WHEN RICH COHEN’S The Fish That Ate the Whale: The Life and Times of America’s Banana King arrived in my mailbox, I was excited. Excited because its topic lay at the intersection between several of my intellectual pursuits: the historical world of banana workers, chronicled by calypsos like Harry Belafonte’s “Day-O” and the contemporary politics and culture of Central America and the Caribbean. In fact, I’m set to travel to Guatemala to build houses with Habitat for Humanity in a few short weeks. But after I’d carefully removed the dust jacket and turned to the Preface, Cohen began to worry me. He writes that his interest in Sam Zemurray — the “Banana King” of the title — was piqued during his undergraduate years at Tulane: “Unlike lectures in other classes, this was an epic, gaudy in character and incident, filled with mercenary soldiers and dirty wars, financial battles and the sort of political shenanigans familiar from the smoky back rooms of my hometown, Chicago.” And yet, a little more than a page later, he concludes that, “If you want to understand the spirit of our nation, the good and bad, you can enroll in college, sign up for classes, take notes and pay tuition, or you can study the life of Sam the Banana Man.”
I cannot deny that my wariness of Cohen’s opinion of academic history is felt at a personal level; after all, I completed my Ph.D. in American Studies at the University of Texas just last spring. But a more general wariness is warranted, too. As Robert Zaretsky pointed out in his review of Jonah Lehrer’s scandalous Imagine: How Creativity Works: we live in an era when journalists and pundits presume the knowledge and skill to write historical works, including biography. On the surface, that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. When David McCullough publishes a new book, at least we know someone is taking history seriously — even if it’s a bored business traveler looking for distraction on a domestic flight. But journalists, even those under contract with major American publishers, are not bound by the same evidentiary rules as academic historians. Many barely peek into the primary sources, preferring to summarize others’ work in a more “accessible” style.
Thankfully, Rich Cohen isn’t guilty of this. Though he’s a journalist — a contributing editor at Rolling Stone and Vanity Fair, to be precise — it’s clear from reading the entirety of his new book that he’s done the research legwork, culling from both firsthand accounts and documents and the best of the secondary literature. So what, then, is his truck with the academy in the Preface? If anything, it seems to be about a particular philosophy regarding the presentation of fact. In his review Zaretsky invokes Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War as an example of historical writing that is “truthful” without necessarily being accurate. That, I think, is where Cohen is aiming. While The Fish That Ate the Whale isn’t, to my knowledge, inaccurate, there are numerous places where Cohen inserts himself into the narrative to say, in effect, “I don’t know what Zemurray was thinking in this moment, and probably there’s no real way of knowing, but here’s what I imagine was going through his mind.”...read more