Genealogy The Search For A Personal Past

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The stereotype of the genealogist has long been a familiar one in American popular culture. Like the Ichabod Crane schoolmaster and the prissy librarian, the genealogist was a specific type, easily recognizable and faintly ridiculous. She was the elderly lady in comfortable shoes examining musty records in search of enough cerulean in her veins to permit her to snub her neighbors with a clear conscience. He was the retired clergyman supplementing his pension by collecting fees for piloting nervous clients through the turbulent biographical shoals that stand in the way of admittance to patriotic societies. Genealogy, when it was practiced at all, carried an air of quackery about it. And even at its most serious it seemed a somnolent pursuit designed to help old people to while away their time.

If that was ever true (and like most stereotypical propositions it contained a sufficient kernel of truth to make it a useful short hand), it is no longer. Consider the following random examples of the current interest in American genealogy:

 

• The National Archives in Washington, D.C., once a favored spot for scholarly snoozing, now receives some twenty-three hundred requests for genealogical information every week.

• Frank Bradley of the Genealogy Room of the New York Public Library estimates that the majority of people who come in to start looking up their family histories are in their thirties or forties. The membership of the Daughters of the American Revolution is, according to a spokeswoman, “getting younger,” and the Boy Scouts have recently introduced a merit badge in genealogy.

• Alex Haley’s suspect but fascinating Roots is far and away the most popular book ever written on a genealogical subject. The television mini-series based on it pulled the highest ratings in history. It was estimated that 130 million people, almost half the population of America, watched at least one segment. John Jakes’s harmless flap-doodle, the fictional Kent Family Chronicles , sold close to 30 million copies in paperback between 1974 and 1980.

• Genealogy, once described as “history’s neglected stepsister” and dismissed as irrelevant by professional historians, is increasingly being accepted as a legitimate subject for study. Courses in genealogy are commonplace in American colleges, and historians such as Professor Pat Bonomi of New York University have called it “an invaluable tool in the investigation of American social history. ”

• Local genealogical societies are sprouting up like so many McDonald’s. Formerly limited to a few major cities, genealogical societies are now found from Allenspark, Colorado, to Zelienople, Pennsylvania.

• If a social phenomenon can be considered truly recognized when Madison Avenue takes official notice, then genealogy has arrived. Pan American Airlines runs a campaign noting that “all of us come from somewhere else” and offering to help passengers explore their “two heritages.” The Continental Trailways Bus Company has as a slogan “Take Our Routes to Your Roots.”

Both as an academic pursuit and as a popular American pastime, genealogy is clearly riding on a fast track.

This current acceptance has been very slow in coming about. Genealogy and derision have had a long and colorful relationship. In the Bible, Timothy warns us, “Neither give heed to fables and endless genealogies.” In The Acharnians Aristophanes poked wicked fun at sober Euripides’ fondness for reciting genealogies. The proverbial expression “to lie like a genealogist” is an old one. It appears that almost from the first moment there were genealogies—and they have been traced as far back as the Pharaohs—there have been genealogists eager to please a client or impress an audience without regard to the pesky standards of accuracy or even plausibility. In ancient Rome patricians who were descended from the founding fathers, and who were eager to maintain the rigid exclusiveness that preserved their sacra gentilica , proudly drew up genealogical tables and then had the results painted on the walls of their homes. Since almost everyone likes to be thought of as patrician, a thriving industry grew up providing plebian parvenus with busts of specious ancestors to worship and tables tracing clients back to Aeneas. It is a practice that continues in much the same form down to the present day. Probably the high-water mark of this sort of f akery is the genealogy of the Hungarian Esterhâzy family, which solemnly traced itself back to Adam’s grandfather.