Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Hermann Hesse, 1961, and Me: My Half Century of Genealogy Research

Hermann Hesse
It was June 1961. 

I was sixteen years old and school was nearly done for the year. 

Much of my free time was given over to writing fiction and reading Hermann Hesse’s final opus “Das Glasperlenspiel” (known in its English translation as “Magister Ludi”, or sometimes as “The Glass Bead Game).  Since my German was non-existent at the time, I was, of course, reading the paperback English translation. During the school year, I had already devoured Hesse’s Steppenwolf and Siddhartha, and was clearly on a Hermann Hesse marathon.

Hesse’s novel is set far in the future, in a central European region known as “Castalia”, an area completely given over to playing a nearly impossible-to-master game played with glass beads.  The central focus is on a boys’ boarding school known as “Waldzell” where the most intellectually gifted students spend years trying to master the basic rudiments of the game, which requires mastering arcane knowledge in many apparently disparate subject areas.  No matter how many years they study, only a tiny few can ever become proficient in the game, thus earning the title “Magister Ludi” – which means “master of the game.”

In June 1961, my father had been dead a little more than two months. I was an only child. Three of my four grandparents had already died. I had one aunt and two first cousins who lived nearby. My only uncle and two other first cousins lived far away. Other more distant relatives were mostly strangers seen only at family funerals. 

My family was my mother and me.  And an aging dog we called "Buzzy."

In June 1961, I realized that I knew very little about my family origins, other than the stories that my now-dead grandmother had told me about my grandfather and his professional baseball career years ago.  My grandfather died when I was two years old.  

I wanted to know much, much more.  Sure, I had collected family stories in my memory for years - probably going back to the days when I was nine and pestered my grandmother for stories about her Irish immigrant grandmother, but I hadn't done much in a systematic way.

June 1961 was the month that I decided that I would likely always be a committed genealogist.

So, in June 1961, I began to:

☞  Plunge into the collections in the Manuscripts and Special Collections Unit of the New York State Library, then housed in the lowest level of the State Education Building on Washington Avenue in Albany.  It was there that I learned to use their microfilm and manuscript census materials on afternoons after school classes were over. I taught myself to read 19th century handwriting and figured out how to efficiently extract information. There were no indexes.   It was also long before copy machines, and I still have the June 1961 letter from the Librarian containing the detail of my great-great grandfather’s “shoe manufactory” that was found in the 1860 census.  (Note that, at the time, no post-1880 census was available.)

☞  Closet myself on Saturdays in the Albany Room on the top floor of the Harmanus Bleecker Library, transcribing every Albany city directory listing that was even remotely connected to the families to whom I knew that I was related. The librarians were at first suspicious of a high school student wanting to work in their rare book collection on Saturdays.  Years later, I served on the Board of Trustees of the library and did what I could to insure the collection was preserved.

☞  Visit both St. Agnes and Albany Rural Cemeteries to transcribe family headstones.

By the end of the month, I had also written to the Zentralstelle für Genealogie in Leipzig and also to the Bavarian State Archives for whatever available information I could find about my German immigrant ancestors.

By July, I had convinced my mother that a road trip to western New York and northwest Pennsylvania was in order, since that was where part of her family was from.  I designed my own data collection forms and we headed west for a week of research.  She had no interest in the research part of the trip but she was a good sport and she played along as we went from courthouse to courthouse, cemetery to cemetery.  

Most of the records custodians assumed that she was the researcher and I was the tag-along kid. Surprise!

By August, I had set up appointments to interview distant elderly cousins of both my grandfathers whom I had never met, even though they lived in the same city as me. I collected family data, was given photos and began building a family archives. I had also read Gilbert H. Doane’s classics “Searching For Your Ancestors” and “Genealogy As A Pastime and Profession.” During the next several years, I read them over and over.

I was hooked, to say the least.

Actually, reading Hermann Hesse’s “Magister Ludi” in 1961 was a direct and important influence on my views of genealogical research. In the novel, students of the Game, like the main character Josef Knecht, must learn that they need to master massive bodies of arcane knowledge and must learn to see the hidden connections between seemingly unrelated, and sometimes inconsequential facts.  They must also learn that the Game is beyond the comprehension and interest of most people.

I am now known as the “Keeper of the Family Stuff.”   Perhaps someday I will be, like Josef Knecht, a  Master of the Game.  

Unlike Josef Knecht, I doubt that I will ever give up the Game.  A half century and counting…


  1. I do not have the words to say how much I love this post! Clearly you are on your way to mastering "the hidden connections between seemingly unrelated" Hermann Hesse and genealogy - oh my!! :-)

    One of the reasons I so relate to this - and I think it is something within most genealogists - is that the Hermann Hesse marathon and plunging into genealogy are really the same thing...we tend to develop *passions* for things. When I was in HS I was so enamored of Thomas Hardy - well, and the boy in my English class - but mostly Thomas Hardy.

    But I've been faithful to genealogy for about 35 years now.

  2. Thanks for dropping by and also for leaving such a nice comment. Like Hesse, Thomas Hardy (who sometimes lives in a similarly dark universe) provides some good basic advice for aspiring genealogists, albeit unintentionally, I suspect. At the beginning of “Jude The Obscure”, the departing schoolmaster, Mr. Phillotson, while pushing all his worldly possessions in a handcart, advises young Jude to “…be kind to animals and birds, and read all you can.” I’m sure you’ll agree that’s good advice for passionate genealogists, too!