Memoirs of American Heritage, by Rob Colby
I recently finished reading three memoirs about prominent East Coast WASP families and how the nineteenth- and twentieth-century legacies of these once proud and wealthy clans played out in the lives of their descendants: George Howe Colt’s The Big House: A Century in the Life of an American Summer Home (2003); John Sedgwick’s In My Blood: Six Generations of Madness and Desire in an American Family (2007); Janny Scott’s The Beneficiary: Fortune, Misfortune, and the Story of my Father (2019). In each instance, the generational lives of these families revolve around a great house, and that vexing question descendants face: What to do with the old place when the money’s gone? In all cases, the house becomes a metaphor for accommodating the family legacy. Each author brilliantly mines family heritage for significance—intangible heritage: genetics, family folklore, temperaments, habits, behavior patterns; and tangible heritage: real estate, trusts, heirlooms, photo albums, archives. Some beneficiaries of the family heritage move close to its beating heart, others flee, for a new life of their own choosing, or attempt to recreate an outpost of the family culture—for good or ill—in a new place altogether.
Each memoirist also draws on the family’s living archives—aged aunts, uncles, and cousins, who have long memories of their own, including recollections of their elders’ recollections, providing a seeming unbroken chain of memory. Their efforts yield hidden gems of family lore. The skeletons of suicide, alcoholism, and madness are beckoned forth from the closets and made to dance around the front parlor.
The three authors have much material to work with, and in each instance, the lives of their grandparents and great-grandparents feature prominently, so they are often recreating stories fifty years, a hundred years after the fact. Like a diligent theatre historian, they visit the original venue, inspect the surviving costumes and props, gather the list of the original players, and, if they’re lucky, capture a few eye-witness accounts—though sometimes these spectators offer conflicting reports, like two people who attend the same production only to recount maddeningly inconsistent plot lines.
Each memoir comes to life when the past and present overlap in some mysterious predicament the author must disentangle and resolve. Important moments like this feature in all three works, but sometimes are glossed over as the writer guides the readers on the proverbial house tour, passing by an open door where a great drama unfolds, only to continue along as if nothing unusual were happening. All that work to gather material for an intimate family portrait, and then not allowing for the personal transformation that must naturally result feels like panning for gold and then chucking sparkling nuggets of the precious metal back into the river.
I put down each of the three memoirs feeling as though I’d just eaten a bowl of thick, creamy New England clam chowder, seasoned with enough pepper to add flavor, but an hour later I was hungry again.
By contrast, on June 26, 2020, The New York Times published an electrifying editorial by poet Caroline Randall Williams, “You Want a Confederate Monument? My Body is a Confederate Monument.”
Williams’ family history includes a rich legacy of noted Black writers and cultural figures that she acknowledges proudly as a source of support and inspiration for her own creative life. Her genetic heritage also includes white male ancestors who owned and raped her Black female ancestors, including a great-great-grandfather, Edmund Pettus, “the storied Confederate general, the grand dragon of the Ku Klux Klan, the man for whom Selma’s Bloody Sunday Bridge is named.” Williams positions herself within the American social framework of race.
“According to the rule of hypodescent (the social and legal practice of assigning a genetically mixed-race person to the race with less social power) I am the daughter of two black people, the granddaughter of four black people, the great-granddaughter of eight black people. Go back one more generation and it gets less straightforward, and more sinister. As far as family history has always told, and as modern DNA testing has allowed me to confirm, I am the descendant of black women who were domestic servants and white men who raped their help. It is an extraordinary truth of my life that I am biologically more than half white, and yet I have no white people in my genealogy in living memory. No. Voluntary. Whiteness.”
The response to Williams’ powerful editorial has included requests to write a book on the subject. If she does, I can’t wait to read it. If it’s anything like her editorial, the author will present herself at the heart of this extraordinary—but far from uncommon—family tale, to tell a new, clear-eyed history of one person’s American heritage.
In the three WASP memoirs, the writers stand outside the family past, the way an orchestra conductor stands outside of the circle of musicians, with her back to the audience. The audience can never quite glimpses the conductor’s face and remains tantalizingly removed from the intimate relationship between the conductor and musicians, like a closed circle from which they are politely excluded.
A memoir like the one I hope Williams writes someday would put her square at the center of the stage, telling her story, her family’s story, directly to an audience eager to learn what treasures she has to share.