June 2nd, 2014

François Weil, _Family Trees_, and Maud Newton's article in Harpers, June edition

I received Weil as a surprise (that is, not on my Amazon wish list -- I didn't even know this book existed!) gift from my long time, very dear friend I. She is a historian and knows of my interest in genealogy -- it was truly the perfect birthday present. She even made sure I understood that it wasn't a personal recommendation, thus insulating herself in part from any irritation I might have felt at this book (like virtually every other book I read. Hey, I have Issues. We all know that.).

In any event, it was a quick and enjoyable read. There were no obvious problems with it. There were slow paragraphs, that felt like, okay, now we're going to list a bunch of evidence in support of what I just said -- which is exactly what one wants in an academic work. Weil's periods of genealogy match reasonably well what I have noticed in the course of doing genealogical work and I even recognized a few of the genealogies he described (notably, the Rikers genealogy). I particularly enjoyed how well Weil wove together other social trends with genealogy as an activity -- it's entirely too easy to treat a subject in absence of the larger context and particularly important not to do that with genealogy!

One of the best parts is Weil's description of Haley's _Roots_ and his interpretation of various reactions to it and criticisms of it. It is extremely easy for me to be annoyed when people describe the controversies -- I don't want to see anyone be racist or even just insensitive, and I also don't like people to completely dismiss the value of evidence in doing genealogy. You can sort of imagine how easy it is to go off one way or the other, but Weil threads this particularly difficult needle with grace and aplomb.

I have two observations. First, I think Weil may underestimate some of the practical aspects of the earliest colonial descendant records. Also, nearly everyone fails to understand that people wrote this stuff in family Bibles because the family Bible was the only source of paper in the house for many. Weil's description of account books being used for the same purpose is quite wonderful (and I actually knew about this from the English side because of that awful Palgrave book about women's cookbooks). Second, I also feel that Weil may underestimate the ongoing importance of religion in current genealogical/family history efforts (and I don't mean LDS!). Weil is probably right and I'm overly aware of religion in genealogy/family history -- I think I'm probably wrong here.

But it's a wonderful book, subtly important and should have great staying power. If you've ever watched generations of people around you go mad for birth, marriage and death records, Weil is maybe your first real opportunity to make sense of the lunacy, and its cultural inflections over time.

Maud Newton has an excellent article about genealogy in the June edition of Harpers. Part commentary on her racist father, part idiosyncratic observations of unusual traits like women preachers cropping up on her mother's side, over and over again, part summary of the state of genetic genealogy, she's a sympathetic and well-read commentator. Weil and Newton have both given thought to the interaction between available evidence and individuals doing research, altho it shows up in different ways. Newton apparently has a book coming in the next year or so; I look forward to reading it when it arrives. She mentions Weil's book favorably.

I attempted to read the article online, but it is paywalled, and the only way I could find to read it involved paying $34.99 for a year's subscription, which I balked at (I would have paid up to $5 for just the one article, and perhaps $10 for the issue). I looked for Harper's at four stores, and failed each time (a couple drug stores, a bookstore and a grocery store -- the bookstore didn't have any magazines, and there were no copies of Harper's at the rest, even though at least one of them is listed on Harper's website as carrying the magazine). I ultimately read it in the library at Acton Memorial (in library use only, yay! Meant no one else had it at home and inaccessible to me) and I availed myself of modern technology (my phone) to bring a copy of the article home with me. Hint, er, hint.

In unrelated genealogical news, I've really been on a roll lately. I found out my great-uncle remarried and figured out to whom, found records on some of her family, etc. I also finally found one of my grandmother's (both on my dad's side, but the former was on his dad's side and this was on his mom's side) brother-in-law's birth records and other family in wiewaswie! The difficulty I had in finding him earlier involved a spelling reform that changed the last name from *dyk to *dijk. These days, that sort of thing is utterly obvious to me, but just a couple years ago, it was not at all.