Good Reads: ‘William Cooper’s Town’

Mr. Archaeologist has long been urging me to read Alan Taylor’s majestic 1995 William Cooper’s Town: Power and Persuasion on the Frontier of the Early American Republic. He keeps saying it is especially interesting from a genealogical perspective.

Indeed yes. William Cooper’s Town is a biography of the man who fathered one of America’s first popular novelists, James Fenimore Cooper. It is also an eagle-eyed look at how America’s social order turned upside down in the years after the Revolutionary War.

Genealogists will find many moments of recognition  in the story of how Cooper, the son of a poor Quaker farmer, parlayed early connections among wealthy Friends in Philadelphia and New Jersey to become a land magnate in the early frontier of upstate New York. I’m sure many researchers will be familiar with the post-Revolution migration that Cooper helped foster. (Most of his pioneer tenants were displaced New Englanders hungry for plentiful, fertile land.) Students of Loyalist families will be interested to see how Cooper’s early successes were, in part, the product of Loyalist misfortunes and exiles.

All of that is quite awesome, but where Mr. Taylor earns the Wish I’d Thought of That Research Award™ is in his exploration of William Cooper’s early career among the Quakers of Burlington, New Jersey.

Investigating William’s attempts to better himself, Taylor turns to … the library. Not just any present-day library, but Cooper’s library: the records of the Library Company of Burlington, “the town’s preminent social club and cultural institution,” which still exists, as New Jersey’s oldest library.

Taylor mines the Library Company’s circulation records to show how young Cooper embarked upon an energetic course of self-improvement, checking out an average of 46 books a year between 1783-89. “He must have burned a lot of midnight oil,” Taylor comments. He also points out that as Cooper’s reading material grew increasingly ambitious, so did the frequency of joking comments like “Cooper the Learned” scribbled next to his name in the circulation records. It was an early sign of Cooper’s uneasy fit in the social circles to which he aspired.

It is also a textbook example of the rewards that await when research moves beyond the basics of censuses, vitals and church registers. Not all  research efforts will be rewarded with such meticulous and well-preserved records. But this little gem from Taylor’s book is a great example of how the imaginative use of a source can reclaim the lost details of a long-ago life.


Good Reads: ‘Crazy In The Kitchen’

Back in high school I ran with a crowd of drama club/chorus geeks, a fringe existence. Today we might have made a splash on Glee. As it was, we huddled together after school, unleashing all the creative energy that couldn’t be contained in class. We worked on musical numbers, comedy skits, even movies. My friend Jeff had a Super-8 camera that could do stop motion — Special Effects!!! We could literally spend sunrise to sunset on a Saturday messing around with trick shots and stop-motion animation, living on Doritos and Cokes.

Fortunately for our nutrition levels, our creative base was often Jeff’s grandma’s house, his mom having banished us in exasperation. Jeff was of Italian heritage and he had a Classic Nonna™. She thought we were beautiful and smart and fretted that the enormous kettle of whatever she was cooking might not be enough to sustain us. She wore neat print aprons over sober dark dresses and I could not get over the matter-of-fact way she piled up quantities of delicious food. I used to worry she would find out my ancestors were Irish and German and cut me off, or worse, think she had to make something that Irish people would like.

I hadn’t thought about Jeff’s grandma and her cooking for years, until I picked up Louise DeSalvo’s memoir, Crazy In The Kitchen (Food, Feuds and Forgiveness in an Italian-American Family). It brought a lot of those memories back while depicting a version of this experience that was tenser, more darkly emotional, but still full of delicious food.

De Salvo’s childhood in 1950s New Jersey unfolded against an intense domestic drama, Italian-American style. Her mother was a second-generation striver whose cuisine was all about canned goods, packaged cakes and TV dinners — a rejection of all she considered old-world and backward.

DeSalvo’s grandmother drove her mother nuts, especially in the kitchen, where she committed such atrocities as homemade pizza and  hearty, yeasty bread — “a thick-crusted, coarse-crumbed Italian bread. A peasant bread.” Today it’s called “artisan” and people pay through the nose for it. DeSalvo’s mother rejected it in favor of the puff-white, “real American bread” that DeSalvo and her sister secretly despised. The grandchildren relied upon their grandmother’s bread to offset their mother’s cooking, which, apart from questionable ingredients, was simply awful.

Crazy In The Kitchen doesn’t stay chained to the stove. DeSalvo starts with the food, and writes about it beautifully. But she uses the cooking stories as a clever pathway to considering how immigrants and the families they raised in the United States figured out what “American” meant, and how each of the generations struggled with fitting in while not losing their basic sense of themselves.

In a particularly powerful chapter, “Hunger,” DeSalvo hits the history books to better understand the Italy her grandparents left — Puglia, in the oppressed South. Behind her parents’ simple phrase, “It was hard for them,” DeSalvo discovers a landscape where periodic peasant slaughtering and mindboggling deprivation were pretty much business as usual. “I didn’t know any of these things,” she writes.

