On Reading Footnotes

I am an avid consumer of footnotes. As a wee thing, I distinctly remember devouring my mother’s paperback copy of Lady Antonia Fraser’s Mary, Queen of Scots and tearing the pages in flipping them back and forth to savor the footnotes and endnotes.

(In my defense, those pages were awfully thin. My mom also got mad at me for getting orange juice stains on the pages due to reading photo (7)at the breakfast table, but that’s another story.)

But if I was tiresome about footnotes as a child, I am absolutely insufferable about them now. Genealogy has made me a footnote connoisseur — scratch that,  an obsessive. An addict. It’s almost not healthy, the way I can ditch a well-crafted historical narrative in favor of a juicily detailed footnote. (For instance, Mary Beth Norton’s In The Devil’s Snare has Gorgeous.  Footnotes. It’s a groundbreaking study of the Salem witch trials, too, but whatever.)

My interest in genealogy has set me a certain standard for footnoting, and that’s generally a good thing. If you’re stuck in front of an ancestral brick wall, throw a book at it, is what I say. A well-researched, well-cited history set in your ancestor’s place of residence might well lead you to a key source you hadn’t thought of.

However, one bummer about my footnote fetish is how quickly it can ruin a book for me. For instance, I just bought an ebook-format biography — a recent, well-reviewed book about a personality I’d always found intriguing, and I was pretty excited to read it. But I quickly found myself getting frustrated at the frequency with which the author got hazy on biographical details that I thought would be fairly easy to clarify with decent genealogical research. Or if they couldn’t be clarified, I’d hope to see the attempt to do so.

My irritation bubbled over at a footnote that cited 1880 and 1900 census reports for a family group and went on to say: “Those for 1870 and 1890 either don’t remain or were never taken [for the town in question].”

Two things:

A. If you’re seriously researching a family and using census records, you should know there is no either/or about why there are no 1890 census returns. Even if you’re not a genealogist.

B. Of course there were 1870 census returns for the town in question, and I found the family there in about three minutes on Ancestry. (You knew I was going to do that, right?)

Now, maybe Point A was simply a case of fuzzy phrasing, but this sort of thing really wrecks a book’s street cred for me. I’m not citing the particular work or author because (1) I haven’t finished the book yet and (2) I haven’t the heart to single out one person in particular for something I see all the time.

But I do giggle a bit sometimes in contemplating the supposed gulf between historians and genealogists. Because the best ones on both sides of the aisle know the true value of what each side is doing, and use it to their advantage. And ours.

Another Aside: The Lost Zones

Being a person with heavily urban ancestry, I find this kind of story is always close to my heart. Here is an Albany Times-Union article (h/t Don Rittner via Facebook) about a documentary project that is using old photos to reconstruct the neighborhood that was razed in the 1960s to make way for the massive Empire State Plaza complex. Mary Paley’s team is raising money on Kickstarter for the project. Paley has amazing raw material left by her father, Bob, a former photographer for the (Albany, N.Y.) Knickerbocker News who bore witness to the disappearance of more than 100 acres of a thriving neighborhood:

Derided by some as the city’s “Garlic Core” for its concentration of Italian immigrants and compared by others to Manhattan’s Lower East Side, the area bounded roughly by Lincoln Park and State, Eagle and Swan streets was a teeming melting pot of Jews, Germans, Irish, Armenians and French-Canadians.

I’ve thought a lot about what we used to call urban renewal and what a force it was when I was growing up. It put a big hole in the business district of Plainfield, N.J., next door to my hometown. And moving around for newspaper jobs, I heard stories about lost neighborhoods from Stamford, Conn., to Miami, to Chicago. (I also liked the term art critic Robert Hughes used for those massive mid-century plazas: “The International Power Style of the Fifties.”) I actually consider “urban renewal” a bit inadequate as an umbrella term, because it doesn’t cover all the development forces steamrolling the urban world as the 20th century wore on.

For example, the birth of the interstate highway was another knife across the cityscape. In Philip Roth’s novel “The Human Stain,” a character laments the evisceration of a beautiful East Orange, N.J. neighborhood, cut into quarters by the Garden State Parkway and Interstate 280. (See also: Miami’s Overtown, the Cross-Bronx Expressway, et cetera.)

I want to be clear that I don’t think dreaming big and planning big are bad things (see: Burnham, Olmstead, etc.) But dreaming and planning arrogantly … it left a lot of heartbreak behind, for those who still remember the lost zones.

Career Day Report

So today I was talking to elementary-school students about being a genealogist. Not being 100 percent sure where everyone’s genealogy awareness level was, I started by handing out a simple three-generation chart and asking them to fill in the blanks — for them, their parents, and each set of grandparents.

I was proud of my awesome planning skills. What could be simpler than an itty-bitty family tree? What could be a better ice-breaker? But very quickly, brows furrowed and hands waved frantically.

“I can’t fill in a lot of the blanks, does it still count?”

“What if you don’t know who your dad’s mom was?”

“What if you only ever call them Nana and Papa?”

“What if they’re dead?”

