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We all have roots. We draw up family trees, naming as far back as we can our ancestors; sometimes we discover Charlemagne or Henry II hiding in the branches. Many of us have tested our DNA to discover the nameless past before that and perhaps trace our route from Africa through Europe or Asia by haplogroup. 

There is a lineage — a straight line that leads from some familial Adam to ourselves. Or at least, we see it that way: The reality is messier. Each of the names above ours on the family tree doubles; parents, grandparents, great-grandparents and so on. That lineage becomes a mesh, a network of interconnectedness. Thousands of Adams and their Eves woven together.

Yet, there is still the sense of having gotten from there to here. A sense that, however complex the root system, the florescence is now. 

This seems to me to be true culturally as well as genetically. I am certainly American, with my bona fides in Thoreau, Emerson, Whitman, Dickinson, Melville, Hawthorne. But there is still something behind those names. When one marries and begins a family of one’s own, there is still the family in which you were raised and it never really goes away. One day when you are 50, you look down and at the ends of your arms you discover your father’s hands. Or you find yourself saying something that rings the bell of remembrance: This is what the old man used to say. Your wedded family, like your friends are acquired later, but your original family stays with you forever. It is somehow more unshakable than the one you later don. You may divorce a first wife, but you can never lose your birth family: It is traced in your muscle and bone. 

And it is, at least for me, the same for the culture I resonate to. I find ever more as I grow older, that I am at heart European. It is European literature, music, thought — even landscape and city — that I respond to. France has always felt like home to me. And the painting and sculpture of the Old World — from Ancient Greece, through Rome, the Middle Ages and Renaissance, through the Enlightenment and into the horrifying terrors of the 20th century — they all speak to me more directly than the neotenous and optimistic culture of the New World. 

This is not to claim any supremacy for Europe. There are many great cultures in the world, and just as one knows one’s own family may not be the greatest one — indeed, it has its characteristic neuroses and scars — it is nevertheless your own and has a deep comfortableness and familiarity that you cannot get from other families. I am inoculated against any sense of European supremacy; I’ve read my Jared Diamond. But that can’t change my cultural genes.

And so, I see my grandfather’s nose taking over the center of my face. I find the patience so inborn in my father taking over my own, and his natural moderation in all things political guiding my own, and overtaking the youthful certainty and idealism that drove me to chant “Hey, hey, LBJ” and stew in a smug self-righteousness. 

So, there is Homer, Aristotle, Ovid, Montaigne, Dante, Gibbon, Tolstoy — these are my cultural parents and great-grandparents, and I find their hands at the end of my cultural arms. 

Yes, American culture owes a great deal to Africa, Asia and Native America, but underneath it all, the “dead White guys” are peeking out. Whether it is Indian art on canvas or blues riffs over triadic harmony, the basement layer supporting all the ethnic and cultural overlay, all the borrowings and tinctures, is European.

It’s so etched into the American memory, even on a pop-culture level,  that it’s the starting point for all American culture, both highbrow and lowbrow. Can we recognize it when we see it? Do we know how European we are? The older I get, the more I know it. Others feel the amalgam in their blood. They grew up on pop music and TV. I grew up on Stravinsky and Bach, and the pop culture never quite took hold. 

First, what do we mean by “Europe”? We sometimes have to laugh at any definition of Europe; after all, Europeans cannot agree on it. The European Union is now contemplating whether Turkey is part of Europe — a Muslim nation in Europe, and the United Kingdom is trying to divorce itself from the rest of the continent, as if you could divorce your parents. 

The continent got its name from ancient Greece, which divided the world into three: Europe was where “we” lived; to the east was Asia, meaning primarily Persia, the Levant and what is now Turkey; Africa was usually called Libya and included Egypt and Ethiopia. These three continents were surrounded by Ocean, the great river that circled the known world. That is the world as Herodotus knew it. 

Nowadays, Europe usually is defined to include Iceland, the western end of Turkey as measured from the Dardanelles, and Russia to the Ural Mountains.

It’s a huge and disparate place, including cultures that are Mediterranean, Germanic, Slavic, Celtic — even Turkic. But when we talk generically about European culture and art, we most often mean that of Western Europe: a cultural tradition that began in classical Greece, spread through the Roman Empire and flowered again in the Renaissance.

But what makes European art European? What distinguishes Michelangelo, Rembrandt, Beethoven, Shakespeare from art made in China, Ghana or Pre-Columbian Peru?

There are many things Europe gave us, from rationalism to colonialism, from democracy and humanism to the nation state and patriarchy, to say nothing of two world wars. Each aspect is cheered or booed, depending on whether you have come to praise Europe or to bury it.

But there is something familiar to it, whether it’s a Madonna or an Apollo: It is the heritage I feel in a way that Japanese noh theater and Tibetan thankas — no matter how beautiful or meaningful — I do not.

