The why and wherefore

Why spend time on genealogical matters? What's the fascination?

For me there's an element of familial responsibility, with which I'm now finally beginning to come to terms. When my father (FHB hereafter) died in 1977 he left a large collection of family papers and photographs, among which was a 3-ring binder with summaries of the genealogical work he'd undertaken after my mother's death (1972), working from the base laid down by Aunt Christine's mother [Aunt Christine is the widow of FHB's brother Roger --she still lives in Maine]. FHB visited graveyards, joined the Massachusetts Genealogical Society, went to local Historical Societies and quarried their archives, found and read the books that undergird the whole industry of pre-Revolutionary New England genealogy, and took copious notes. Unfortunately they're very cryptic: his handwriting is difficult (though I can read most of it) and his citation practises are flexible at best --sometimes it's not at all clear what the source is, or how it's to be used (there are index numbers that must apply to something, but I don't yet know to what).

Anyway, I appropriated this archive of family stuff, and have been hoarding it ever since, slightly oppressed by the enormity of the task of sorting it out, and more than a bit daunted by the challenge of taking up where he left off in about 1975. In January 1997 I opened it all up again, impelled partly by Kate's Christmas gift of an empty photo album and accompanying injunction to do something about organizing the family photos into something coherent, and partly by e-mail from one Marc Blackmer, who was using the web to troll for genealogically-inclined Blackmers in order to sort out his own family connections.

In February I decided to try to array the backbone of begats as a hypertext, figuring that the medium really lends itself to the kind of network/tree exploration that lies at the heart of the genealogical impulse. Essentially the hypertext allocates a page to each person, and the page places that person in generational context (parents, siblings, spouse, offspring) AND provides the possibility for such augmentation as scanned images, commentaries, links to other resources. I don't know of any such thing out there on the web, though it's no big deal to begin to implement. Of course it's infinitely extensible, and that fact alone means that some navigation scheme is essential; in mid February I'm still not sure what that navigation scheme will turn out to be, but I imagine it as some sort of traversible map that links to the lacework of intergenerational names and relationships.

So I'm still wrestling with the why of all this. To array names into a tree of descent is pretty sterile in and of itself. You can demonstrate connection to Mayflower ancestors and suchlike (and such gene-pride seems to be a primary motivation in the industry), but the grander significance is harder to gauge. One wants to know about the people, about what motivated them to migrate, to choose particular spouses, to make the life decisions which are barely visible in the twisted vines of descent and parentage. Most of that sort of information is difficult or impossible to recover, and one settles instead for conjecture, at best based in leaps of faith from historical evidence, but more often in a sort of wishful conviction that is very easy to fall into: so-and-so must have done or thought or been this or that, and so on. Perhaps the best that can be said is that the genealogical frameworks are trellises for historical exploration, and certainly they beg questions right and left.

Primary data like letters and other fragments of the lives of now-dead people might be keys to some of this, when they can be found, but what I've encountered in quarrying the boxes of letters has been a very tangled undergrowth of people's unhappiness, of things that may have been of great significance in individual emotional development, and might make good plot items for fiction, but aren't congruent with the glories that the genealogical enterprise seems to be founded in. And similarly with the photographs: one fancies that character may somehow be read in physiognomy, and that snapshots encapsulate stories that can be read, to serve as the basis for a better understanding of the individuals who populate the pictures. But these are fancies, just as selective as the tales told by people who might interpret the images ("Oh, that's Uncle William. He was xxx...."). So the greatest product of involvement in such collections is probably the family myths that are fomented and passed on. I doubt that one knows more about who one is as a result of such involvement, except perhaps as a projective activity; the evidence is really pretty frail, and mostly feeds the fires of self aggrandizement and self justification, or perhaps occasionally of self criticism.

Still, I feel impelled to work with FHB's material, to extract what's there and array it for the interest and edification of all of Rabbit's friends and relations. The element of responsibility is there: I'm custodian of a legacy that belongs to a set of people, and not just to me. At least I now have a medium for its arrayal and distribution.