The quest for roots has been an enduring American preoccupation. Over the centuries, generations have sketched coats of arms, embroidered family trees, established local genealogical societies, and carefully filled in the blanks in their bibles, all in pursuit of self-knowledge and status through kinship ties. This long and varied history of Americans’ search for identity illuminates the story of America itself, according to François Weil, as fixations with social standing, racial purity, and national belonging gave way in the twentieth century to an embrace of diverse ethnicity and heritage.
Seeking out one’s ancestors was a genteel pursuit in the colonial era, when an aristocratic pedigree secured a place in the British Atlantic empire. Genealogy developed into a middle-class diversion in the young republic. But over the next century, knowledge of one’s family background came to represent a quasi-scientific defense of elite “Anglo-Saxons” in a nation transformed by immigration and the emancipation of slaves. By the mid-twentieth century, when a new enthusiasm for cultural diversity took hold, the practice of tracing one’s family tree had become thoroughly democratized and commercialized.
Today, Ancestry.com attracts over two million members with census records and ship manifests, while popular television shows depict celebrities exploring archives and submitting to DNA testing to learn the stories of their forebears. Further advances in genetics promise new insights as Americans continue their restless pursuit of past and place in an ever-changing world.
For a nation…so committed presumably to the rejection of birth and blood, the people of theUnited States throughout their history have devoted an enormous amount of energy, time, and money to genealogy and the search for ancestors. To explain this anomaly—indeed, to explain how the search for ancestors evolved in different forms over four centuries and eventually became a distinctly American mode of genealogy—is the burden of François Weil’s well-researched and readable book, Family Trees. Weil, who is chancellor of the Universities of Paris and professor of history at the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales, knows America well, but he has sufficient distance to be honest and dispassionate about it. The result is a succinct history of genealogy in a nation that supposedly denies the importance of birth and ancestors.
[An] excellent, long-overdue survey.
[Weil] 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… Weil convincingly delineates the fact that origins matter; they fill many needs, from the noble to the nasty.
Weil considers why America’s present- and future-oriented society with blended cultural values so treasures knowledge of group identities… Clear, fully annotated, subtly analyzed, timely, and nuanced, this book offers both general and academic readers a new view of genealogical research in America in a ‘why they did it’ rather than a ‘how to do it’ presentation.
Fascinating… Like the families it’s meant to chronicle, genealogy itself has changed quite a bit over time, but it remains, as ever, a dynamic and captivating quest.
This elegant social and cultural history of genealogy in America is marked by meticulous research and astute comparisons with Europe as American practices gradually diverged. The central theme of democratization flowing, ebbing, and then flowing once again in the twentieth century is brilliantly realized.
Acutely conscious of the irony that a culture which prizes novelty is also preoccupied with genealogy, François Weil’s Family Trees provides a revealing window into four centuries of cultural transformation. A sweeping and eloquent account of how a present-minded, future-facing people look to their personal past to understand who they truly are.
Brilliantly conceived, fresh in insight, and gracefully executed, François Weil’s book offers a rich and entertaining account of the American fascination with lineage and identity. In his hands genealogy provides a rich measure of the changing parameters of nationalism and the accommodation of pluralism.
A fascinating exploration of the uniquely American obsession with genealogy, François Weil’s Family Trees is cultural history at its very best—a tour de force.
- 320 pages
- 5-1/2 x 8-1/4 inches
- Harvard University Press
Sorry, there was an error adding the item to your shopping bag.
Sorry, your session has expired. Please refresh your browser's tab.