(Do not get me wrong here: I try to be as cosmopolitan as possible. I’ve read the Mahabharata three times, Basho’s Narrow Road to the Deep North, Naguib Mahfouz, Jorge Luis Borges, and Mao’s little red book. As a teenager, I took up the use of the shizuri and sumi stick; I have a collection of African sculpture. I hope I am not a completely ignorant yob. But I can never drink as deeply from the vast elsewhere as I can from my backyard  European well.) 

For me, it is European art that is a touchstone for history, for ideas of beauty, for widely held social values, some of which are out of date and some of which are lamentable, even shameful. But an Old Master painting has just as much validity in our cultural ambience today as learning about Shakespeare in literature or Mozart and Tchaikovsky in music. It’s a huge spectrum of cultural experience, all tied into European art and culture.

What makes it European? I suggest five key things:

—First, there is a bias toward realism.

—Second, an astonishing persistence of Classical antiquity.

—Third, a belief, justified or not, in the idea of progress. 

—Fourth, the pervasive influence of Christianity.

—And finally, the singular importance of the human body and the nude that we might distill into the word “humanism,” a belief in the nobility, or divinity, of corporeal human existence.

(Also, in music, the use of harmony as the basic building block.) 

Deeply rooted realism

In the caves of southern Europe you can find the world’s oldest art, dating to 30,000 years ago. Even that long ago, proto-European artists created paintings that looked like the world they lived in: the aurochs and horses of Lascaux and Altamira often are so naturalistic that they can be taxonomized by zoologists into genus and species.

Prehistoric art from other cultures — South African, Australian and Southeast Asian — tend to be more diagrammatic: symbolic stick figures rather than shaded, colored images mimicking what the eye sees.

Aristotle said it 2,300 years ago: “Art imitates nature.” You can see it in Greek art from the fifth century B.C. The Greeks were intensely interested in realism. It is not just in the physicality of the statues, the lifelike figures, but in the drapery that clothed those statues. Later European artists, going back to that, like Poussin or Courbet, those lush mythological landscapes with that gleaming pink flesh. It is a love of the actual, of the real, physical world.

In our sophisticated provincialism, after a century of increasingly abstract and intellectualized art, we may think we have left all of that behind. But is Andy Warhol’s soup can any different?

Antiquity endures

We often say Europe was born in ancient Greece, which gave us so many of the philosophical and political ideas that we still live with. But even in art, antiquity remains in our lives. Go to any neighborhood and notice the homes with porticos, columns, architraves and pediments. Or listen to a pop tune sung in major or minor key and hear the remnants of a medieval and Renaissance idea of how the music of antiquity sounded.

Even in films, you have things like 300 and Troy. Even O Brother, Where Art Thou? is a take on Homer’s Odyssey. Theaters have their prosceniums and orchestras. 

Our poets still write odes, 2,500 years after Pindar, and the statues in our city squares mimic the poses of Augustus and Constantine. Turn to the back of your Yellow Pages and you’re likely to see a chiropractic ad with a photograph of a man in pain, in the pose of the famous Greek statue of Laocoon. These things persist in our visual memory.

And where do you think that cupid on your Valentine’s Day card comes from?

Artistic progress?

Technological progress has been a hallmark of Western culture, and the tendency has been to see a parallel development in the arts.

Giorgio Vasari, writing his influential Lives of the Painters in the 16th century, argued that “one artist supersedes the last and is better.”  Always march on to the next style.

But while European art history is a parade of changing styles, science and medicine move forward and improve our lives, but it isn’t so clear in art. Is Tom Clancy really much of an improvement on the Iliad? 

It’s not so easy to embrace the idea of cultural progress anymore. Progress covers up a lot of really nasty stuff, like the looting of other cultures. And as we have come to know and understand other cultures better, it’s harder to maintain that our art is “better” than theirs. 

Christianity’s sway

If you were to name the single-biggest source of imagery in European art, you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone willing to step into the ring with Christianity. It’s the winner by default: The central role of religion in the arts is manifest. Just as Islam governs the art of the Middle East and Buddhism colors the art of China and Hinduism the art of India, so the themes and subjects from the Bible are central to Europe.

Christian themes are an overwhelming component of the European sense of morality and ethics. It is through Christian stories, illustrated in art, that we see how we should think about our own lives. The good Samaritan, the prodigal son, doubting Thomas, the woman at the well — these serve in our art as parables and lessons.

At one end of the spectrum, you have the universal grief and suffering of Michelangelo’s Pieta. At the other end, you have the plastic Jesus riding on the dashboard of your car.

The human figure

It has become an emblem of art: The nude figure. Whether it’s Aphrodite born from the seafoam, King David gazing at a naked Bathsheba or the painter’s lover dropping her dress in the studio, the human figure is primary.

