Family History: François Weil and Alison Light

For awhile I wondered whether family history research would provide a useful case study in my project on nostalgia. Before I did the research for my Ph.D. I was hardly aware it existed. Yet, at every archive I visited, I encountered family historians bend over census reports or starring watery-eyed into microfilm readers to find out, where Nanna Jones had lived in the 20s or what Uncle Bob had been up to during the war. When I discovered the family history magazines and Who Do You Think You Are?, I did not doubt anymore that family history was a popular hobby. Indeed, genealogy is said to account for the second largest use of the internet after porn. However, there is surprisingly little research on family history and family historians—especially when it comes to the twentieth century. What decided me to pursue this avenue, was reading two books that were published last year: Family Trees by François Weil and Common People by Alison Light.

51EF4bdytML._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Family Trees: A History of Genealogy in America is what its title says it is: a history of genealogy in the United States from the founders to the present day. It is written by Francois Weil, the Chancellor of the Universities of Paris and a professor of history at the Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales. Being interested in the twentieht century, I skipped the first five chapters to read the sixth: “Everybody’s Search for Roots”. Here Weil describes how genealogy developed from an elitist pursuit into a democratic hobby. This process began in the 50s and 60s but really gathered momentum in the 70s. Of crucial importance was Alex Haley’s book Roots and the television series it inspired. Though the chapter encouraged me to look at family history, I found it somewhat lifeless as Weil seems not to have spoken to family historians. I’m interested to see how the American stories compares to Britain and Germany.

51vgWz3KUAL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Common People: The History of an English Family recounts historian Alison Light‘s venture into the history of her own family after the death of her father. Like Weil, Light comments on the democratisation of family history: ““What was formerly an eccentric hobby for a handful of antiquarians, or the territory of Burke’s Peerage and the Herald’s Office, is now ancstry.co.uk or findmypast.co.uk.” (xxii) The book is beautifully written and brimful of acute observations —not only on family history but on history genereally: “Like all historians, family historians are resurrectionists, repopulating the past, trying to put flesh to bones and bring past eras to life. But they are also salvagers. More than any others, perhaps, they are motivated by the search for lost objects. If family history is for some an extended mourning, they hope to recover and reuse the past, which otherwise seems like wreckage. The central moral or ethical questions of historical inquiry are unavoidable and immediate in family history: why does the past matter? How much what do we owe the dead?” (xxvii) Together with the question why people are interested in the past at all, these are exactly the questions behind my project on nostalgia and it seems as if a better understanding of family history might contribute to answering them.