By François Weil.
Published by Harvard University Press, Cambridge MA. 2013. 304 pages.
The book is subtitled “A History of Genealogy in America” and accurately reflects its content, a thorough study of the subject by a scholar who describes himself as a French historian of the United States.
François Weil is Chancellor of the Universities of Paris, a professor of history, and former president of the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales.
M. Weil has prepared a well-researched and scholarly study of the evolution of genealogy in America from the colonial times to the present day. His documentation is thorough in Notes and rich with other sources to follow for the student of historical genealogy.
He explains his interest and premise for the book: “My interest is in the ways in which an American culture of genealogy emerged over time as Americans—Europeans and Africans who crossed the Atlantic, Native Americans, Asians who crossed the Pacific, Latin Americans who moved north, and their descendants—incorporated this European notion of lineage and family trees into their lives and transformed it. Their motives were diverse. As a cultural practice and a strategy of memory, genealogy was the product of tangled impulses that attest to its plurality of meanings. Some Americans saw in genealogy the means to preserve family unity and kin consciousness; others had religious reasons to explore their roots; still others hoped to reinforce their social pretensions with an illustrious family tree; many put genealogy at the service of their racial and exclusive purposes. Whether born out of a desire for self-understanding or a longing for self-assertion, family trees were a versatile means to cope with geographic, cultural, and social mobility in a rapidly changing world. This book traces the tensions between these competing impulses and the ensuing multifaceted encounter between Americans and their family trees.”
M. Weil’s conclusions are sound. He gets it perfectly correct when he assesses the impact that Alex Haley’s Roots had on the American populace. M. Weil recalls the disdain of the professional academics to the Haley book, “…these…criticisms were true…[the book was] marred by plagiarism, half-truths, and outright inventions.” But the public tuned out the academics, establishing an intimate connection to the saga and initiating an interest in genealogy that has not diminished to this day. The particulars may have been faulty, but Haley’s story was unforgettable.
Conversely, M. Weir has written a book of exceptional exactitude, but the story lacks engagement. His authority is without question, but the story is just a bit stolid. Family Trees is an exceptional edition of genealogical history, you just need to be patient and keep turning the pages.
Family Trees by François Weil is available from the publisher, Harvard University Press, as well as from Amazon and from many other book stores.