It isn’t just men ogling naked women: It’s Myron’s Discus Thrower and Michelangelo’s David. From the Greeks on, the male nude is just as important.

You won’t find this in the art of Asia, Africa, Australia/Oceania or the New World. When you find the naked figure there, it is almost always a fertility talisman or a figure with exaggerated sex. In Asia, you find such things in “pillow books” and other intentionally pornographic images. In Europe, the figure isn’t only sex and generation, it’s a mirror of the divine. It is man as the measure of all things, and that means men and women.

‘Dead White males’

It has been a long ride from the caves of southern France to the latest pickled roadkill of Damien Hirst, and European culture has changed at least as much as it has persisted.

Listen to the music of Osvaldo Golijov, for instance, and hear the legacy of Beethoven mixed with the Arabian oud, the Balinese gamelan, the pipa of China and Peruvian flutes. It’s all one big mix.

As Europe has changed the cultures it has come in contact with, its own is being changed in return. Globalization isn’t only economic.

But there’s still a great deal to be learned from the long march we have taken. We think it all must be irrelevant because it comes from so long ago. It’s what people mean when they complain about all that art, literature and music from the so-called “dead White males” that have been taught in universities for centuries. Yes, the world has opened up to include more, but the old art is still as meaningful as ever.

Cultural DNA

Just as genealogy fascinates many people, who trace a great-great-grandfather back to the battle of Appomattox or look at old photos to see in faded black and white where the family nose comes from, so a look at our cultural ancestors shows us where we came from. That cultural DNA is still there.

Again, this is not to make any special claims for European culture: It can speak for itself. And the rest of the world is equally compelling. I love Chinese painting, African carvings, Australian designs, Hopi pottery. The case I’m making is that for myself — and I am speaking primarily for myself here — there is a nest in Europe that my psyche fits almost perfectly. Fragments of its past often show up unacknowledged in my prose or my photographs. The art and poetry speaks a language I was born to. I get the idioms, when other cultures, no matter how much I love them and respect them, are a second language — its idioms will always elude me. 

When I go to Brittany or the Vosges Mountains, or visit the Roman arena — now a bull ring — in Arles or the aqueduct at Pont du Gard, or see the stained glass at Saint Denis, or the stave churches in Norway or the polders of Holland, I have an overwhelming sense of being home. This is my family, for all its faults. 

Click on any image to enlarge

“Do you know where you come from?”

“New Jersey,” I said.

“No, I mean where your people come from.”

“Yeah, New Jersey.”

But that’s not what Stuart meant.

“I mean originally,” he said.

“Then, I guess, the Rift Valley in Africa.”

“But after that. What ethnicity do you identify as.”

“Well, everyone in my family is Norwegian. But the Nordic people migrated there from elsewhere before that.”

“And how far back does your family tree go?”

“I’ve never really thought about it much,” I said. “My grandmother’s old family Bible — in Norwegian — has people listed back as far as my great-great-grandparents. Or at least some of them. Not all 16 of them.”

“And none of the 32 who gave birth to them, or the 64 who gave birth to the 32,” he said. “I’ve been thinking about this.”

Stuart thinks about a lot of things. And when he starts off, there’s usually no stopping him. We turned a corner onto his street. The air was turning into winter.

“It began because Genevieve has been watching these genealogy programs on TV. They seem to be enormously popular. They take a celebrity guest and trace their family history to answer questions that the guest has about his or her past — things that perhaps their parents never talked about. Where did Grandma get that tattoo? Why did our family leave Serbia? They sometimes find out that their great-great-great-great-great grandfather was thrown in debtors’ prison during the Glorious Revolution, or some such thing that amazes them.”

“Yes, I’ve seen those. Henry Louis Gates does one on PBS and I’ve seen a British one on YouTube. They can be fascinating.”

“But I’ve noticed a problem that is never addressed, although, maybe it can’t be. Genevieve accidentally pointed it out once. The family trees they come up with are always piecemeal, and they tend to follow the family name, which means the father’s father’s father, on and on. Sometimes they do the mother, too. But then if it continues, it’s the mother’s father and his father. They get hung up in the family name.

“It makes it seem as if a family tree has a certain neatness to it,” Stuart said. “And if they find something notable in the past, it seems as if there is a direct line, say, from Charlemagne to them. As if a family line were a simple thing.”

Stuart had worked a good deal of this out, he said, and when we got to his house, Genevieve had dinner ready.

“She sure can cook, for a violist,” he said. Genevieve did not seem amused.

Later, he brought out his paperwork. He laid it on the cleaned off table. There was a good deal of scribbling on it, and a lot of numbers.

“You have to do the math,” he said. “You start of with 1 — that’s you. You have two parents. They each have two parents, making four grandparents. The numbers pile up. You have eight great-grandparents. Keep doubling the number for each generation. By the time you get to five ‘greats’ you have 128 people dumping their DNA into your birth cauldron.”

