Tuesday, August 02, 2005

Daddy, Where Did I Come From?

(We shall return to terrorism later...the piece was getting rather ungainly and I need to work on it. I will also have something to say about King Fahd, the IRA and other topics of interest. Meanwhile, some personal reflections.)

For some reason, I have been thinking about my family history recently. Don't peg me as one of those ancestry nuts who scurries around archives looking for Grandpa's shoe size or a map to Uncle Sol's hallowed burial site. Nor am I a Mormon who does such things for religious (and creepy) reasons. When using archives, us professional historians make a point of saying that we are not geneaology people and please seat us on the other side of the room.

But Will, you ask, you are a historian. Isn't geneaology just a sort of history. Well, some yes and mostly no, and I will use my family as an example.

My family and any research I do therein is interesting and useful to, well, me and my family. In the larger scope of the histories of the United States and Europe (the two bases of operation for my forebears), we are just statistics and can serve as examples of larger trends, but nothing more unless some scholarly question was posited that involved the study of their lives to get at a larger historiographical assertion.

My father's family consists of Irish immigrants who came during the years of the Famine (1846-1853, approx.) and Germans who left after the Franco-Prussian War in 1870. My mother's family is Polish immigrants who came in the late nineteenth century and Hungarians who came in the first decade of the twentieth century. That is most of what I know, there are assorted stories and memories of certain people and events, but on the whole, my grandfather was right. We were just not that interesting.

On the other side, however, it was a lot of these stories that started to pique my interest/obsession with the past. My grandfather's service as a B-24 pilot in World War II; my great-grandfather's career in the U.S. Navy and the Chicago Fire Department; my mother's parents growing up in Chicago in the 1930's and 1940's; Patrick Quinn, my ancestor who fought in the Civil War; the 375 year old house in Bellingen, Germany that is still in the family somewhere; my great grandfather who was a trolley motorman in Chicago. It was these tales, be they true, exaggerated or patently false that got me reading about the past and asking questions of the past. This is, in small part, what historians do.

How as a professional historian to I encounter this interesting and potentially flawed base of sources on the past and how do I make sense of it all. In many ways, memory is the enemy of history. Historians run on archives, sources, argument and footnotes (lots and lots of footnotes). Memories are sense-driven, changeable and often flawed or completely wrong. They are, however, a part of the past as well.

Perhaps you have asked these questions of your own past. Perhaps you couldn't care less. It is your right to do either.

This leads me to conclude with a recommendation for a wonderful book. It is Richard White's Remembering Anhanagran. White, a professional historian, encounter's his mother's stories of growing up in Ireland, immigrating to Chicago and marrying a Jewish army officer/Harvard graduate from Boston. It is one historian grappling with his past, his profession and where the two meet, argue and can even compliment each other. It is quite simply one of the best books I have read in some time.

Do roots provide strength or foster inflexibility?

How knowable is the past?

What is history and what is memory?

Where do we all fit in?


Emerson Dameron said...

The foundations of our personalities are pretty much laid down by the time we start kindergarten. Our families, and their families, are going to shape our core interests, values, and perspectives, for good or ill. Although most families are fuck-all boring, I find that a lot of people reveal the most about themselves when they talk about their parents and their lineage. I certainly wish more long-form journalists would do me that courtesy. I don't necessarily need to hear how often Daddy beat you, but your thoughts on the culture at large don't excite me unless I have some sense of your POV.

Of course, most people of my generation don't remember their Chanukah presents; they remember the day Mr. Hooper died. And there's something to be said for the pure existentialist view.

Frema said...

All very good questions, questions I don't believe I've paid much thought to before. A few years ago my mothe became interested in tracing her ancestry. I can understand wanting to know about your grandparents and maybe even your great-grandparents, but as the line goes farther back, I lose the feeling of emotional connection and with it an interest to dig deepr into my past.

But then I think about the possibility of my future great-great-grandchildren feeling the same disinterest about my own life. Am not so happy about that.

P.S. I've added you to my blogroll. Don't you feel special now? :)