Wednesday, August 31, 2011

And Still I Write

The very first post went up on Mnemosyne’s Mirror one year ago today.

And still I write.  But why? Why bother with all this in the first place?

Let me clear the air.  I don’t write because I want something to do; my life is already filled with enough activities. I don’t write because I’m looking for recognition; I’m well past that, and I have had recognition enough. I don’t write to be read, even though it’s nice when readers stop by from time to time.

I write because I have to.

Mostly, it’s either about the stories that need to be told or about the ideas that need an airing.  Sometimes, the writing itself is a mental exercise in organization and clarification about my own ideas or points of view.   Sometimes, it’s about a new research discovery. Occasionally, it’s about something inconsequential that just struck me as funny, interesting or worth writing about.

I write because I have to.

Researchers who “do” family history collect bits of bare-naked data – lots of it – often like Imelda Marcos collected shoes. These days, because many family history types tend to be “early adopters” when it comes to new technologies, the internet is filled with data – some of it good, and some of it, well… let’s just say that it’s “lacking.”

Plus, now there are programs to record all this bare-naked data, organize the data, store the data, access the data from remote locations and share the data with other data-hounds. Then there are the social networks and the social networking tools that enable folks interested in family history to talk about and share stuff with other like-minded people. 

In fact, sometimes I think that some folks are more interested in talking about doing their genealogy with all the new tekkie tools than in actually DOING their genealogy.

Of course, most of this glitzy high-tech stuff wasn’t around when I started doing serious family history and genealogy, including hands-on archives research,  back in the early 60s. And back before the advent of social networks, family historians quickly learned that only a handful of people that they knew had any interest in hearing about those latest discoveries relating to some obscure early 19th century ancestor that nobody remembered, anyway.

So, with all this great new stuff, including the tekkie toys, the instant-access to digitized records, the social networking and a web-ful of enough vital information about dead people to choke all the African war elephants that Hannibal marched over the Pyrenees to attack Rome, what’s missing?

In my view, it’s the stories.  There just aren’t enough of them.

I know, I know.  It’s fun to look stuff up.  Still, it’s probably much more important to write stuff down.  Not just the properly cited and thoroughly vetted bare-naked data, but the hundreds of stories behind those thousands of data points.

For example, it’s a fact that my own great-great grandfather James Redmond, a private in the NY 43rd Infantry during the Civil War, was one of the soldiers captured in Virginia during the Battle of the Wilderness.  It’s a fact that he was sent to the notorious Andersonville prison. It’s a fact that he died there about Oct 6 or 7, 1864 and what was left of him after starvation and dysentery had taken its toll was buried there. Those are the facts.  That’s the bare-naked data that we collect and document.

But it’s not “the story”.

James Redmond’s actual “story” would not be found in his military record.  Rather, it would tell of his life as a laborer before the war and how his 32-year old wife died in mid-October in 1860, leaving him alone with three children under 10. And how he left those three children with his wife’s brother and his family while he went off to war on the 3rd of December 1861. And how the two youngest children were placed in an orphanage after word of their father’s death reached their uncle less than three years later.

Why did he enlist? Was it the money? Was it the adventure? Was it an escape from something?

I doubt that I will ever know. Frankly, I doubt it was “to preserve the union” or “eliminate slavery.” 

There’s not much surviving evidence that Irish Catholic immigrant laborers who lived on the edge of poverty thought much about those things. Plus, the New York City draft riots strongly suggest that those same Irish laborers who rioted lived in fear that, should the war be successful for the North,  the newly-freed slave population would leave the South for the industrial Northeast,  thereby taking their jobs and further depressing wages.

No, I strongly doubt that my great-great grandfather was any kind of abolitionist or deep political thinker at all.

James Redmond’s story is largely a blur and a mystery. No one else in my family ever heard of him. He left no papers or letters; chances are, he could not read or write. His own children barely knew him – my great-grandfather, his oldest child, was only 10 when his father left for war.  His enlistment records – more bare-naked facts – tell me that he was not very tall -  about five feet, nine inches -  and had grey eyes, black hair and a “fair” complexion.  Still, that’s enough to help form a mental image of the man. But that’s all it is…a mental image.  No photographs, if they ever existed, have survived. 

And I doubt that my grandmother (who was his granddaughter and actually had his grey eyes and black hair and fair complexion) even knew his name. She was only 12 when her own father died, and likely not much interested in family history.

And yet, still I write about James Redmond and others like him… because even their sketchy stories still need telling. 

Family history is more than bare-naked data.  It is frozen memory that needs capturing before it melts into oblivion. It is that dried rose preserved in a family Bible that is meant to awaken a long-ago memory of a lover long gone. It is a tale passed from mother to daughter, from grandfather to grandson.  It is the rebuilding of our own ancestors’ lives from those tiny shards of evidence that we find while sifting through all that data.

So, why do I write?

I write because I have to.  I am compelled, and I seem to have no choice in the matter.

I guess it’s simple, really:  I write to raise the dead.


  1. Beautiful post. I love the last line- "I write to raise the dead".

  2. Wow, great post. I would say that you captured the feelings of a lot of us family historians out here. Although we like to write and research there is something inside us that tells us we have to write these stories so we can 'raise the dead.' What a joy to read - thanks.

  3. Just keep writing and I'll keep reading.

  4. I'm suffering from jet lag, reading this at 4:00 AM, trying to get rid of a headache. This post is so powerful and captures my feelings exactly. I, too, feel compelled to tell the stories of my ancestors. Names and dates alone hold no fascination for me. Who were these people? That's what I want to know. Thanks for a great middle-of-the-night read.

  5. Bravo!

    We write because we are the storytellers.

    Excellent post.