That makes doing a full family tree rather busy with names — even if you could track the names down. You don’t really know the names, Stuart said, but the math remains certain.

“One thinks in terms of great old Pop-Pop, or Nana, and maybe you have in mind their parents or grandparents, but it is always a manageable number of people. A number you might know — they are people you can know the names of.

“I thought of how many years this might encompass,” he said. “And as an average — and average only, because, of course, there’s a lot of variation, but as an average, I think this works. You take a generation to be 25 years — it makes the math easier and we’re only doing this for illustration. But if your parents were 25 when you were born, and your grandparents were 50, that makes your great-grandparents 75 at your birth. Again, this is only for illustration. My great-grandmother was actually 82 when I was born.

“That means there is 100 years to your great-great-grandparents.”

“OK, I’m buying it so far. But,” I said, looking down at the papers he had spread out, “that leaves us with 16 people to keep track of. Sixteen in a century seems doable.”

“The problem is that the numbers keep doubling. By the time you go back 200 years, you have 256 ancestors. By 300 years, you have 4,096 ‘9-G’ grandparents. That’s great-great-great-great-great —“ he held up his fingers and started on the next hand — “great-great-great-great-grandparents. That’s a lot of DNA dumping into your cells. If you go back 500 years — and this doesn’t yet get you anywhere near Charlemagne — you now have to send greeting cards to one-million forty-eight-thousand five-hundred and seventy-six geezers.

“Let’s go back to the 1260s, when Chartres Cathedral was dedicated and Kublai Khan was emperor of China. That’s when you now count a billion people as your ancestors. With a ‘B’ — actually, 1,073,741,824 people, all of whom were necessary for the production of the zygote that became you, sitting here, eating Genevieve’s lasagne.”

Stuart was starting to get a little excited. His eyes were taking on that glow I recognized all to well.

“You only have to go back 33 generations to a point that you have more grandparents than there are currently people on earth. Here it is, 400 years after Charlemagne and you have 8,589,934,592 ancestors. Seven more generations — that takes us only to about the turn of the first millennium and you have already needed a trillion ancestors. It starts to get really ridiculous.”

He pointed to his calculations on the paper again.

“This means that it is mathematically certain that you share an ancestor within the past thousand years with everybody now living on the planet. There’s no escaping that fact. So, you may not be a direct descendant of Charlemagne, but you are related. Since there needs to be more people than are available in order to sire you — more people required than exist or have existed on earth — it necessarily means there has to be a great deal of cross-breeding, making everyone cousins of a sort. Alle Menschen werden Brüder, as Beethoven said.”

“Maybe we should say, ‘alle Menschen sind Brüder.’ Make it present tense,” I said. “But when you mentioned ‘cross-breeding,’ it brings to mind what happened when Carole wanted to track the origins of her family.”

My late wife adored her father and loved everything about the Steele family. To discover the origin of the family, her brother, Mel, took one of those Y-chromosome tests. The Y-chromosome is passed down from father to son across the generations. When the results came back in the mail, there was at least one anomaly.

“We learned that surname and DNA are only tangentially related,” I said. “The DNA descends from father to son, but maybe not the surname. The Steele family always said it was originally Irish. But it is an English name, possibly Scottish, and everyone was Protestant. In the U.S., they lived in the Appalachians and so we assumed they were Scots-Irish. Along with the complicated information about haplogroup, there was a list of other men who had taken the test who matched up with the Steele DNA. The most recent names were indeed Steele. But going back in history, the Steele name disappears and is replaced with the name Driscoll. The oldest Driscolls on the list came from County Cork, in southern Ireland.

“What we figured out is that at some point — maybe in Ireland, maybe after they emigrated to America — a Steele woman either had a baby out of wedlock to a Driscoll, or a Steele wife had an adulterous affair with a Driscoll. So, the Driscoll DNA settled, cuckoo-egg style in the Steele family line.

“It taught us not to be too cocky about the nominal lineage you work out through genealogy. Just because someone is married, doesn’t mean the husband is father to the child. There must be a lot of this kind of misdirection over the centuries.”

“And also,” said Stuart, “You should be as aware of the many other contributors to your genetic make-up, and not so focused on the genes stumbling down through your father’s line. It’s only one of two parts, or of four parts, or of eight, or, well, you get the picture.”

Anton, Laura and family copy

Genealogy is buncombe.

Certainly, our family trees are interesting — at least to us (in this, they resemble dreams, fascinating to the dreamer, but please, save us from having to hear about yours).

But, beyond a few generations, already known to you, the information involved is either or both too complex to be meaningful, or too corrupt. Yes, perhaps you can trace your line back to Charlemagne, but such a lineage is close to meaningless.

