Thursday, April 21, 2016

Ancestor Stuff, or My Genealogy Jag

No, I'm not going to talk about some antecedent who memorized a thousand verses from the Bible ... or a great aunt with seventeen cats. But I am going to admit that one recent evening when I'd finished my book and there was nothing on TV, I picked up my laptop and started exploring, and for some reason that I can't now remember (and that doesn't matter, anyway), I keyed in the name of my paternal grandfather and his city (Baltimore).  Lo and behold, what should I find but a link that turned out to show a full length photo of him dating from the 1880s when he was in his late teens.  Dressed to the nines and looking pretty natty.  The odd thing was that I had never seen a picture of him before.  Well, a snapshot around 1900 but hat and bushy mustache pretty well hid his features.

Okay, I was hooked.  I'd already done a lot of genealogical research some years ago, but I decided to see if I could fill in some gaps.  And I have to say, I'm finding it all very interesting.  Maybe that's because I'm part historian, part researcher, as well as someone curious to know why those relatives left Virginia in 1808 and moved to Tennessee, or was that x-times great grandmother really related to that Confederate general, or did that particular great great great grandfather fight in that battle described in our national anthem?

I'm also impressed anew that each generation doubles the number of ancestors from the generation before so that if you go back ten generations (the 17th century for me) we each have 1,024 direct ancestors.  And, if you go back to the Norman Conquest, I've read that we have more than a billion. Of course, there weren't even that many people on the planet then. Hmmm...  so how does that work?  A piece about it suggests that part of the answer, at least, lies in cousins marrying cousins (which happened more frequently "back then").

So here I am now checking dates in early Virginia, traveling overland to California in 1846, learning who fought for the north and who for the south. And I found a 2-times-great grandmother who, after she died at age twenty-six, had a clipper ship built and named for her that took some of the first Gold Rush folks around the Horn to San Francisco, carried a cargo of tea from China to England, and brought back a boatload of Irish immigrants to Philly.  I'm even getting a book out of the library on clipper ships of that era--which I wouldn't have thought to look at otherwise.

Well, it's one of those intriguing, elucidating things to do.  After awhile, though, you get the sense that with so many antecedents, everyone has to be related to everyone!

Friday, April 8, 2016

A Splendid Trilogy

I just finished reading (re-reading, actually) three books that Conrad Richter (1890-1968) wrote as a trilogy--The Trees, The Fields, The Town--set from the late 18th century to the mid-19th.  The story centers around one family who left their home in Pennsylvania when the game gave out and made their way into the wilderness west of the Alleghenies and north of the Ohio River to Shawnee and Delaware land where all you could see was a sea of trees, an"ocean of leaves"--so many that the sun never seemed to shine but the game was plentiful.  Here they settled, living in a cabin they built themselves, making do with only a few cooking pots, some quilts, an axe, and a rifle.  They ate a lot of bear meat and venison and a bit of johnny cake and wheat bread when they could trade furs for meal.

As The Trees (published 1940) continues, the landscape gradually changed as farmers and tradespeople appeared and began the process of not merely chopping down "the little fellows" for cabin logs but "the big butts" (trees) so that the settlers could be more than "woodsies" (itinerant hunters) and put in "potato vines, roasting ears and flax growing there in the sun."  It was only then, when the never-ending woods began to be cleared, that the sun did in fact begin to shine as more and more people began shifting the landscape, including making pathways between houses so that they would not get lost going home in the dark.

In The Fields (1946), as the story-line continues with the same family, people were "fetching labor-saving machinery into the wilderness."  They built a meeting house, church, school, store, grist mill.  They bought looms and raised sheep for wool.  They also noticed that with the trees now cut, the game had gone, replaced by foxes, field birds, possums, mice.  Now known to be part of the state of Ohio, they changed their settlement's name from Moonshine Church to something they thought more befitting--Americus.  They saw even more sun as more trees fell.  And many paths and fields were now free of stumps.

Finally, in The Town (1950), in which one member of the family said their town "was getting too big for its britches," there was milling, blacksmithing, wheel-wrighting, a soap works, cotton factory, newspaper, hotel, plus societies now telling business owners what they could and couldn't do ... and various committees such as the one that approved building a new church since the steeple on their current one wasn't tall enough.  Someone else wanted to dig up the graveyard and put in a bank.  The bucket method of putting out fires was abandoned when they sent off for a fire engine ... which was soon replaced by an even newer variety.  Houses were built on the square--later to be turned into shops.  A canal was built, a rail line.  Any trees to be found now had to be planted.

