This week, Amy Coffin’s provocative series of genealogy exercises throws down a challenge dear to my heart: Brush up on good genealogy writing tips.
Talk about timely. I don’t yet have a whole family history book in me, but I’d love my extended family to read at least a brief summary of the research I’ve done so far. If I get going on it now, it might be done in time for the holiday card mailing.
But how to square the demands of good storytelling with the structure of a well-researched genealogy table? I was cheered by this pragmatic advice in a wise, witty article from Sharon DeBartolo Carmack: Split them up. “Part One is the readable narrative family history; Part Two is the reference section of genealogical reports or summaries with all the bare bones facts.”
This sounds like an admirable way to tame these wildly different beasts. The trick is making sure everything in Part One is substantiated in Part Two.
So that takes care of my structure problem. On to the writing itself.
I’ve spent many hours hanging around copy-editors who waxed eloquent about gerunds and dangling participles. But over time, I’ve come to think the writing I most admire follows the sort of rules you’d hear from a plainspoken great-aunt:
Don’t show off.
Get to the point.
Say what you mean.
The motherlode of plainspoken writing advice is Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style, a bible for generations of writers. “Pithy” doesn’t begin to describe it. (“Omit needless words!” the authors thunder — leaving you nodding. Wordlessly, of course. )
I can’t resist one final (and personal) tip:
Read it. Then cut it.
Once upon a time, I sat mesmerized as an editor (crusty, old-school, winner of two Pulitzers) whacked my story from 20 inches to 8. It was great. I mean it: In an hour’s work the strong, clear bones of the story emerged from the trivial details and extraneous turns of phrase I’d draped about to show what a clever thing I was. You don’t argue with an editor who demands, “What happened next? Why aren’t you just SAYING WHAT HAPPENS NEXT?”
In his memory, I always ask myself those questions when I’m writing. And then I whack whatever gets in the way.
Thank you, Amy, for the opportunity to think this over!
There are shelves and shelves of Civil War histories, and Lord knows there’s no shortage of riveting battle narratives and larger-than-life personalities to write about. But Drew Gilpin Faust, historian and lately Harvard’s president, takes a novel tack by focusing on the inevitable outcome of all that: the unprecedented thousands of war dead.
In This Republic of Suffering: Death And The American Civil War, Faust explains how the Civil War changed our understanding of death and mourning as surely as it changed the generals’ understanding of warfare. “We still live in the world of death the Civil War created,” writes Faust. Measures we take for granted today — the notification of next of kin, registering of graves, armies taking responsibility for soldiers’ decent burials — are really products of the Civil War. The carnage that occurred on an entirely new scale demanded entirely new systems for grappling with it.
In the chapter “Burying,” Faust recounts the evolution of burial procedures on the battlefield, and the rituals, often hastily improvised, that soldiers enacted to provide a sense of ceremony in the absence of clergy and family. “Believing and Doubting” explores the wrenching challenge to faith posed by the ever-mounting tally of losses. A surging interest in spiritualism and an outpouring of tragic popular ballads were two typical signs of the times.
What really spurred lasting change was the massive scale of deaths, and their remoteness from loved ones who desperately wanted a body to bury and a gravesite where they could mourn. Undertakers did a booming business at the battlefields for families who could afford to have bodies located, embalmed and shipped homeward. Thousands more soldiers were buried in common graves, and more than 40 percent of Union dead remained anonymous at war’s end. (The percentage was even higher for Confederate soldiers.)
The inability to account for fallen soldiers seems ridiculous to us today, but it was rather typical for its time — certainly the dead of the Mexican War fared no better. Still, by war’s end, the yearning to name and account for the dead crystallized into a national movement to create official burying grounds for them — the beginnings of the national cemeteries of today.
Books like this are valuable to the family historian, illuminating social assumptions and customs that have faded from memory, and giving us greater understanding of the ways our ancestors grappled with grief during this time of incredible upheaval. If you have a Civil War soldier in your family tree, it’s definitely worth a look.
Ellis Island occupies a hallowed place in imaginations — some might say, the Plymouth Rock for Americans who didn’t land on Plymouth Rock. This is a vast oversimplification (it leaves out a lot of Americans who didn’t land in either place). But it fueled enough fat family-saga novels to cement certain imagery firmly in place: the large, close-knit families struggling together across the gangplank into a new world; the arbitrary name changes by brusque inspectors; the triumphant journey from dirt-poor tenement to American-style riches in the suburbs.
Vincent J. Cannato’s American Passage is a history of Ellis Island that is well worth reading if your ancestors passed through it, or even if they didn’t. It supplies a wealth of information about how the place began and, importantly, how it worked, starting with a detailed account of Ellis Island’s very different predecessor, Castle Garden.
Castle Garden was a state-run operation, originating in response to activism by immigrant-aid societies whose mission was to protect and aid immigrants — a mission that also propelled Castle Garden, at least in its early years. Ellis Island, by contrast, was a federal facility born in an age of increased resentment and apprehension at the surge of immigration at the end of the 19th century. Aiding and protecting took a back seat to quality control — the drive to ensure that only the fittest, strongest and most productive new arrivals made the cut.
Cannato writes supple, succinct prose, with an excellent eye for compelling historical examples — such as families separated, often forever, when one member was deemed too “feeble-minded” or physically infirm to be admitted. He illustrates with infuriating examples the lengths to which inspectors went to ensure that the immigrants’ characters were sufficiently elevated, a quest which predictably led to crass harassment: “Did he sleep with you on the boat?” asked one inspector who made “moral turpitude” his personal mission.