Just like that, my little icebreaker turned into a surprisingly efficient way to explain a few home truths about genealogy:

• A family tree is the story of a family — both the living members and the ones who went before them. And people can land on the branches of the tree in lots of different ways.

• The only way to start is by writing down what you know, however much or little it is.

• We all have lots of blanks to fill in. That’s why we do this.

Career Day ended up being a lot of fun. There were some things about my presentation that went really well, others that I’d definitely tweak depending upon the age group. I talked to children in grades three and five, and it was remarkable to see the difference that two years made in terms of attention span and ability to focus on a group discussion. After the family tree, I gave a brief talk about what genealogy is, jobs genealogists can do and ways you can study to be one. (This part got shortened considerably for the younger group.)

To wrap things up, I did a simple photo-analysis activity — I passed out some printouts of vintage photos and asked the kids to pick out one detail that they thought would help someone to figure out when the picture might have been taken. I made sure to pick photos with some nice background detail — classic cars, people in distinctive uniforms, things like that. This was very popular. A couple of the kids were fired up to try out their newfound investigative skills at home.

All in all, a nice experience. Talking about something you know very well to an audience who doesn’t can really freshen up your perspective.

Handel, With Care

Continuing the blog’s tradition of Easter musical moments, I offer a collection of Fun Handel Facts! Plus, some sheep!

First, the fun facts:

• On Messiah’s opening night (Dublin: 13 April 1742), a nasty divorce was complicating life for contralto Susannah Cibber – quel scandal! But her singing of the aria “He was despised and rejected of men” so moved a clergyman among the listeners that he jumped from his seat, crying, “Woman, for this be all thy sins forgiven thee!”

• Speaking of jumping up: It is not documented beyond a doubt that George II of England surged to his feet during the first London performance of the “Hallelujah Chorus.”  But still, this is why tradition demands one stand for the “Hallelujah.” (N.B.: There is no related royal tradition that supports checking phones for messages during a performance. Please stop that.)

• George Frideric Handel could be scary. Faced with a soprano who resisted his direction, he threatened to throw her out an open window, yelling: “I know well that you are a real she-devil, but I will have you know that I am Beelzebub!” (P.S. Those of us who have labored to tackle Handel’s more florid melismatic runs will agree with this. P.P.S.: Why is it always sopranos in these stories?)

• Handel composed Messiah in an incredible 24 days. I mean, holy cow.

• One possible reason Messiah premiered in Dublin: Handel was playing things safe. He’d gotten some depressingly so-so notices in London the season before for other premieres.

• Back when Messiah was new, clergymen did not entirely approve of it. Biblical texts in a theater? As entertainment?  Oh, well, you know how long those shock-value novelties last, amirite?

Many of these tidbits are from this wonderful history of Messiah by Jonathan Kandell in Smithsonian magazine. Or, for more Handel fun, you can take a very entertaining quiz.

Finally, for your listening pleasure, here is the chorus “All We Like Sheep.” This is also known as “one of the choruses with all those ridiculous melismas” or “All we like sheep! Geddit?”

Please remember that were we to punctuate this text in contemporary fashion, it would read: “All we, like sheep, have gone astray.” Commas: They matter.

Still, I think the sheep pictures add something. For those who celebrate, have a joyous Easter!

Irish Voices

I was telling a friend the other day about my dad, who was a wonderful singer, a real Irish tenor, and who was also kind of terrifying when it came to Irish music. And Irish accents. And Irish everything.

It was all about the authenticity. I wouldn’t say my dad was a stickler for Aran-Islands style authenticity in these matters. But I suspect he knew what he knew — the accents of his Irish-born maternal grandparents, and the kind of Irish immigrant culture you used to find all over Red Hook once upon a time. And he was a merciless critic about Irish music that was not being done right.

Whatever that meant. I mean, we were all Americans, what did we know, really?

I was about to go away to college when I screwed up the courage to ask him for his version of “The Wild Colonial Boy.” He considered for a bit and said he’d see. I expected him to sing it for me, if he were to agree. But at the end of the working day he presented me with a typewritten version of the verses, which is the version I use to this day. (For more thoughts on the “Wild Colonial Boy,” see link below).

Every so often, through the magic of YouTube, I encounter some Irish music I believe even my dad would have loved. This year’s St. Patrick’s Day offering is a crystalline version of a song called “Love is Teasing,” sung in 1967 by a radiant Dolly McMahon.

Past posts on St. Patrick’s Day matters:

The Soda Bread Post (No Raisins!)

How to sing The Wild Colonial Boy (or how not to)

Maura O’Connell: a seasonal appreciation

Danny Boy memories

Sisterly Advice, Syndicated

Pauline ‘Popo’ Phillips has died at the age of 94.

If that headline doesn’t ring immediate bells, it’s because she is somewhat better known as “Dear Abby.”

Although her column continues to be written by her daughter Jeanne, Phillips’ passing severs a link to a golden era in syndicated advice-giving. Phillips and her twin sister Eppie Lederer, better known as Ann Landers, were media superstars, their nationally syndicated columns daily institutions for countless readers. It’s difficult to describe their massive audience, their appeal and authority, to the children of an age in which the answer to just about any problem is “Google it.”

