wayne was interviewed in Playboy magazine, and made statements about homosexuals and other marginalized groups that (putting it litotically) were not those of polite society in 2019. Wayne died eight years later, but these remarks have fueled a full-bore linear panic among the bien pensants of social media, and declarations that Mr. Wayne should be declared an unperson, or in the parlance of our current day, “canceled.”
Given of course that Mr. Wayne has been dead for 40 years, it seems unlikely that the current wave of outrage will trouble his retirement. Still, I find a certain irony in the fact that in 1660, the Puritan Regicides were the subjects of posthumous abuse. Now, our modern Puritans call for the infliction of damnatio memoriae on long dead entertainers.
Really, though, I noticed that a number of online acquaintances are seizing on this opportunity to condemn fans of Mr. Wayne’s work and persona as well. I’ve talked about this before, in the cases of folks like Warren Zevon and other creatives, and for that matter, with regard to at least one of my own ancestors. But let’s be honest: very few of us, good, bad, or indifferent, will stick in the maw of “devouring Time.” I wrote a dissertation on medieval drama, but can name none of the performers or authors of the plays I discussed. Similarly, given a century or few, even the most popular performers of our era will be academic arcana. As Pope noted, “Such as Chaucer is, shall Dryden be.” Likewise for John Wayne, Warren Zevon, you, and I. These frenzies of pearl-clutching are unnecessary and banal.
And while the intent of the cancelers may be to improve and purify the public discourse, I would suggest that they consider the similar ambitions of Savonarola… and consider his fate.