Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Can You Choose Heritage?

Last week I wrote about Alasdair Mac Colla and some of the complications of heritage. This week I would like to address in a slightly more systematic way some of the issues which received a more narrative treatment last week.

Put simply, can you choose your heritage? I suggested this was the case, though I hope my suggestion was received with the bit of whimsy with which it was offered. Distinctions may be in order.

My father is from Nebraska and my mother from Kansas. He went to school for two years at LeTourneau College and then joined the Navy. She attended Wichita State before moving out to Arizona State University in Tempe. These are facts, and not simply in the historical sense of having happened or being verifiable. These are facts which shaped my life in concrete ways: I grew up seeing slides of my father's various deployments in the Pacific, I have visited my relatives in Kansas and Nebraska an uncounted number of times, and I would not have grown up in Arizona if my mother had not transferred schools. These things affect me in immediate ways.

Much of my family came from Germany. The evidence is in our last name, my grandmother can recite snatches of phrases her forebears use to say, and I have heard a few stories relating to this ancestry. In World War I a church my family attended was vandalized because of a German inscription over the door. Great-great grandma Anna Baer grew up on a large farm in Germany and as a child sometimes had to rise very early before dawn to begin helping the laborers. (No, we're not quite sure what they were doing this early, but they were eating "lunch" around sunrise. Our best theory is that they were mowing hay, which apparently cuts better when it is wet.) Great-great-great (?) grandpa August Weinert fled Prussia and eventually became a barn-builder in Nebraska, and served in the Union Army. These stories can be connected directly to my family through a living memory and are definitely fun to recite. But they represent considerably less impact on my life than do the details of my parents' lives.

Jacob von Lindemann came to America in 1710 and settled in Pennsylvania with other German immigrants. Having arrived prior to the Great War for Empire (known locally as the French & Indian War) and the American Revolution, their participation in either conflict is possible, though my family's Mennonite history makes that unlikely. One in six Hessian soldiers hired by the British deserted during the Revolution, and most went on to settle in German communities Pennsylvania; are their Hessians in my family tree? Several of my relations were leading figures in the town of Leipzig at the time when their cousin, Martin Luther, debated Johann Eck; were any of them present for these famed debates? Reaching several centuries earlier, and to another branch of the family, were my Swedish ancestors running roughshod over Russia in the 9th and 10th centuries, like all good Swedish Vikings? At a certain point the documentary evidence dries up and the family stories peter out. Personal history gives way to general history and certitude becomes legend, rumor or speculation.

With this distinction between intimate fact, the stories of living memory and the rumors of speculation, let us turn again to the question, Can you choose your heritage? With regards to the most immediate concerns, the answer is clearly no. These facts are too embedded in my life for me to deny or alter. With regards to the intermediate category of family stories, it seems there is more latitude. For starters, selection takes on a great role: I can choose to tell this story or that, emphasis these ancestors or those. The stories may still be documented, but interpretation becomes more important. One can choose to emphasize the elements of his heritage which fit present circumstances, satisfy particular needs or answer contemporary questions. With the final category of legends, rumors and bald speculation, interpretation begins to eclipse (though not totally supplant) historical evidence.

Returning to the distinction between sign and signified, which I mentioned last week: it seems to me that the most immediate elements of one's heritage are also those in which the sign is most clearly bound up with the signified. My father is a very clever man, but I cannot choose to signify that by saying he graduated from Harvard; I must instead point to his ability to jury-rig most any kind of mechanical device. But in the misty depths of the past, both the signs and the things signified become more malleable. New signs are adopted to signify old ideas, and new significations are given to old signs. It is in such a climate that I am willing to assert that, yes, you can choose your heritage.
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