Friday, April 23, 2010

The Value of Roots

Apparently as genealogy has become a more popular pastime, assorted bitter cranks have played up their bitterness about it.

Don't get me wrong. I understand this. As you may have noticed, I bitch about many, many things. And when it comes to making fun of others' hobbies, I realize that one's person's interest is another person's cult (see Smart Phones, Twitter, or anything teenagers are doing these days).

However this is a little different. This time, it's my ox getting gored.

Yes, it seems that some people are mad because they've decided that tracing your family tree is stupid. My biggest problem with this isn't that we disagree (plenty of people in my family-- and Shiksa Girlfriend's family, actually), don't get my interest in the stuff, either. (Habakkuk once commented rather peevishly, "He seems more interested in learning about dead people than spending time with living ones.") No, what irritates me is that the people bagging on family history don't even seem to have a good idea why they don't like it.

Take Neil Genzlinger, TV critic for the NY Times bitching about NBC's "Who Do You Think You Are":

I also ended up wondering if there should be a warning screen that you have to click past to enter, as on a pornography site. “You are not a celebrity, and no one is going to pay for you to go to Tuscany, Poland, Benin and other far-off places as they do on those genealogy shows,” it would say. “Also, you may find that everyone you’re related to was nothing but a drone in the vast hive of humanity, living unremarkably and dying unexceptionally, just as you probably will.”

...After a few hours of this it was apparent to me that what we need is a companion site to this one, for the more mundane among us: Because the hazard of genealogical research isn’t that you’ll find scallywags, rapscallions and miscreants in your family tree; it’s that you’ll find a bunch of ordinary folks, which as the mania for genealogy spreads will make you death at parties.

“My great-great-grandpa witnessed the eruption of Krakatoa. How about yours?”

“Well, I hear he made a pretty good mat.”

This bozo argument has been repeated recently by Sathnam Sanghera, a memoirist and writer for the UK Times. Sanghera slams genealogy for, being boring, inconsequential, and self-absorbed.

The Sex and the City star Sarah Jessica Parker may have learnt on the US version of Who Do You Think You Are? that a grandmother a half-dozen generations back was the victim of the subject of a Salem witch trial, but most genealogists struggle to produce something even that uninteresting.
Indeed, I had to do a bit of family investigation for a book, and all I discovered was that my father’s father was a farmer, that his father’s father was a farmer, and that his father’s father was a farmer too.
And before anyone points out the hypocrisy of a memoirist slagging off genealogy, life writing and genealogy are completely different. One being the equivalent of an interest in music, the other the equivalent of an interest in hi-fi equipment.
Though perhaps a better way of putting it is that genealogy is the academic equivalent of endlessly googling yourself. Aficionados like to say their pastime is a good way of learning about history, but it strikes me as a highly solipsistic and narcissistic way of doing so.
Show me a genealogist and I’ll show you someone who is basically obsessed with proving that they come from royal, aristocratic or celebrity lineage. Creepy and boring.
Here's the problem with both of these arguments. They assume that the only thing genealogists care about is impressing other people, AND that are all people are impressed by the same stuff-- namely, scandal or royalty. Sure, this may be what some people are interested in, but it's like saying the only reason stamp collectors do what they do is because they like sniffing old glue.

Take me: I started tracing my tree when I was still in middle school after my grandfather died and I realized I didn't know a thing about him, not because I was looking for cocktail party fodder. I've never specifically sought out black sheep, but I also haven't run away from them when they've come up. I've known since day one that my ancestors weren't particularly remarkable, and certainly neither rich nor famous. In short, there was no major reason anyone other than me might be interested in them. But I didn't care, because I was interested in learning about their lives, in discovering their stories and adding more dimensions to their characters.

