Drew Moore: Genealogy in America
Moore explores his deeper motivations for climbing the family tree at The Fortnightly Review
Five years ago, I embarked on a quest to uncover the origin of my father’s people. In the very first week, I struck genealogical gold. I discovered that Chaucer was my twentieth grandfather. Not my uncle, not my cousin, but my grandfather. Geoffrey Chaucer—the Father of English Literature, the great popular poet of Middle English—directly linked to me in a chain of fathers, mothers, sons and daughters spanning six hundred years! Learning that King Arthur was my ancestor could not have pleased me more than discovering that I had descended from the man who authored The Canterbury Tales.
What writer would not be thrilled to claim such an exalted heritage? So the first thing I did was read an overview of Chaucer’s life and work. After all, I hadn’t read him since high school. The salient facts of his career suddenly gave my own rambling life significance, simply because my life’s twisted trajectory had a successful model in Grandpa Geoffrey. He was a civil servant; I was a census enumerator. He worked for the English army; I worked for the American army. He worked for the King; I—well, I worked for a Wall Street broker. He was a diplomat; I, umm, I spent a whole night investigating and toying with the idea of working for the State Department. He was a prolific poet who eschewed the stodginess of literary Latin and French for the vitality of vernacular English; I wrote too, but mostly prose, and well, not very prolifically, but I was once a Latin scholar who now preferred reading and writing in English. He came from a family of wine merchants; I came from a family of preachers and farmers . . . okay, reload.
Maybe Plutarch would not have paired us together in his Parallel Lives, but that did not diminish the enlarged sense of importance that my newfound lineage had given me. My biological connection to Chaucer instantly altered my self-image. I felt special. I felt different from the rest (never mind that Chaucer had thousands of other descendants). Previously, I thought I knew what pride felt like. I had been proud of my humble roots as we Americans are trained to be. My ancestors may have been hillbillies, but they tilled the earth like Cincinnatus, they were carpenters like Jesus, and a very few of them even managed a modest education to become teachers and preachers. But I didn’t really know pride until now. Now, I finally felt what it was like to be among the élite. Elevation above others dispensed the sweetest, most sustainable high I’d ever known. I felt a kinship with the Fords and the Vanderbilts and the Rockefellers. Hell, they were elites for only the past few generations–they were new elites. I was old elite. My people had simply had a rough patch in the last century or two, begetting a few “horse thieves and drunks,” as my father used to call them in an affectionate tone that only a safe distance allows. But greatness was in my blood and would doubtlessly reassert itself.