Books by Jeffrey Simpson

AMERICAN ELEGY by Jeffrey Simpson
Released: Sept. 18, 1996

An engaging if ultimately somber 200-year history of a family and the rise and decline of the small Pennsylvania town that was their home. Journalist Simpson (The American Family: A History in Photographs, 1977, etc.) culled generations of daybooks, family stories, and histories to record the public lives and private longings of his relatives in a once proud railroad town called Parnassus, located east of Pittsburgh. It officially ceased to exist in 1931. Simpson uses a variety of homely talismans to reconstruct generations of family history and psychology: An 18th-century Indian captivity narrative mirrors his mother's lifelong feeling of oppression; an ankle bracelet tells the complex story of a thwarted love. By showing the unwavering adherence of his grandparents to the failing town, and to the 19th-century standards of family life and citizenship it represented, he is able to demonstrate how his relatives and their hometown became so deeply interconnected. Pittsburgh figures in the narrative as well. There are archetypal American elements in the history of that brawling city: immigrants, industry, union strife, and larger-than-life characters (Carnegie, Mellon, Frick). Simpson touches on these vivid elements but concentrates on the impact of the nearby city on his family, and he finds in the modest details of their lives a clear reflection of the larger American experience. By focusing on the end of the family and not harking (as do memoirists like Donald Hall and Annie Dillard) to the immutable cycles of nature, he loses a chance for solace, but in doing so maintains the integrity of his work. When the family dwindles to its last mortal member, there is no comfort—only Simpson's knowing reflection that ``they had gone as far as they could go,'' because with him, a homosexual, ``the end of the line had come.'' Uncomfortable in its finality, direct but not always graceful in style, this book is best read as the fulfillment of a final descendant's lifetime obsession. Read full book review >