An article in yesterday's paper said that genealogy is the second largest hobby in the U.S.* I understand the fascination -- you find one thread, start pulling, and soon a little mystery has unraveled for you. And of course the internet has opened up a phenomenal amount of information exchange.
The excitement is in the hunt and, based on my minimal experience, from the thrill of exchange with a newfound relative. Less exciting are the resulting documents. I was frustrated that the two-part story of my grandfather's WWI experience couldn't convey the richness of the subject or how enchanted I felt while uncovering his path through France. In a country where everyone hates studying history because it amounts to memorizing lists of dates and kings, our genealogy pages boil down to just that: the "begats," the dates, pictures if we're lucky.
We are left to wonder about the feelings and motivations. We want to hear the story.
Maybe genealogy is one way into the study of history that we couldn't bear in school. If we don't have letters and diaries, at least we can try to understand the times in which our ancestors lived. I remember distinctly the day in high school when I had to recite the four major reasons for World War I -- but did they mean anything to me? Did I remember them the next day? Did I care? Did I connect them with anything at all?
My best sense of World War I has come from trying to understand the world Jim's parents inhabited when they fell in love and from trying to visualize the Western Front through the eyes of my grandfather.
Like literature, history is wasted on the young
Or maybe, like Literature, History is wasted on the young. You need to be slightly world weary before you can get your head into different times.
Is this peculiarly American, this genealogy craze? And is there a dark side?
In traditional societies people don't stray far from home, unless they've moved from a small home town to nearest city for work. I'm guessing they know quite all they care to know about their ancestors because their influence has never disappeared. Americans are the ones who got the hell out from under the crush of traditional society to reinvent ourselves in the New World and only now are we wondering what we lost or how we got here.
The dark side: using history to define who you are today can be a source of bitterness. Americans are always surprised when war breaks out because grudges are being held from some 400-year-old humiliation. If I have it right, the Mormons have invested so much into genealogy because it defines who's "in" and who's "out" of the heaven sweepstakes.
It's fun, it's educational, but we shouldn't get weird about it.
*The article implied that #1 was still Stamps & Coins. Can that be? I
know lot of people interested in genealogy, but I can't say I've ever
met a single serious stamp/coin collector, unless I count Jim who has
been serious about everything at one time or another.