Monday, July 13, 2009

The importance of family history - revisited

Back in December 2006 I wrote The Importance of Family History. That's less than three years ago, but re-reading the post I felt as though this was another world. So much has happened since that December 2006 feels quite remote, ancient in fact.

The comments on Saturday Morning Musings - more on the Belshaws were very helpful from my perspective. I agree with Kanani that it is better to write fully and then modify if necessary for publication. That way the full story is accessible to future family members at least. Neil also provided a story giving another example of generational span.

I lot of my historical research and writing is connected in some way with my own family.

My current project on the history of Australia's New England deals with a part of the world that has been important to my most immediate family. My next project is to complete the biography of my maternal grandfather that began with my PhD thesis. This is actually about 70 per cent done. The main gap is the period from 1942 to 1967. Now the third project is a history of the Belshaws.

I spoke of my PhD thesis in The changing meaning of words and the historian's craft and then again in a follow up post, Selection, perception and bias in the historian's craft. The problems that I experienced mean that that thesis is in some ways still un-finished business that drives my writing today.

When I began to write, I intended to write on my grandfather's public career. However, as I researched I concluded that Drummond was first and foremost a regional New England politician, that you could not understand his life without understanding the interaction between his troubled childhood, his adoption of and love for New England and his political and public career. These were three corners of a triangle. This insight then influenced the direction of my research and writing.

The reaction of one examiner and then the adjudicator appointed to resolve the dispute among examiners made it inevitable that at some point I would try to write a history of New England. Simply put, I now had a point to prove. I also felt that this would improve the biography of my grandfather by providing a better context, and indeed this has proved to be the case. I know now that some of my PhD was incorrect. The broad sweep of the story remains the same, but individual lines of argument have changed.

Whether I should have allowed the examiners' responses to my thesis to affect me in the way it did is open to question. Family and friends have argued that I should have simply rolled with the punches, been a good boy and did what was asked, then got on with life. Had I done so I would have had a PhD (the feeling was that the matter had become so embarrassing that even nominal compliance would have got me through) and indeed could have got on with life.

I am sure that they were right, but I am not built that way. I finally walked away; now I try to use the experience as a driver.

I use family histories extensively in writing about New England. This is partly a matter of illustration. History is about people, so using people's stories can help bring history alive. Saturday Morning Musings - New England's Ogilvie dynasty provides a good example here. However, individual family histories also provide new insights.

As happened with me in writing about David Drummond, when you write about an individual or family the evidence you are concerned with is driven by your subject(s). Broader history necessarily involves generalisations. Family history - the same applies to local histories - is valuable because it challenges those generalisations.

Many family histories, while interesting to family members, are quite dull to the broader reader. Family trees, dates etc. Yet these histories are still of value to the historian.

On the other side of the ledger, some of the best family histories are quite wonderful reads.

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