Take the complexity first. Genetically speaking, you have two parents, four grandparents, eight great-grandparents, sixteen great-great-grandparents. Each generation doubles the number of genetic strands in your makeup. Generationally, it goes 1 (you) -2 (parents) -4 (grandparents) -8 (etc.) -16 -32 -64 -128 -264 -528 -1056. Each generation doubling its number of ancestors. So, trying to follow just a single one — one that perhaps takes you back to Charlemagne — ignores all the others, whose influence is quantitatively the same.genealogy fan chart

Not to forget that not only do you have, say, 128 great-great-great-great-great-grandparents, but each and every one of them also had 128 great-great-great-great-great-grandparents. That is more than 16,000 people dumping DNA into your genome. How complete do you want that family tree when you sign on to Ancestry.com? How complete is possible?

At best, you can have only a very partial sense of your family background. And that is only one side of the problem. The other side is human nature.

We ran into this when my wife’s brother signed up for one of those y-DNA tests. Such a test follows the haplogroup of paternal lineage up through the generations, seemingly all the way back to its African origins. With random mutations along the way to give a sort of timeclock to the changes, a sense of where a certain male lineage was at a certain epoch is roughly possible. But that is only a line through father and father’s father and father’s father’s father, etc.

When we got back the result of my brother-in-law’s test results, we discovered that his (and by extension, my wife’s) paternal lineage came from County Cork in Ireland. (Before that, through Sardinia, the Middle East and back to Africa). The test also gave us the names of other people who had taken the test and found matches between them and brother-in-law. His name is Steele, and there are several Steeles named. But most of them are Driscoll, not Steele. My wife was puzzled. Most of those Driscolls still live in Ireland.

A little cogitation and the lightbulb goes on. Somewhere up the line, a woman had a child out of wedlock. Either she was married to a Steele and had committed adultery, or she was born a Steele and was a single mother, or had a baby out of wedlock and later married a Steele and her son was adopted. Somewhere back in history, the Steele patrimony was hijacked. A son bore the Steele name, but the y-chromosome of a Driscoll.

Did that young Steele boy know his real father was a Driscoll? Did his mother ever tell her husband who the father of her son was? We don’t know. Any version is just a story we make up. But the logic of the genes is clear: At some point the surname Steele was carried by a man not born to a Steele.

genealogyOne has to imagine that this sort of thing happens all the time. Human nature being what it is, fatherhood is always a matter of convention and convenience. The actual line of DNA is uncertain.

Modern tests can give us some minute part of the information about where we came from, but whatever pride we might wish to feel about being related to royalty or fame is diluted to the point of meaninglessness by the admixture of everyone else who has gotten into the act. And the line we might trace out on a family tree only follows the surnames and marriage registers — the reality may be genetically hidden from us by some usurper as the randiness of human sexuality is taken into account. So, perhaps Charlemagne isn’t really your great-great-great etc., perhaps it was his groom, perhaps it was hundreds of years later that someone cheated and split surname from genome leaving you barking up the wrong family tree.Laura Nilsen 2

History is such an uncertain thing. My entire family, as far as we can trace it back, is Norwegian (with one Swede thrown in for good measure). Perhaps I am related to Erik the Red (or to Harald Bluetooth, or Ivar the Boneless — I love these old names). But any pride I might want to feel about a presumed Viking ancestry must balanced against the likelihood that somewhere unknown to me, there is an interloper in the family tree. Perhaps there is a Sicilian (Vikings conquered Sicily first in 860 and then again in 1038, first under Bjorn Ironside and then under Harald Hard-ass). So, who knows?

But more directly, every Norwegian I know in my family, going back as far as our records go, was as tame and toothless as any Norwegian bachelor farmer. My recent ancestors are the single most boring group of people ever assembled in a room to drink coffee and mutter quietly about drivel. Viking ancestry? No trace remains.Anton Nilsen 2

The whole point about genetics is that it is a crap shoot. You never know what you’re going to get. Bits of DNA might make it through the centuries and might give you the hazel eyes you bear, but most of the DNA of those thousands of copulations that ended in your ultimate birth have been filtered out, remixed and gummed up.

I can see the interest in plotting that family tree back three or four generations. Beyond that, it seems meaningless. I knew my great-grand uncle on my father’s side, and I knew my grandmother’s mother-in-law. They lived just long enough to be a sliver of my memory. Beyond that it is only a few names in a family Bible. Beyond that, all swallowed up in the forgetfulness of the grave.

Anton, Laura and family copy 1
“I’m not sure I know why we have families,” he said. “Can you find any excuse in existence for them?”

Stuart was on about something again.

“I don’t know,” I said. I had pretty much always taken the existence of family for granted. Didn’t think about it much.

Stuart obviously had and his own experience of family was not encouraging.

“What I do know,” he said, “is that for me — and I think this is true for my generation — family seemed kind of irrelevant. I know when I was a kid, I never wanted to spend time with relatives. They were boring.

