Monday, May 17, 2010

Reflections on the D.A.R.lings: Historical memory, American-style

When it comes to historical memory--American-style--it doesn't get better, or weirder, than those nineteenth-century creatures of social exclusion, the DAR, the Colonial Dames, etc. In the midst of a society being transformed by waves of non-English immigration (waves that began long before many of the founders of these organization ever cared to admit), groups like the DAR and the reconstituted Society of the Cincinnati shot up like wildflowers in an effort to take possession of Early American history, at least of a sort. To me, it's important to keep in mind that just as such ancestral veneration shifted into top gear, many of these same Victorians took ownership of history into their hands and out of ours (quite literally) in another way: By editing beyond recognition or outright destroying reams of historical correspondence and other records that didn't fit their image of the past or, more to the point, the reflection they wanted to see of themselves in it.

But where, really, do most of us fit in such constructs? My grandmother's family on my father's side, the Taylors, for example, arrived in Maryland in 1662. Over the next 308 years they managed to move all of 60 miles, from Calvert County to Baltimore, where I was born (which must set some sort of record for historical inertia). They participated in all the big events--the Revolution, the War of 1812 (my great-great-great-grandfather was at Fort McHenry on that fateful night in 1814), the Civil War--and managed to be on the "right" side in each of them, which would make me a member of any number of groups if I chose to identify myself in such a way. On the other hand, my grandfather's father, Walter Stoermer, a German lad with a young half-French wife, didn't arrive in Baltimore from Darmstadt until around 1900. So am I a mere arriviste mongrel or a true American blue-blood with an exceptional claim to ownership of the most salient aspects of American history and, consequently, American character?

The truth, of course, is both, because that multiplicity--both personal and social--is at the heart of whatever there is that is "American" about our history and character, even if historians haven't yet quite worked out what those things really are (I blame the Victorians).

This post was inspired by one of the most clever persons I know, whose work into her own family history has revealed much the same sort of patchwork of identities, from the Mayflower in 1620 to migration from Italy to America during World War II, and who sent me the poem below, from a 1936 New Yorker, which I think captures the sense of things quite nicely (but she has a happy felicity for that).

The D.A.R.lings
Chatter like starlings
Telling their ancestors' names

While grimly aloof
With looks of reproof

Sit the Colonial Dames.
And The Cincinnati
All merry and chatty
Dangle their badges and pendants

But haughty and proud
Disdaining the crowd
Brood the Mayflower Descendants.

~ Arthur Guiterman, The New Yorker, 1936