American Passage also dispels some cherished misconceptions about Ellis Island. Despite what hundreds of family stories say, Ellis Island inspectors did not change names to make them more “American-sounding”: “Name changes largely occurred either on the other side of the Atlantic, when steamship officials recorded names in their manifests, or after Ellis Island, when immigrants filled out naturalization papers or other official documents,” Cannato writes.
The narrative is full of similarly illuminating details, and ends with a meditation on Ellis Island’s slide into decay and neglect, followed by its return as a point of pilgrimage, a highly charged symbol of American aspirations. It’s a nice wrap-up to an excellent overview of the years in which the United States, and its immigration policy, reached a troubled maturity.
In the newsbag yesterday came a striking update on what I can only regard as the cautionary tale of Duffy’s Cut.
“Duffy’s Cut” was a stretch of railroad line in the beautiful, hilly country of Chester County, 30 miles west of Philadelphia, Pa. It got its name from Philip Duffy, an Irish-American labor contractor who hired a crew of Irish immigrants to dig for the Philadelphia and Columbia Railroad.
Researchers have long tried to find the grave of 57 laborers who died there when cholera ravaged the work site in August 1832. As a railroad supervisor put it: “This man [Duffy] has been rather unfortunate … Nearly one half of his men died from Cholera.”
The quote is from The Ghosts of Duffy’s Cut (2006), written by a team of researchers, including twin brothers William and Frank Watson. Duffy’s Cut has been a longstanding mission for the Watsons. (I got the book from my brother Jim, who lives in the area.)
The book’s meticulous evidence tells a gripping and awful story. Young, strong and dirt-poor, the Irishmen did what newcomers to America always do: the jobs nobody else wants. By all contemporary accounts, the Duffy’s Cut stretch was a particularly nasty job.
Cholera had broken out in Philadelphia the previous month. When it reached the railroad camp in the Chester countryside, hysteria trumped decency. The locals quarantined the sick workers at the site and, basically, left them. Nearly all died and were buried in an unmarked mass grave. Their families were never told what happened. The incident got short shrift in official communications, except as an explanation for construction delays. It lived on only in local memory and, as time passed, local folklore.
In 2009 the Watsons, after years of research and explorations, finally found a shin bone. Their team has now uncovered seven sets of remains — and a disturbing new twist: Four of the skulls show signs of trauma, including a possible bullet hole. As William Watson tells reporter Kathy Matheson, “This was much more than a cholera epidemic.” The Watsons now believe that many of the workers did die of cholera, but others may have been killed by vigilantes — perhaps from a mixture of fear of infection, plus contempt for marginalized, cheap laborers.
I find the story of Duffy’s Cut mesmerizing, in large part because I can’t understand how anybody could hear it and still think it’s OK to ignore the rhetoric of hate and prejudice that pulses through so many media outlets today. It’s repulsive. And it’s hypocritical. It boils down to remembering where you came from, and few of us were welcome when we got here.
Consider, for instance, the Sisters of Charity, the Roman Catholic nuns who were one of the few groups to provide competent, compassionate nursing in that long-ago epidemic, including to the victims at Duffy’s Cut. Glowing reports of their bravery were forgotten in the nativist riots that swept Philadelphia a dozen years later. The sisters’ seminary was burned to the ground, along with a number of Catholic churches and rectories.
So I guess it’s not surprising, what they’ve found at Duffy’s Cut. It’s the sort of thing that can happen when somebody decides that the wrong birthplace, or the wrong religion, can make a human … less than human.
Thanks to the ever-illuminating collection of links at Megan’s Roots World, I read How to Lose A Legacy, an insightful column by Ellen Lupton, who is a curator, a professor of graphic arts and, on the side, an incurably honest observer of human behavior.
Her essay is a humorous and wistful examination of the fine line between inheritance and junk. My cherished heirloom is someone else’s dust-gatherer.
And we all know that somewhere, someday that precious object might slip from our grasp and slide into the uncaring world of strangers. I love to poke around secondhand shops, but sometimes I find them depressing, too. So does Lupton. “That musty smell in your favorite antique store? It’s death warmed over, served with a splash of vintage vinegar,” she writes.
Of course, holding onto objects can turn a house into a prison — just look at any episode of Clean House or, heaven forbid, Hoarders. As Lupton puts it, there’s an “emotional bill” attached to our objects. Part of life is deciding how high a bill you want to pay, and for how long. Some people reach a point where jettisoning those old objects is liberation. Some never do.
Still others hold on to their heirlooms while accepting the possibility that their children might not. That’s a powerful argument for sorting it all out before you go, lest an impatient relative throws out your wheat with your chaff. Still, the best we can do is try to find our heirlooms a good home and cross our fingers. What happens next is up to the heirs.
Author Mark Lamster interviews 97-year-old Morris Moel, who might possibly be the oldest surviving immigrant to come to America on the Red Star Line, whose ships brought thousands and thousands of immigrants to the USA. (Although my Grandpa Rudroff was a Hamburg American Line guy himself.)
Moel’s memories of his 1922 odyssey make it clear that the immigrant’s journey could be not only uncomfortable, but downright hair-raising. He remembers reaching the Russian-Polish border:
“The Russian part of the border was all forest. And we were stopped. I heard rifles being cocked while we were walking. Russian soldiers. And the soldiers searched everyone and took everything that was valuable and said you’ve got to go back, and I guess they [the guides] knew another route so we got through. And the Polish border was absolutely free, but it was all snow. I was so little and my older brother dragged me across that border.”
And this was only the beginning! Read the whole thing, along with Lamster’s Wall Street Journal article on the formation of a Red Star Line museum in Antwerp.