Friday, September 30, 2016
Who Am I? The Search For Ancestry, Identity, And Personal Meaning
We all want to know where we come from, who are our ancestors, whether we are descended from princes or madmen, and if there might be some trace of nobility or respect. Most of us are disappointed when we discover that our family history has neither high birth nor romance but just plain folk - farmers, woodsmen, peasants, and serfs who never rose much beyond their station.
Yet there are enough stories of strange genealogical finds that we continue to pursue our histories. There might well be a bit of lineage traced back to the First Families of Virginia or the Mayflower. A document buried in the vault of an Anglican Church on the Northern Neck might show a definite, although remote relationship to King Carter and from him back to England and the finest registries of London and Wiltshire. The purity of this ancestry might be diluted by interbreeding with the wives of tenant farmers or slaves, but there could be no denying the legitimacy of its origins. Most importantly, family history would not be featureless or without importance.
Wife of Lewis Burwell of Virginia
Americans who can trace their ancestry back to the taverns of Elizabethan England can claim a more significant lineage than those who were born, lived, and died in the mud of the West Country. Ancestral links to the Boar’s Head Tavern are worth something. Forbears at least consorted with the likes of Falstaff and Prince Hal.
Tracing ancestry in Old Europe is no pastime. A Frenchman who can pursue his family history back to the Third Crusade or even the First is worth more than any contemporary of wealth and importance in the Third Republic. An Englishman whose forbears were counts and courtiers of Henry II or King John have more standing than those with bloodlines of minor viscounts or third cousins of doubtful royalty.
Aristocratic, noble, and royal Italians, Germans, Spanish, Serbs, and Poles all intermarried and created a pan-European elite. Claims to this lineage are not simply tracings on an elaborate family tree but essential to social status and privilege. Despite the French Revolution, the beheading of the King, and the execution of thousands of aristocrats, the aristocracy is alive and well. Not every noble went to the guillotine, and although many of the best families were dismembered, enough survived to continue the aristocratic line. Despite marriages to commoners and the loss of land, wealth, and property, those with a storied ancestral past still rely on it for social legitimacy and status.
On the contrary, it is of little consequence whether an American can trace his roots to the Mayflower, to John Smith, John Adams, George Washington, the Duke of Norfolk, or Lord Fairfax. America is fast becoming a classless society where family roots have less and less pertinence; where the social prestige of the Main Line, Beacon Hill, and Park Avenue has all but disappeared. There are a few clubs - The Society of the Cincinnati, the Cosmos Club, and a dozen more like them in Boston, Philadelphia, and New York - which safeguard an Old World gentility ; but in our diverse, pluralistic, and competitive society, they are increasingly irrelevant. One is more hard-pressed than ever to find a socially prominent niche.
For most people fame and popular currency are enough. Few ask about the social and family origins of Bill Gates, Warren Buffett, or Mark Zuckerberg. They are the new classless Americans with no ascribed, historical value; only that derived from their current worth. They have only one perspective - forward - and in that they are quintessentially American.
Yet, genealogy will not die; and although many inquirers are simply interested in completing the family tree, just as many are looking for a legitimacy which can only come from bloodlines. An ordinary daughter of mixed-nationality parents, an indistinct member of the upper middle class, laboring successfully if not uniquely, will always be, inevitably, undistinguished unless she can find a link to an illustrious past.
This search for social legitimacy, however, cannot explain the genealogy phenomenon. Too few Americans have any hope of finding a link to anyone of significance in American history let alone the Mayflower or the First Families of Virginia to be motivated by social status. It has to do more with a sense of personal worth and legitimacy in a contemporary world which confers little of it.
It is difficult to be satisfied with the cards one is dealt. Few of us are satisfied with the looks, intelligence, physical abilities, or talent programmed in our DNA. The past can afford much more; and in a society where few have a traceable connection to an illustrious history, all the more reason to go prospecting. If one has been born poor, of questionable legitimacy, and of little social, economic, or financial value to the community, where does self-worth come from? If not from ancestral history nor contemporary success, nor any civic recognition, then from where? No one can live without some pride of identity.
Yet when all is said and done, and when we are forced to reflect on a life led, such attributive values should matter little. We all die alone, said the main character in Dostoevsky’s The Death of Ivan Ilyich. Yet like Ivan, until we are faced with the eternity of death, we insist on fabricating meaning. In the final accounting who we were counts for nothing; who we are, everything.
Genealogy now means very little, especially in America. There are no rewards to proving a noble ancestry in a populist democracy. Not so in the days of kings and courtiers, it was deadly serious. How many wives did Henry VIII have to marry and dispatch to assure a male heir? The drama is still played out in Europe where the grandchildren of old, titled families fight over wills, primogeniture, and the right of legitimate descendants; but it is if only glancing relevance in America today. If we can uncover some royal or aristocratic bits in our past, all well and good. If we can claim some purchase on past talent, intelligence, initiative, or enterprise, the history is even more valuable.
Few of us are content with what we are, regardless of the hand dealt; and creating identities above and beyond that which God, Nature, or Chance have bestowed is normal, natural, and human. Which is why America is so unique. Few are satisfied with what is but with what could be and what might have been. Tradable personal worth is our currency,
The coming virtual world in which each individual will be able to explore his own personal dimensions will drastically devalue this currency. A world defined by individual fantasy, imagined relationships, and invented personae has no meaning for anyone other than the dreamer.
Until then we will have to be satisfied with ancestry and image - making the best out of bad hands and bad genes, trumping up our credentials, and looking good.