JERSEY CITY, NJ – They’ve shaped the world as we know it. They’ve been the driving force in the evolution of our society. They most certainly walk among us today. Some of them are heroes, and some of them are jerks.
Jersey City author Ed Daly felt inclined to examine the impact of these diametrically opposed forces, the yin-yang of humankind, in his probing work titled Heroes & Jerks: The Best And Worst Who Ever Lived. In it, Daly takes a look at world leaders, Hollywood actors, and even a ten-year-old student—all the while infusing humor, heart, with a modern approach to learning history.
Like many of history’s compelling stories, Daly’s involves drinking beer—specifically in an English pub.
“Some guys across the pub were drinking lots of beer and getting loud about whether or not Die Hard was a Christmas movie. From there, they switched from Hans Gruber to real-life villains, including some kings from the Middle Ages who I didn't know about,” said Daly. “That led me down a Google rabbit hole where I wanted to learn about every hero and villain since the beginning of human history. The drunken Englishmen were wrong about Die Hard (of course it's a Christmas movie—it takes place at a Christmas party!) but they had planted the seed that would eventually become this book.”
Daly adopted an unconventional methodology for his classifications, incorporating top ten lists and a fair amount of subjective interpretation to analyze the infamous, the esoteric, and the relatable.
“History books tend to focus on world leaders. And, without question, figures like Mahatma Gandhi, Abraham Lincoln, and Adolf Hitler still have a major impact on the world today. But government and wars aren't the only reasons that life can be good or bad,” Daly said. “A terrible song can bum you out. A phone call with a loved one can make your day. I wanted this book to include all of those positive and negative influencers, big and small, and provide a more complete telling of human history.”
In writing Heroes & Jerks, Daly had a few revelations about some of our society’s most celebrate pioneers.
“Growing up, I was taught to believe Thomas Edison, Alexander Graham Bell, and Henry Ford were three of the greatest Americans who ever lived,” he told TAPinto Jersey City. “Without even having to dig deep into their biographies, I discovered a vindictive patent troll, a shameless thief, and an oppressive anti-Semite.”
Bringing it home to Hudson County, Daly found out one of history’s renowned jerks actually wasn’t that bad of a guy.
“I know this won't endear me to the Hamilton musical lovers, but Aaron Burr was actually a pretty impressive guy. He still landed on the ‘Jerk’ side of things but was incredibly prescient on a number of issues. The guy was talking about criminal justice reform and women's rights in 1775! He pushed for fairness in elections and looking out for small businesses. But, in the end, his hatred of Alexander Hamilton overshadowed everything. Now he's just known as the bad guy from the duel in Weehawken.”
While billing itself as the definitive ranking of human existence, Heroes & Jerks does manage to get a little blurry at times.
“Since humans are complicated, some people landed on both lists. Thomas Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence and was a particularly evil slave owner. As ugly as Thomas Edison treated people, the guy still perfected the lightbulb. Jim Brown was a civil rights hero who had a terrible track record of domestic violence,” said Daly. “The #metoo movement, for example, exposed the hypocrisy of a lot of important figures.”
At 533 pages, the challenge for Daly was to pick and choose—a difficult take made even more so amid the rapid contemporary re-writing of history as we knew it.
“The past quarter century was definitely the hardest part. It's not that hard to have a positive take on Susan B. Anthony or Muhammad Ali, even though they were reviled in their day. After the dust settles, it is pretty easy to have a clear opinion on who was on the right side of history. But, in modern years, people are still a work in progress,” said Daly. “When I started the book, I was ready to praise Aung San Suu Kyi, the democracy champion who became Myanmar's leader in 2016. By 2017, word got out that she stood by as her military committed genocide. In recent months, J.K. Rowling seems to be trying to undo her legacy with one boneheaded tweet after another.”
The world keeps turning, and in the process producing more Heroes & Jerk at a feverish pace.
“The book certainly lends itself to updates,” hints Daly. “2020 has already felt like a decade worth of news and figures and we're barely halfway through the year.”
As for his own legacy, the author admits the scope of history can be somewhat complicated.
“If you ask my sixth grade English teacher, I'm sure she'd tell you I am a jerk. But, beyond that, I do my best to be kind to people and hopefully make them laugh. While this book certainly doesn't make me a hero, I've tried to add some value to the world by sharing about inspirational people and pointing out evil. Plus, my kids are pretty nice. That has got to count for something, right?”