“What I had instead was friends. You don’t choose your family, so you’re stuck with the luck of the draw. You do choose your friends. So, when Thanksgiving comes around, I want to spend it with those near and dear to me, in other words, my friends, and not my family.”

“But aren’t you close to your brothers?”

“Well, I’m close to Bernie, but I chose him as a friend, I didn’t merely inherit him as a relative.”

“So,” I said, “friends are a substitute for family?”

“I don’t really think of it that way. Not a substitute; friends are my family. And I’ve talked to many of my friends about this, and they feel the same way. Perhaps it is only our generation; we grew up in the ‘60s, and the whole panoply of institutional authorities were not just drawn into question, but actively disparaged. It isn’t that we don’t like our parents, but rather that our parents did what they were supposed to do: They didn’t choose us, either. Oh, they chose to have us…”

He thought for a moment. “I guess,” he said.

“But whether they chose to have children or we came by accident, they didn’t choose to have the particular kids they did have. We came as strangers to their house, and pretty much, when we grew up, we left as strangers.”

“Then, how come everyone seems to think family is so damn important?” I asked. I was thinking of political speeches, lauding family; Biblical injunctions; I was thinking of all the literature I had read, family epics, family tragedies, family comedies. Homeric or Faulknerian. It was as if I were missing something.

“I’m not sure, but I think that in the past, and I mean centuries ago, maybe eons, people didn’t travel as much, didn’t meet as many people, and in more tribal times, clan and family gave you something you felt you could trust — despite the evidence of all those family epics you mention, whether Homeric or Faulknerian. Nowadays, we go off to university, meet many more people and community is formed around shared interests rather than shared blood.”

I thought about this and was not satisfied.

“You create a family when you marry.”

“Well, I’ve had …” and here he stopped to count, his eyes turned upward and this tongue between his lips … “lemme see, seven wives, official and unofficial, no, eight, if you count Helen, although she never actually moved in, and either I left them or they left me. Mostly, they left me.

“But the family you create is akin to the friends you make: It’s voluntary. At least in our culture, you get to choose your wife. If you do it right, your wife is your friend. Further, and this is an important point: Your wife or your husband is the only family member you actually want to have sex with, or at least that you are allowed by custom or law to have sex with. That makes a spouse an anomaly in family relations.

“This voluntary relationship — the ‘elective affinity’ — is essentially different from what you have with your cousins or your older brother. Any relationship there is purely accident. The lottery numbers pop up one by one, but you cannot predict any of them.”Dad, Ricky July 1948 copy

“That may be, but when you get married, whether your wife is your friend or not, you have kids and you love your kids and want to give them preferential treatment in a hard and harsh world. They may be accidents, in terms of personality and how you interact with them, and even if they are teenagers and don’t want to be seen with you in public, you still love them in a way you cannot love even your best friends.”

“Well,” said Stuart sheepishly, “I haven’t got any kids, so I wouldn’t know.”

“But you have nephews. Do you love them?”

“I guess so, but that doesn’t mean I want to have them over for Thanksgiving.”Carole-Steele

“I take your point. But I have the example of my wife.”

“Carole.”

“Yes, Carole.”

“You’ve been with her a long time.”

“Thirty years …”

“Can’t fathom that. Mind you, Carole’s great. You hit the lottery, as it were. But my longest stretch, I think, was seven years before it blew up.”

“But anyway, Carole has a take on family I’d never really considered. Family is something different for her. For her, it is where she came from.”

“You mean, like genealogy?”

“Sort of, but she isn’t so much into the family tree as such, or into whether or not she has a coat-of-arms, but rather, that she is made up of the hand-me-downs, genetically, of the ancestors, the piling up of character — of meaning — that has concentrated in her. Her family is her roots, deep in the ground, and she is connected to them as literally as the tree is to the root ball, all of a piece.

“She sees her hair in her grandmother’s hair, her jawline in her father’s, her love of nature — and, I might add, her stubbornness — in her grandfather. Great grandmother, Nancy Jane Lind Hutchison Steele, wife of Rowan Steele.She grew up with her great-grandmother in the house, who was a Civil-War widow, and sees history not in paragraphs on a page in a book, but in her wrinkly skin. She wants to know how her great grandfather came to live in North Carolina, whether he is Scots-Irish, why they eat collards or sing certain hymns as opposed to others. Obviously, this is not all genetic. A good deal is cultural, but I don’t think Carole makes that much distinction: It is all roots, all the long line of ancestors, which, for her, go back — and I’m not kidding — to Adam and Eve, or whoever you want to pick as the ur-progenitors. Her interest in cave men is part of the same thing. She calls it ‘the long man,’ the person drawn from one generation to the next the same way a plant goes to flower, a flower to seed, a seed to seedling, to plant, to flower, to seed and so on in a continuous recreation of the same life — the same DNA shuffled around — of which she is merely the latest flowering. Or the antepenultimate: She has now sprouted a daughter, and that daughter twin granddaughters. So now Carole can see she isn’t the end of a long line of ancestry, but only one link in a continuity.Five generations 1971 copy

“Thus, family for her isn’t simply the people who she shares Thanksgiving dinner with, as if they were all discrete entities, but rather as if they were the acorns hanging on the same oak tree, in a sense, a single person with multiple incarnations. At Thanksgiving, even if she is alone, she is having dinner with all of them.”