I first read these books for an American Lit class in college and never forgot them, finding them works of total integrity and history at its best:  approachable, engaging, intimate.  Conrad Richter did his research, coming up with the archaic slang and speech of that era, stories of the Revolution and the wilderness folks. He is an excellent writer--lyrical, gentle despite his description of tough subjects, and magical by letting you feel as if you were living in those very times. For me, these beautiful works are unlike anything written today about that era.  (The Town won a Pulitzer in 1951.)

The heart of the books, then, centers around these changes that take place both to the land as well as to the people and the amelioration of their living conditions. As Richter states (and my Lit professor reiterated), hard work and diversity from making contributions and sacrifices gave the people of that day "character."  Even the youngsters then--those who had the forests already cut for them, the houses already built for them, the food already available for them--were thought to be getting by without having to do the work of their forebears.    

There is an interesting aside to all this, however.  Less than a decade after the author's death, the work was bowdlerized (that's my word, but I feel it fits).  A television crew turned it into a mini-series in the 1970's, changed the story-line, the characters' actions and reactions, and incorporated social attitudes of the day to match what I might call the beginnings of this era's "political correctness."  Once re-written, it was re-published as a revised edition by Ohio University Press.  So, in looking for these books, be sure to ask for the original version--that published by Alfred A. Knopf. 

A last word.  I find this travesty of homogenizing characters and story-line especially ironic since, no more than a few pages from the end [page 410, The Town], in looking back on her life, the main character speaks of the joys of finding diversity in people without attempting to make everyone the same. "In her time in the woods, everybody she knew was egged on to be his own special self.  He could live and think like he wanted to and no two humans you met up with were alike. ... Folks were a joy to talk to then, for all were different."

P.S.  There's something about names that I find compelling.  And Richter's choices for the family members seem intriguing--many of which I dare say he found in his researches.  The men:  Worth, Wyitt, Portius, Resolve, Guerdon, Kinzie, Chancey.  The women:  Jary, Sayward, Genny, Achsa, Ursula/Sulie, Huldah, Sooth, Libby, Dezia, Mercy/Massey. As unique as many of these names are, so is his writing.

Saturday, April 2, 2016

Thank You, Downton

(This celebrates the end of my fifth year with Door Number 8--all 251 postings.  In the future, I'll post pieces on a more casual basis rather than on a weekly schedule.)

York Minster ... since the setting for Downton Abbey is Yorkshire

What appealed to me about Downton Abbey, aside from the casting, the setting, the costumes was the genteel quality that seems missing from our lives today--that which is polite, courteous. With a generosity of spirit.  I appreciated seeing people dress well, speak well, act with integrity and respect for each other.  I also appreciated the ritual of good manners, especially when so much today seems sloppy and graceless.  Is it any wonder that watching six seasons of those exhibiting dignity and self-respect is very beguiling!

For what it's worth, not able to sleep one night, I lay in bed and ran through the cast members.

I thought of the "names" who had had bit parts:  Shirley MacLaine, Paul Giamatti, James Fox, Iain Glen, Tim Piggot-Smith, Richard E. Grant, and of course, Kiri Te Kanawa.  The real-life people who were written into the story:  Virginia Woolf, Dame Nellie Melba, Neville Chamberlain.  Then there were the Boyle, Coyle, Doyle, and Foyle folks.  Zoe Boyle played Lavinia, Brendan Coyle played Mr. Bates, Kevin Doyle played Mr. Molesley, and Tom Cullen's character, Viscount Gillingham's other name, was Anthony Foyle.  As well, I noted the very British custom of naming girls/women after flowers:  Violet, Daisy, Ivy, Marigold.  Plus Lady Rose played by Lily James, another flower name.

Then there were Lord Grantham's dogs:  Pharaoh, Isis, and Tiaa, all ancient Egyptian names, very possibly as a tribute to the Earl of Carnarvon, the Lord of Highclere (the real Downton Abbey) who (along with Howard Carter) was responsible for finding King Tut's Tomb in 1922.  

In truth, I preferred the early and later seasons to those in the middle which bordered on the melodramatic.  As for my favorite characters, I particularly enjoyed Lord Grantham, Mrs. Hughes, Mr. Carson, Mrs. Patmore, Isobel Crawley, Tom Branson, Mr. Molesley, and, of course, Maggie Smith's, Dowager Countess.  Oh, yes, and Matthew Crawley.

Do you suppose Julian Fellowes may come up with a sequel one day?

Thank you, all!