Some people eat, sleep and chew gum, I do genealogy and write...

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Sitting with a Corpse

Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote on various occasions, "When I talk with a genealogist, I seem to sit with a corpse."

See Emerson, Ralph Waldo, and Ronald A. Bosco. Later lectures of Ralph Waldo Emerson, 1843-1854. Athens, Ga. [u.a.]: University of Georgia Press, 2001, Vol. 1, Page 103. Also found in Emerson, Ralph Waldo, William H. Gilman, Ralph H. Orth, and Alfred R. Ferguson. The Journals and Miscellaneous Notebooks of Ralph Waldo Emerson. Cambridge, Mass: Belknap P., 1977, Vol. 13, Page 443. See again in Emerson, Ralph Waldo, and Joel Porte. Emerson in His Journals. Cambridge, Mass: Belknap Press of Harvard U.P., 1982, Page 461.

Emerson's comment, which he seemed to use in a variety of contexts, refers to the practice of having a watch or vigil held beside the body of someone who has died, sometimes accompanied by ritual observances including eating and drinking. In our culture, here in the Southwest, this practice has evolved into a three part affair: a visitation, a funeral and a graveside service. Depending on the background, culture or national origins of the family of the deceased, some or all of those three different steps in the burial process may be expanded or omitted.

The Emerson quote has been used in different contexts to support different views. Sometimes, we use stories in the same way, ignoring the historical setting and context of the story.

I find it strange that genealogists, who deal with records of the dead continually, seem to largely ignore the cultural and historical context of the very acts and events they record. In the current movement to expand "genealogy" into "family history," the emphasis seems to me to be extraordinarily superficial. Even the preservation or dissemination of a "story" loses any real meaning once the events related in the story are removed from both the historical and cultural context in which they occurred. It would seem to me that if you really want to know the "family history" then any competent story teller should have an understanding of the context of the story. 

The quote above from Emerson is a good example of the challenge of finding the context. The quote, on its face, could be used to make any number of different points, both positive and negative about genealogy and genealogists. But in reading all three of the different times Emerson recorded this same statement, it appears that he liked the turn of the words and used the saying to make different points, none of which had anything to do with genealogy, as such. Of course, you could read the original sources and draw your own conclusions. But the point here is that the quote had meaning to Emerson only in its original context, no matter how it is used by us to establish our own opinions or views. 

I grew up hearing several stories transmitted through the family. It would be facil to conclude that my "interest in genealogy" came about as a result of hearing storing about my ancestors. However, in my case, that would not be accurate. In fact, one of the stories I heard over and over again as child was recently made into a movie about my ancestor. See Utah filmmaker creates movie about his ancestor. The movie, Treasure in Heaven: The John Tanner Story, generally relates a story that is recorded in the book, Tanner, Maurice, and George C. Tanner. Descendants of John Tanner: Born August 15, 1778 at Hopkintown, R.I., Died April 15, 1850 at South Cottonwood, Salt Lake County, Utah. [S.l.]: Tanner Family Association, 1942, Page 14.

It is not in my interest to compare the movie to the written story. Movies are interpretive and do not and cannot convey the reality of any story they tell, but the last two lines of the written story are important. At page 23 of the John Tanner book, it states, "This sketch was written by Nathan Tanner, Jr. son of Nathan Tanner, who was the son of John Tanner, the subject of this sketch." There are no further attributions or citations of sources to the story. 

John Tanner was born in 1778. His son Nathan Tanner was born in 1815. The composer of the story was born in 1845 and died in 1919. John Tanner died in 1850, so Nathan Tanner, Jr. would have been five years old when his grandfather died. Unfortunately, there is no explanation how Nathan Tanner, Jr. got the story. It is possible that the document in question lies in the George S. Tanner papers in the J. Willard Marriott Library of the University of Utah Manuscripts Division, but then again, where did the earlier writers get the information? I do find references to the fact that the records were originally accumulated by Nathan Tanner, Jr. and then compiled by a Grandson of Sidney Tanner, Maurice Tanner, but other than this short attribution, the original document does not seem to be available. 

The point here is not to question the story, but to point out that there is more to story telling that simply copying down what someone else has published. Some of the details of the story can be verified but, absent the context of the story, there are many details that, although inspirational, may not be based accurately in fact. There is such a thing as inspirational fiction. 

Do we want to cut ourselves loose from the facts of the past and build our own history? Or are we interested, as genealogists, in accuracy and source citations?

Surprise, most of the typos have been corrected.


  1. Question that account? That would be a real mine field!

    I regularly run into family histories like the John Tanner story while I'm writing biographies and have to decide whether/how to use them. Here are a few random principles.

    First, I rarely start with the stories. I start with genealogical data. I assemble the family using a framework of census and other vital records. I go at least one generation back (parents), two generations down (grandchildren) and look at all the siblings' families, as much as possible.

    Once I have a handle on the vital records and the family situation and economics and the places they lived, then I look at the histories.

    The first question about a family history, as you've noted above, is always: who wrote the history? Where did he or she get the information? Can he or she reasonably be expected to know the information in the history? Are sources noted?

    The next question is: how accurate is the account overall? In any written history there will be lots of information that can be verified using other sources. So how much of the story is verifiable? Are dates and places accurate? Do other contemporaneous accounts confirm some or all of the story?

    As I go through a history and find that everything that is verifiable is actually true, and if the percentage of verifiable facts is high enough, I tend to believe the rest of the history.

    One of my most-visited posts on TheAncestorFiles came about because I was trying to verify whether my 4th great grandmother Ann Prior Jarvis was reliable. I knew her grandchildren weren't always accurate about the family experiences, sometimes in woefully funny ways. So here's the experience I had with trying to verify a story she told about the start of the Second Opium War:

    And after verifying that story and a number of others, I now pretty much believe anything she says in her histories and journal, including some fairly fantastic experiences.

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  3. You must be reading the Harvard book. I thought that was a pretty hilarious quote from Ralph Waldo Emerson.

    1. Yes, and it is very interesting. But I think he misconstrued the Emerson quote.