“Well, that is Carole, through and through, isn’t it?”

“Yes, and it has made me think differently about family. I share your sense of relatives as something you’d rather not have to spend time with. I have chosen my own ‘family’ of friends, who mean a great deal to me. But I also have come to see the ‘mystic bonds’ of family — again, not as a question of whether I want to spend time with them. I don’t, really. But rather as a continuation of a process.

“Looked at another way, I am a bit of my parents planted in the future to grow, and to plant my son there in the future that extends beyond my harvesting.

“I had the oddest experience a few years ago. Did I ever tell you about it? You remember when I was married to my first wife, we had a son.

“Yes. Boy, that was a long time ago.”

“And just after he was born, we split up and I didn’t see my son anymore. I lost touch with my ex-wife and with my son. I was young and a prat, so I moved on without much thought of it. But a few years ago, I got a phone call and on the other end a voice said, “Are you my father?” It was my son, some 30 years later. I had not seen or had any contact with him for 30 years.

“Well, Carole and I went to Austin, Texas, where he was living and we met him and the shock was palpable: He looked exactly like I did when I was his age. Not just in physiognomy, but he wore the same kind of thick-rimmed glasses, the same plaid shirts, the same long hair I had back then. It was uncanny. He was living with a woman who came from the same county in North Carolina that Carole came from. His house was a mess of books and CDs and DVDs. He worked, at the time, in a used bookstore and was in charge of the classics section and the poetry section. His favorite literature was the classics. The resemblance was uncanny. Patris et fili copy

“I had always assumed that in the ‘Nature vs. Nurture’ controversy, that nurture was by far the more important. We were raised at a time when we thought, ‘It’s all cultural.’ But here was evidence in front of me that perhaps it wasn’t all cultural. Perhaps DNA ruled not only the shape of our noses, but the preference we might have for Manhattan or New England clam chowder.

“The real clincher came when we walked through his office at the back of his house and there, on the top of a bookshelf, he had a world globe with the ball taken off, turned upside down with Antarctica now at the top, and replaced. I laughed. Back home, on top of my bookshelf in my office was a world globe that I had reversed to put Antarctica on the top. It was almost scary. How many people have done that with their globes? What are the chances that father and son, with no interaction for three decades, would each do the same peculiar thing?”

“So, you’re saying then, that as opposed to the question of whether you choose family or friends, that the question is basically irrelevant: That family is who you are, that ancestry defines your nature and you have family to thank or blame for it.”

“I remember having this discussion many years ago with a colleague. We had both grown up in New Jersey in the 1950s and ‘60s. We shared a good deal of nurture and could understand many of the same cultural references. But he was from an Italian family and I was from a Norwegian family. Despite how much we shared, he had a preference for Fellini films and I had a preference for Bergman.

“Not that I couldn’t appreciate Fellini — I do — but that deep in my bones, I knew the Bergman world; it was my interior world. While the Fellini was tremendous, but exterior to me. There is something in my genes that responds familially to the world of Bergman that Fellini doesn’t hit. But it was the reverse for my colleague. Italian genes felt at home in Fellini.

“In the old days, I would have chalked it all up to culture: He grew up in an Italian family and so the folk ways would have felt familiar. But now, I think — it’s only tentative, of course — but I think perhaps it may be something genetic. This may be the collective unconscious that Jung wrote about. The pile of chromosomal tendencies, tastes, judgments, behaviors, that have been reinforced over the generations by the distillation and concentration of DNA.

“I’m sure that upbringing and culture plays a part, no doubt, but I now think that there may be something inherent, that if I had been adopted by an Italian family, I would still feel more at home in Bergman. Not provable in my case, perhaps, but I think plausible.”

“So, I think you are saying, that you are inevitable in terms of family as you are in terms of history, that you may not like the times in which you are born, but you simply have no choice in the matter, and that all those relatives who bore you on holidays are just the titrations of chromosomes and you are thus embedded in your family like raisins in a muffin. No choice. Just is.”

“Yes.”

“Still don’t want them over for dinner.”

 

Ashe Co. plowed field

You cannot walk five feet in the South without knowing there is blood in the dirt.

It gives July 4 a special meaning, for you know that no matter where you turn, there is history under your foot.

