At a time when history has never been so widely and blissfully ignored, and not just by our president, millions of Americans are busy spitting into DNA-collection tubes, scrutinizing old newspapers and tracing their family history back as far as they can via the website Ancestryand other services. Historians like me tend to scoff at these attempts. Who cares if you’ve just found out you’re related to George Washington’s aunt? So what?
But that was before I learned of a relation of my own, a Connecticut woman from the early 19th century named Harriet Gold, and I’ve gotten fairly obsessed with her.
In my defense, she is a figure of genuine historical interest. I included her in a book of history I was writing without even realizing she was, as the genealogists say, “one of ours.” She turns out to be the grandniece of the man who lies under an obelisk at the center of my family graveyard — the “founder” of our clan.
Now you’re the one going — so? Here’s the thing: Suddenly that book was no longer just by me. It was also aboutme. Two different books. History and genealogy, after all, are two radically divergent takes on the past. The first says, “This matters.” The second says, “This matters to me.”...
As a historian, I couldn’t take the story past the facts. But as Gold’s relative, I felt I could hear her brother’s shrieks and imagine what she must have felt while fleeing Cornwall and entering a strange new land full of rising tensions. The whole lot of it.
For a historian, such a leap of imagination amounts to malpractice. But it delivered a more felt connection to the story than straight historiography had been able to provide. Obviously, history can’t depend on genealogy. But history shouldn’t scorn it, either. History can make use of the genealogical perspective and its transporting empathic power.
But let’s broaden it out — not just to identify with one character selected by family lineage, but with all the characters by virtue of our common heritage. To be Harriet Gold, but to be Elias Boudinot, too. And Ross and the Ridge, besides. Try to see and feel life as each of them did. We’ll never fully succeed, but the effort can help collapse time and make for a history we can all relate to. This is the lesson of America: We are all family here.