Tuesday, July 23, 2013

History on the Cellular Level

This is a guest post by Charley Kempthorne.

At a family history conference the other day I announced to a group of about forty that there was no study of family history in university classes.  “Oh, yes, there is,” a lady in the front row merrily contradicted.  “Royal family history!”

Of course that got a big laugh.  Later, driving home, I thought how right she was.  I had taken many history courses in college, and had been reading history informally ever since.  I knew anecdotes about the French royal family, I knew medical facts about the royal family of Spain, and even today, though I tried hard to avoid reading such articles, I knew more than I ever wanted to know about the escapades of the English royal family. 

Some of us know more about the history of the various royal families than we do our own.

Thomas Carlyle asserted that history was made by great men, and he wrote a two-volume history of the French Revolution to prove that Napoleon was the one who made a lot of it.  It’s true enough, as far as it goes.  But the opposite idea is true, interesting, and deserving of further study: history has been, and is, made by ordinary people. 

Then we should be better off if we know their history, shouldn’t we?

Let’s assume that one hundred years from now we have a strong tradition of ordinary individuals writing their personal and family history.  So by that time we’ll have several generations of full knowledge of our ancestors.  Would that change the course of the world?

Well, if we study history in order to avoid repeating the mistakes of the past…if we study the past in order to extract lessons from it to apply to the present and future…and if we’ve been doing this for years on the national level, and on the state level, and even on the regional and local level—and profiting by it—why then can’t we assume the same profitable results from a serious study of our family history?

This is important because it adds a dimension to our motivation to write our family history.  If we are writing family history as a kind of family trivia compilation, if we are writing it to amuse, to while away the hours…then that is one thing.  But if we are writing our personal and family history to instruct the future (as pretentious as this sounds, it’s the right word)…then that is quite another thing.  ###

Charley Kempthorne is the editor and publisher of LifeStory Magazine, a monthly periodical devoted to the study and practice of memoir writing.  He lives in Kansas and travels North America coaching memoir writers and family historians. 

Charley Kempthorne will present LifeStory Writing Workshop at the South Sioux City Public Library  on August 1st at 6:00 p.m. 

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