There is history elsewhere in the country, too: Bunker Hill, Mass., Fort Ticonderoga in New York or Tombstone, Ariz. But they are singular places you go to visit — somebody else’s history. The South is so full of history that its land and people seem buried under the sense of it.

The first democratic legislature in the New World was Virginia’s House of Burgesses. The author of the Declaration of Independence was a Virginian. And the Revolutionary War came to a close at Yorktown, Va.

Each state has its Civil War sites, where thousands of its men are buried.

There are the street corners where civil-rights workers were hosed and beaten by police. Cotton fields where slaves were whipped.

It is interesting that the one place in the country where Black and White share the most is the South.

For most Americans, history is a story told in a schoolbook. It seems removed from the lives we live. For most Southerners, history is something their grandparents did or was done to them.

It isn’t just that the Civil War raged over the landscape. No part of the United States has suffered so much warfare on its land.

There had been battles with Indians from the very first European settlements.

The Revolutionary War brought Gen. Nathanael Greene to the South, where he led the British on a wild goose chase. The South also was the stage for Francis Marion, called the ”Swamp Fox.” Towns are named for them throughout the South.

natgreenemonument

The War of 1812 brought Andrew Jackson to fight with both the British and the Creek Indians.

The Mexican War helped bring Texas to the South and later to the Confederacy.

And, in the meantime, the blood of countless slaves and freedmen enlarged the tragedy of the South. There were lynchings and later the violence of the civil-rights movement.

It isn’t only rancor and slaughter that give the South its sense of history, but the land itself.

sprott evans

You can stand in a cornfield in rural Sprott, Ala., 25 miles north of Selma, and see the stand of trees at its border, knowing the trees are no more than 60 years old. And that before those trees began filling in the countryside, there were cotton, sharecroppers and poverty. A dilapidated wooden shack sits in the middle of the woods, and you wonder why anyone ever built there.

sprott farmhouse

Then you recognize they didn’t. The sharecroppers’ home — just like those written about by James Agee in his Let Us Now Praise Famous Men of 1941 — was built by a cotton field, but times change and history presses on and the fields are now woods.

I have lived in the South for the better part of my life. Every town, every pasture, every street corner brings to mind details of what they call ”The Great War.”

The library in Greensboro, N.C., where I lived, was a wartime hospital. In Madison, N.C., where my wife grew up, the family names of the wealthy whites and the poorest blacks were often the same, a legacy of slave times. The constant presence of the Civil War in the South crosses color lines.

In most other regions of the United States, the Civil War is something you read about in a book. In the South, the Civil War is now, a perennial now. A Southerner’s perspective on the war is personal. It is in the blood.

So, when I hear the battle names reeled off on TV documentaries — Shiloh, Vicksburg, Gettysburg — they sound distant on the narrator’s tongue, distant as Gallipoli, Waterloo or Omaha Beach. To most Northerners, they are just distant names.

But when I lived near Norfolk, Va., and traveled to Richmond on Interstate 64, I passed the Elizabeth River, where the Monitor steamed out to meet the Virginia (nee Merrimac); I passed Fort Monroe, where Jefferson Davis was imprisoned after the war; I passed Malvern Hill, where the Peninsular Campaign sputtered in frustration.

My wife, Carole Steele, was born in North Carolina and learned about the war firsthand from her great-grandmother, Nancy Hutcherson Steele, who was 10 when it began. She had plowed the fields during the war while her father and brothers were away fighting. When she died at the age of 98, she did so in my wife’s childhood bed in a small house on the banks of the Dan River. Carole was 8 at the time.

Nancy Hutcherson Steele

Nancy Hutcherson Steele

After the war, Nancy had married Rowan Steele, who had joined the Confederate army at the age of 14, becoming a bugler in the cavalry. He was allowed to join the cavalry because he owned his own horse.

At war’s end, as a courier for the 16th Battalion, N.C. Cavalry, he was wounded in the head at Appomattox and left deaf in one ear.

One of the first things he told his family when he returned from the war was that he could no longer tolerate to eat black-eyed peas. In one of his battles — he would never say which one — in a field of black-eyed peas the blood flowed in the furrows like irrigation water, a vision he could never shake when confronted with a bowl of the peas.

Rowan and Nancy were married in 1868. He lived until 1917, when because of his deafness, he didn’t hear the train that killed him.

Rowan Steele

Rowan Steele

She lived long enough to teach Carole how to tie things up with hickory strips instead of rope, a trick she had learned in the great deprivation of the war, when they stretched what little game they could kill with ”peckerwood dressing” (sawdust), when they ate pokeweed and made ”coffee” from parched rye and wheat.

And she taught Carole to make the paper flowers that many Confederate women sold after the war to make a few dollars for disabled veterans.

As Henry Miller wrote, ”The Old South was ploughed under. But the ashes are still warm.”

For a Fourth of July in the South, history is what fertilizes the rich red clay.