A genealogy of American genealogy.
L’Académie de Paris chancellor of universities displays both thoroughness and grounding as he stakes out the contours of his American genealogical culture into four distinct periods, with successive dominant meanings and touchstones. The pre-revolutionary experience was caught up with social status, with a “desire to become part of a transatlantic imperial establishment,” a moral and religious exemplarity that manifested itself in ancestral portraits, gravestones and family silver. But this old-regime mindset was radically eclipsed after the revolution; it was too much at odds with “postrevolutionary America’s future-oriented egalitarianism.” Antebellum America democratized the practice of genealogy, taking its cues from the growing significance of the family, the nascent shaping of a national tradition, and the urge for self-knowledge and stability, as seen particularly in the African-American community. Weil then shifts to the years following the Civil War, when blacks sought to reunite their families and whites sought to heal the country’s wounds via nationalism and ancestry, but “at the expense of racial equality.” During the middle of the 20th century, the interest in genealogy was fueled by the Atomic Age and its attendant anxiety and fears for our collective memory, underscored later by the publication of Roots, and “black America’s demands about identity, the past, Africa, and slavery.” America’s obsession with racial categories was tailor-made for interest in heredity, which has led to eugenics. The last few decades have also witnessed a flowering of genealogical societies and an explosion of profitable genealogical businesses, with both legitimate practitioners and hucksters cashing in.
Weil convincingly delineates the fact that origins matter; they fill many needs, from the noble to the nasty.