Honestly, the concept that you would ever need to "dress up" your family history in order to make it interesting strikes me as being the height of narcissism or superficiality. Sanghera complains that he came from three generations of farmers, as if one's job is the only thing that defines you in the course of a lifetime. Personally, I love my family's stories; they're rich, they're interesting, and none of them have a thing to do with being famous. Rather, they have to do with being real, three-dimensional people, relatively normal people, with pockets of entertaining, tragic, or instructional experiences. Part of the joy of tracing the tree is that I've actually wound up being able to share new facts with older relatives that shed new light on stories or ancestors that they knew growing up.

People like Genzlinger and Sanghera want to have it both ways. On the one hand genealogists only care about finding famous or hyper-interesting relatives. On the other hand most of their trees aren't that interesting so they're really just gigantic bores. What these guys are really saying is that their view of self, family, and history is extremely superficial, and that they're trying to extrapolate their interests and, frankly, snobbery, onto everybody else. Needless to say, they're wrong.

Interestingly enough, I understand this tendency. Mother Superior Yid's sister, Bozette, is a certified megalomaniac and many years ago, decided that she was going to glom onto me, the family historian, as a way to help her ego by justifying her delusions of grandeur. She was very irritated when I wrote to her, excited, by saying that I had gotten translations of town records in Poland dating back to the late 1700s (about as far back as non-famous Jewish lineages can go in Eastern Europe). The reason? First, being Polish wasn't as sexy as being Hungarian (one of her grandparents had been Hungarian and she had been holding out for the rest of them having been, too). Second, she started getting very threatened when I pointed out that, no, we weren't rich, we weren't educated, we were actually a bunch of fairly dirt-poor merchants, including, in many cases, illiterates. She couldn't stand this and has actually manufactured false family details that she has told to her children.

Aunt Bozette, clearly, can't see past the externals, just like our two critics. The only thing that matters is social station or scandal (which provides a social class of its own). Yes, scandal is interesting, and a bit fun. And when I've found scandals here and there, it has been nice to do more digging. A few of my great-great-uncles were probably involved in organized crime. One put his kids in an orphanage after his wife died. One of my great-grandfathers was sued by the government in the 20s for price gouging during WWI. I recently found out that his father was probably a bigamist. I've even found quite a few cases of "kissing cousin" marriages (mostly in Europe). Of course, there are also various family intrigues about relatives screwing each other over, financially and otherwise.

BUT- the fact that this naughty stuff is interesting doesn't diminish my interest in my other ancestors who weren't thieves, philanderers or all-around crappy parents. I also don't mind that our closest link to any famous people is the fact that my g.grandfather's second-cousin married the first-cousin-once removed of Judah Magnes. I don't NEED famous people, sinners, or rabbis in order to be interested-- or proud-- in my family. Yes, my mother's family was from nowhere-ville, Poland. They were poor and uneducated. There were five of them. And they were also orphans. My g.g.grandfather, who became responsible for a household of eight when he was all of twenty years old, worked his ass off to bring himself to America, then all of his siblings, then all of his kids. I don't care what Sanghera says, that's an accomplishment. And the fact that his case was more common than not doesn't make it less interesting. If anything, it makes me want to find out more about people like him.

Life is hard work. It's always been hard work. But knowing the stories of my family is sustaining-- and also inoculating against all the cultural "hell in a handbasket" hysteria so common in the media these days. I've spent enough time with my ancestors to know that most people were far from perfect. Not in the 50s, not in the 30s, hell, not in the 1880s. Poor and vulnerable people have always needed to struggle to survive-- and what's remarkable, and inspiring, is that so many have found ways to do it. Screw royalty. I wouldn't trade my g.g.grandfather's story for anything.

History is made by little people, one life at a time. And there's no shame in being descended from-- or wanting to find out more about-- normal, everyday people.

Assuming this post defending genealogy from being boring hasn't bored you, here are some other treatments of this topic.

1 comment:

scazon said...

I too have never understood this type of "criticism" of genealogy. You may not be interested in it, regardless of whether your ancestors were from the Medici line of Italy or a line of poopsmiths in Poland, but why take a dump on the interest for everyone else, especially those who can't (and don't) legitimately brag about being of "superior" stock? What a load.

Thanks for writing this. One of your best essays so far.