One of my favorite food bloggers recently posted about a trip to Puglia, today renowned for its intense food and distinctive, conical-roofed buildings. In her book, DeSalvo, too, makes a pilgrimage to Puglia, reveling in the food and wrestling with her concept of her family’s history. “Without a history, there can be no present,” she writes. “Without a past, there can be no future.”

By that standard, Crazy In The Kitchen is a captivating journey of discovery.


Good Reads: The Famine in Toomevara

The Famine Clearance in Toomevara, County Tipperary, by Helen O’Brien. FourCourts Press, 2010.

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This is a slim, nonglitzy volume that looks like the kind of graduate thesis you’d find tucked away in a university library. It reads a bit that way too: concise and clear, but distinctly academic in tone. The author isn’t aiming for a potboiler and she does not even appear to be auditioning for a spot as an expert on Who Do You Think You Are? Although I’d watch an episode with her in it, for sure.

I ordered the book upon a recommendation from a member of the Troy Irish Genealogy Society email list, and because Toomevara is a village in the part of Tipperary my ancestor Martin Haigney might have left in the early 1850s. I was curious to read a Famine-era study specific to this region.

I was not expecting anything overtly genealogical, and O’Brien’s book does not deliver that (although she certainly mentions many local surnames). Her mission is to analyze what this one little village of Toomevara was like going into the crisis of 1845-52, how the famine shook it to its foundations, and what effects and memories lingered afterward.

It’s revelatory background for anyone (like me) who has always been vaguely aware their Irish immigrant ancestors “came over during the Famine” without considering the suffering and dislocation behind that decision. The “clearance” in O’Brien’s title refers to the forced eviction of 500 villagers on 28 May 1849, an incident brutal enough that it rated indignant articles in local newspapers, and even a discussion in the British House of Commons. As one resident recalled years later:

About 5 p.m. the work was over, the place in ruins and the only roof for souls was the vault of heaven. The people gathered their fragments of furniture, doors, dressers, old boxes and built sheds along the channel of chapel wall and school house, a few in the school house yard and the gardens at the rear of the two houses in Chapel street …

Ultimately even these pathetic digs were unacceptable to the authorities, and in February 1850 a work gang of local recruits — the “hut tumblers” — pulled down the makeshift shelters of about 20 evicted families who had refused to disappear to neighboring villages or into the workhouse.

However upsetting contemporaries may have found all of this, there was little recourse for the villagers. As O’Brien illustrates in painstaking detail, the Famine was not an era chock-full of options. There’s no shortage of bad guys in the narrative, but some of them might surprise. O’Brien’s analysis certainly shows inactivity on the part of the great landowners, but the system that subdivided and subleased huge holdings into tinier and tinier parcels meant that a confusing web of agents and subagents made the more direct decisions about who could stay and who must go.

Disturbingly, these hard times often pitted villager against villager. Local folk were part of the gangs who tumbled the huts in 1850  and in the initial eviction in 1849. For some it may have been a way of ensuring protection from being evicted themselves; in other cases workers were promised lumber from the cottages they pulled down.

Ultimately Toomevara, like most of Ireland, was transformed by the crisis. O’Brien notes that 187 surnames recorded in parish baptism registers between 1831 and 1852 disappear from the records after the Famine, reflecting the degree to which deaths and emigrations changed the village forever. Long and angry memories remained, not only toward the British and Anglo-Irish power class, but toward fellow Irish who took advantage of the upheaval and dispersals to enlarge their own land holdings.

In her introduction, Ms. O’Brien says that while the Famine has been extensively studied in a general way, “ample room exists for more local studies on the topic.” To judge from the way this concise book brings these horrible years into a vivid and personal focus, she’s absolutely right.


Reclaiming the Lost, 100 Years Later

You can never say never, even with the most stubborn mysteries. A case in point: a recent New York Times report that 100 years after the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory in Manhattan burned, taking the lives of 146 workers with it, a comprehensive list of the dead has finally been compiled.

It’s a bit surprising that such a list didn’t exist before, given how much this fire has been covered in books, articles, documentaries and even a dramatized TV film. The story of “amateur genealogist and historian” Michael Hirsch (as the Times describes him) and what he did to fill in the blanks is inspiring and instructive.

The family historian struggling with their own research dead ends will be interested to learn the ways Hirsch thought outside the box to uncover the names of victims previously lost to historians. Hirsch, who became obsessed with the Triangle story after he learned that a resident of his block had died in the fire, hit paydirt by probing overlooked sources, notably contemporary accounts in Yiddish- and Italian-language daily newspapers. Seeking the grave monument of a young Italian worker, Hirsch found her tombstone, with an inscription in Italian referring to “due sorelle” [two sisters] who died in the fire, which led to another previously hidden name.

It’s an absorbing account — and thought-provoking, too. Interesting to think that vital sources can be hidden in plain sight, just waiting for the right person to think of them. Read the whole thing, (by Times reporter Joseph Berger).


52 Weeks to Better Genealogy: Good Writing Tips

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!


Good Reads: ‘This Republic of Suffering’

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.


Good Reads: ‘American Passage’

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.


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