A luminously written inquiry into the history of one man’s family turns out to be about all of us
I have been haunted by the same nightmare for some twenty years now. In it I am running through long dimly lit corridors in a basement somewhere. My father’s father is said to be dying in a room off one of them. I somehow have the power to save him if I can just get there in time, but I haven’t his room number and no one is around to help me. The empty halls intersect, shoot off at odd angles, seem to turn back on one another. And all the time the clock is ticking. Then I wake up, sweating, and remember that my grandfather, to whom I was very close, is long dead, that when he did die I was halfway across the continent. I wished then, I clearly still wish, that I could somehow have kept him alive forever.
That is why I am a little envious of the writer Ian Frazier, for he has managed, in a literary sense, to perform that miracle for a whole host of his forebears in his wonderful recent book Family (Farrar Straus Giroux, $23.00). It was the deaths of his parents that set him to searching through his family’s past. Cleaning out their home, he writes, he began to keep two files, a Mom Museum and a Dad Museum, and to let the leads he found there take him where they would, looking for “a meaning that would defeat death.”
I’m giving away nothing when I say he really never finds one—beyond a newfound belief that we, like the country, “came from somewhere and are going somewhere. We must pursue.” And I mean no disrespect when I add that there is nothing especially notable about Frazier’s ancestors; his is an old but pretty ordinary Ohio and Indiana clan. But his account of it is among the most affecting works of history I’ve read in years.
I should have known it would be. His earlier book Great Plains (Penguin Books, $12.95) is a masterpiece of another kind, a series of interconnected essays filled with odd details that
seem at first strangely random: Some Plains warriors, fearing they might oversleep and thus miss a dawn attack on their enemies, took care to drink a lot of water before going to bed; the tumbleweed, ubiquitous symbol of the American West, is actually a relatively recent import from the Russian steppes; an occupational hazard for buffalo hunters was death from skunk bite; Lawrence WeIk bought his first accordion with earnings from a trapline. At first Frazier’s spiky data seem randomly chosen, but as the pages turn, their cumulative effect is to blur the distinction between then and now, creating a new and remarkable landscape where, as one reviewer wrote, “the past lies alongside the present.”
Anyone who has endured an evening with an overly enthusiastic amateur genealogist knows how truly tedious family history can be: the sheer volume of faceless names and dates, the tenuous links to the celebrated or notorious, the infinite permutations of cousinhood. To such people all history seems to exist only to fill out branches on the family tree. Frazier sensibly sees it the other way around. Without a moment’s pomposity or boasting—without a boring page or paragraph, for that matter—his family chronicle also chronicles the history of much of the country his ancestors helped build.
Frazier manages seamlessly to weave together the life of the nation with the lives of his forebears—the Wickhams and Wantons and Wildmans; the Wieders and Warners and Hurshes and all the rest whose first representatives arrived in the seventeenth century. They include at least one eighteenth-century sea captain who ferried slaves to the New World, several slaveowners, and several young men who subsequently fought in the Civil War to free the slaves. Frazier’s grandparents owned a summer cottage on the shore of Lake Erie, so he himself witnessed the lake’s death and only partial resurrection in our own time, but his more remote ancestors belonged to a generation of Ohio pioneers who reminisced “about hurricanes of pigeons that passed overhead in flights several layers deep, about shoals of white bass and pickerel in the rivers so dense you could catch dozens by hand, about squirrels so numerous the state of Ohio passed a law in 1817 requiring a quota of squirrel skins from every taxpayer on penalty of fine.” (It turns out that Frazier’s family is tenuously linked to my own: The grandfather whose death I still mourn in the early-morning hours ran the Alien Art Museum at Oberlin College, endowed by the daughter of Louis Severance, the Cleveland philanthropist who was Frazier’s richest relative.)
Frazier’s family history helped him understand how brief American history really is. “Woodcut illustrations in history books and TV specials,” he writes, “make slavery seem of the distant past, but really [it] was just the day before yesterday. My grandfather Osie Hursh, whom I knew well, knew well his grandfather Thomas Chapman (1815–1905); as a young man in Western Virginia, Grandfather Chapman owned a man named Black Bill and a woman named Aunt Rindy, who had been wedding presents from his grandparents.”
But he also realizes that however closely he may feel himself linked to his ancestors, they and he remain starkly different. Take the matter of religion: “I imagine myself in a grange hall full of ancestors—their dark clothes, perhaps a woolly, smoky smell, their inward demeanors—and I think conversation between me and them would be even more strained than usual at family get-togethers. My ancestors talked and wrote a lot more about God and Jesus Christ than I do. … They approved of mirth but not ‘dissolute mirth.’ They could be a tough audience. In church, they often hummed when they liked what the preacher was saying and sometimes hissed softly when they didn’t. … Compared to them, I suppose I am an infidel. They might call me a Nothingarian—the name regular church-goers in the nineteenth century sometimes applied to those who weren’t.”
Despite his own lack of orthodoxy, Frazier comes to see the central role religious faith played in the founding of the country and is led to a conclusion that seems as eloquent as it is currently unfashionable: “The people who founded the country came from a tradition of thinking about God and man and about how people best should live, a tradition more passionate then than it became or is today. And if the founding words about freedom and justice and equality were traduced the moment they came out of the speakers’ mouths, traduced by crimes against people unlike the speakers themselves, still no fact of history tells us we cannot believe the aspiration.”
Family is filled with personal epiphanies. The one that moved me most came to the author on the Chancellorsville battlefield, where his greatgreat-grandfather and several other relatives had fought in the 55th Ohio Volunteers and somehow managed to survive. It was the memory of their furious struggle, combined with hearing a historian at the visitors’ center repeat Stonewall Jackson’s last words as he lay dying in the bedroom of a nearby farmhouse, that first brought Frazier to tears and then set him to writing:
“‘Let us cross over the river, and rest under the shade of the trees.’ In this sentence, perhaps the most famous dying utterance in American history, Jackson concentrated a lifetime of prayer and struggle and aspiration—his, and that of the young country he had fought to divide. So many crossed water to get here, so many wanted to rest under the shade. … In the staccato rhythm of the words I can see each step of the action. The sentence ascends in terraces to rest and peace, it undoes knots inside me, it exhales like a sigh. I can see the shining, whorled river sliding by and the gently rising bank and the shaded grass trodden down after a day-camp picnic, across the river and under the trees. I see the columnar trunks almost in a row and the high ceiling where the leaves begin and the sketchier clouds and sky, somewhere above. And then I get kind of carried away and I extend this landscape indefinitely in every direction and I imagine it as the new good place America in its best moments has hoped to be and I populate it from the whole globe and I fill it with faces like those in a poster from an old epic Western movie with cooking smells and music and maybe even a few car-burglar alarms for verisimilitude—I will spare you all the details. Suffice it to say that all of the drinking fountains work, across the river and under the trees.
“Before the Civil War, America didn’t know if it was a country or lots of different Promised Lands. People invented the America they wanted to live in and then struggled to live there. Across the river and under the trees combined all these invented countries into one. Across the river and under the trees descended like a beneficence in the last moments of a fierce man’s life and crystallized his fierceness to purity. Across the river and under the trees carried no demurring subclauses or riders. It included us all—people Jackson considered infidels, men he would have shot unblinking in life. Across the river and under the trees was poetry equal to the nation-making poetry of Lincoln, and the only line of public poetry to come from the South in the war. Even though Stonewall Jackson fought for the Slave power and though his faith is beyond me and though … the flag of his cause still scares me when I see it on the radiator grille of a truck in my rearview mirror and though I am more than glad his side lost, I dream of across the river and under the trees.”