As I have repeatedly acknowledged, there is much that we don’t know about the history of our ancestors’ lives in places like Shiloh, where they first attempted to found a homestead, and Ione, where where the family lived at the time that Jess died. We are unlikely to find answers to many of the questions that we want to ask, and some of us may care about the answers more than others.
One of my favorite episodes of “Bones,” a contemporary television series about a forensic anthropologist who works for the “Jeffersonian” Museum in Washington, D.C., features an exchange between Dr. Temperance Brennan and Boothe Seeley, the FBI agent/love interest. Temperance notes the irony,”I specialize in identifying people when no one knows who they are” but she finds herself in a situation in which she is suddenly confronted with the fact that she doesn’t know her parents true identity due to the fact that they were in the government’s witness protection program and other reasons too complicated to go into here.
Boothe attempts to reassure Temperance, “Bones, your parents aren’t who you have thought they are. . . .There’s a story here. We don’t know it yet.” I have noticed that htere are a lot of these kinds of stories circulated in popular culture in the 21st century. In this particular case, the longing is signaled by the fact that the name her parents gave her was “Joy,” but the name that she took on was “Temperance.” At one point, Bones discovers that her father is alive. At another point, she meets her long lost brother. As with any TV series that manages to continue from season to season, the characters develop through various dramatic encounters and the occasional crisis.
In our family’s case, the mysteries are not dramatic (as far as I know), but there are questions to be asked, and from time to time we discover answers. As folks who have been following this blog know by now, I am interested in asking questions that probe the intersections of our family’s history and the history of the wider culture in which we find ourselves. So I have to wonder how much Eliza Hope Dane Cartwright and her children may have been affected (perhaps even traumatized) by living in Western Georgia in the wake of Sherman’s raids and the burning of downtown Carrollton, Georgia in 1865, and I have to wonder what kinds of (short-term and long-term) harm may have been done to our ancestors as a result of the Waldron War in the 1870s. My guess is that we may never know the effects, but we should not be afraid to inquire where we have information available that might help us to see the circumstances of our family in a clearer light.
Michael Holroyd, a British writer, who has written a remarkable memoir about his family, offers some perceptive comments about the relationship of biography to history. “. . . biography can humanize our history — that is one of its justifications. The social historian concentrates on what is common to all men and women in certain categories at particular times; the biographer is concerned with what differentiates one many, or woman, from another. One gives the overall, the other the eye-level view of what has happened.” Holroyd, Works on Paper, 22).
I think Holroyd is right — for the most part — although I do not share his confidence that social history yields an “overall view” and I am probably more interested in what aspects of our ancestors life experiences they shared with their neighbors. In that respect, I tend to be suspicious of “exceptionalist” narratives. In my view, Americans tend to have too exalted a view of our own culture. We need to have the humility to see those aspects of our history and experience that are adolescent and immature — compared to people who have lived at other times in other places. I believe we also need to learn to see the social patterns that exist between our lives and the lives of other people who are living alongside us in whatever chapter of human history we find ourselves at a moment in time.
As we do so, I also think it is a good thing to celebrate. At the end of the episode of “Bones,” that I mentioned earlier in this post, one of the characters raises a glass and says to the other, “To us. . . to whoever. . . we are.” And the other one responses, “To who we are becoming.” That strikes me as about right for any pair of Cartwright cousins who happen to encounter one another in the midst of asking questions about our ancestors and ourselves.