In my childhood, Ann and Abby were a zinger-slinging Greek chorus. They dispensed wisdom to the nation on every imaginable subject and some unimaginable, including love, marriage and the best way to hang the toilet paper. (True fact. Landers, who fielded the toilet-paper question, once said that it generated 15,000 responses, making it one of her most commented-upon letters.)

I can’t be the only voracious reader for whom their work provided an education on many topics — some of which my mother would rather have left alone a while longer. I still remember my nine-year-old self running down to the laundry room, where my mom was folding the latest load, to ask what was the big deal about unwed mothers.

“What?!” Her voice went up several keys. “Where did you hear about THAT?”

“Ann Landers wrote about it,” I said.

“Ann Landers writes about a lot of things,” my mother replied tightly.

So did Abby. Like her twin, she did not shy from the controversial. As the San Francisco Chronicle recalls, Abby “replied to letters about serious social issues such as teen sex, divorce, alcoholism and AIDS, and answered them with a mix of candor, common sense and an occasional wisecrack.”

Personally, I suspect that future family historians seeking context and flavor for describing Americans in the mid-20th century could do a lot worse than Dear Abby and Dear Ann. Yes, the advice column survives today online and in print media, but today’s successors don’t have the breathtaking ease with which the sisters moved between deadly serious issues and day-to-day dilemmas. They could reach out to a domestic-violence victim one minute and the next, weigh in on what to do about a bad case of acne.

Though their styles were very similar, consensus often held that Ann (who died in 2002) tended to be the straight-shooter, while Abby had a matchless flair for witty one-liners. The writing from their heyday still has a startlingly fresh appeal — bright, succinct, with a tough-mindedness behind the humor that lent authenticity to their advice-giving. “The audibly human voice … rising above our collective impersonality, ” was how Cornell University professor David I. Grossvogel described Ann’s appeal, and that could be said of Abby’s as well.

(A compilation of Pauline’s columns, The Best of Dear Abby, appears to still be available, at least in Kindle edition. Grossvogel’s out-of-print study, Dear Ann Landers, is worth seeking out for those interested in the evolution of Eppie’s advice over the years.)

And truly, Abby had a way with a zinger that you just don’t see anymore:

Dear Abby: I have always wanted to have my family history traced, but I can’t afford to spend a lot of money to do it. Have you any suggestions? — M.J.B. in Oakland, Calif.

Dear M.J.B.: Yes. Run for a public office.

RIP, Dear Abby.

Hello Again!

Here’s a dark secret about the blog: When I started it, I just wanted to write. The tricky part was, I needed a topic I liked to write about a lot.

Genealogy was the perfect choice. Writing has always been a way for me to work out knotty problems, and what’s knottier than your typical genealogy puzzler? Plus, if I wrote about my genealogy I wouldn’t necessarily have to talk about genealogy so much, and my family would like me better.

In the past several months I haven’t lacked for genealogy to write and think about. But a lot of it has been just … percolating. I took the genealogical research course through Boston University last fall, which was an incredible experience that gave me lots of new ways to think about research. Accordingly, I’ve been busier than ever with genealogy, for myself and for others. If you could see my desk, which I’m glad you can’t, you would see lots of torn-off bits of paper with scribbled topics, underlined a lot, with comments like “Yes! Write A Post!

Also, I noticed the family stumbling around with glazed-looking eyes, so I realized I was talking a lot about genealogy again.

So I’ve started heeding the scribbled comments, and I now have a neat and growing pile of posts. The pile of torn-off paper bits is slowly shrinking. As this has been happening, some new directions for what I do in this space have emerged.

• I’m officially giving up a links roundup. Obviously, I haven’t done one in a while. They were fun, but increasingly, the time spent compiling them felt more and more like time stolen from other things I’d enjoy doing more. Like:

• Heritage recipes. I want to write more about those. I am fascinated by the way cooking and stories about cooking reverberate in families. But I’m also fascinated by the practical challenges heritage recipes can present. For instance, one of my treasured cookbooks is The Ellis Island Immigrant Cookbook, with its wealth of wonderful family stories. And many of the recipes in the book are great examples of what we all face when confronted with great-grandma’s pinch-of-this, dash-of-that directions. This warms my heart, as a former food-section copy editor who checked recipes for a living. So once in a while I’ll be trying out fuzzy recipes and figuring out how to adapt them to modern cooking practices.

• Another writing challenge: Family history profiles. I’m still experimenting with ways to package the research I’ve done so that non-genealogists will honestly like to read it. Don’t get me wrong, I also enjoy writing properly numbered and cited essays. But one of the absorbing aspects of writing is flexing it in different ways, using different colors and textures. So there will be some of that, from my little ancestral-history collection.

• I expect to be having more fun with genealogy blogging memes, too. They are such great writing prompts. And when it boils down to it, I really like to write. Maybe that’s a retro thing to say.

But as my kids will tell you, I just have no shame that way.


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